And, as always, he leaves us with a certainty that everything depends upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ. If we want to rise above the works of the flesh we have to walk in the Spirit. Therefore, to attain godly character we need the Holy Spirit. To live a life with these virtues that he calls “the fruit of the Spirit” we must recognize that we need the grace of God, that we depend upon the Holy Spirit working within us. We are thus humbled by his words, given genuine hope, but hope that it is not from our own strength, about virtue for which we cannot take the credit. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in us, which means that we must be grateful rather than proud should we be able to find a trace of goodness in our own lives.
This takes us straight to the lepers in today’s Gospel. Upon finding themselves clean from their disease of rotting flesh, nine of the men who were healed simply went away somewhere, but one came back to give thanks. Furthermore, the one who came back was a Samaritan, a stranger. What the Lord had told the men to do was from the Law of Moses: “Go shew yourselves unto the priests.” Perhaps the nine believed that they were being rewarded for obeying this commandment from the Law, namely the portion from Leviticus about the laws of leprosy. If so, maybe they reasoned that they had managed to earn their healing. Not so the Samaritan, who exhibited humility by his gratitude. These two qualities of humility and gratitude caused him to understand that his healing was all a matter of grace, even if he was fulfilling a specific commandment by doing as the Lord instructed. After all, to obey a specific commandment of God earns us nothing, since we are only doing what is our duty as unprofitable servants. The Samaritan who was cleansed of his leprosy understood that he had been granted a miracle beyond his deserving, in fact a miracle that he could not have deserved.
When we find that we have managed to act in charity, to have obeyed God’s commandments against our own sinful desires, to have avoided the occasion of sin, to have done good to those in need, or whatever other virtuous thing and good work we may have done, let us not lose sight of the truth. We have done what was our duty to do, not some great thing; furthermore, it does not change the truth that, even as we were doing good, we have failed to live a life in which we love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. The fact remains that we are sinners nonetheless. So, do we wander off like the nine, or return to Christ with gratitude? No one deserves a miracle, and no one earns eternal life. When we perceive the grace of God at work within us, just as these men were aware that their leprosy was cleansed away, do we imagine, as C.S. Lewis once put it, a halo around our own silly heads, or do we have the humility to be grateful, to give thanks for the grace of God in our own lives?
This is what connects today’s Gospel and Epistle. The virtues are the fruit of the Holy Spirit Who has shed abroad the love of God within our hearts (Rom. 5:5). We may like to believe we could have done it in our own strength. But, let us have the humility to thank God for healing us from our state of walking death, like these lepers, and giving us life by the resurrection of Jesus Christ his Son.
The truth about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit is that we live in a constant tension between them. On any given day, we find both of these presenting themselves and forcing us to make choices. People think of the “flesh” only in terms of sexual sin. But, if we look at these “works of the flesh” that the Apostle has listed, we find among them sins that have a “spiritual” quality- like witchcraft and heresies. We find among them sins that are matters of how we relate to other people, sins of anger or gossip. We even see political sins. The nature we have, as created by God, is not inherently sinful; rather it is inherently weak, fallen from grace and therefore it tends to sin because it is captive to death. How fitting leprosy is as an image of this condition. What the flesh (σάρξ) lacks is the ability to rise above sin, and to rise to a level of perfect goodness.
Too many people misunderstand the idea of grace. They confuse it with mercy. They see it only as “unmerited favor.” It is favor certainly; but, it is unmerited as a consequence of the Fall into sin and death. They do not realize that even the picture of Adam before the Fall is the picture of a creature who lived by grace (that is, his very life was a gift), and who depended upon grace. He was created by a gracious act; he lived by God’s gracious will, and when he fell into sin he was barred from partaking of the fruit of the tree of life, that is, barred from remaining in the grace of God as an immortal and eternal being. For grace and gift are translated from the same word in the Greek New Testament, χάρις (charis-pronounced karis- or χάρισμα charisma). Adam’s life was a gift, that is, it was grace. And so, the Fall brought death: “in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”
Pelagius was a heretic from Britain who lived in the fourth century. He taught that we have the power within ourselves to be perfectly holy without God’s grace. In a way he revived the oldest heresy about which we read in the Book of Acts, the doctrine of those converts from the Pharisee party who said that unless the Gentiles became circumcised and fulfilled the Law of Moses they could not be saved. Both the Judaizers of the first century, and Pelagius of the fourth century, taught that we must do it alone, become perfect without God’s grace. Saint Paul (along with the other apostles, if we read the actual scriptural account) refuted the Judaizers, as later Saint Augustine refuted Pelagius. That is what the Epistle to the Galatians is about. We cannot be saved by our own efforts, and we cannot become holy by our own strength. The Law teaches us, but it does not make us into “good people.” We need the humility and gratitude that it takes to depend upon the Holy Spirit- and even that humility and that gratitude must come from Him. We don’t possess the power within ourselves to generate those.
What do we see in the cleansing of the lepers? Leprosy is a disease that gives us a picture of the way Saint Paul speaks of “flesh.” The skin is rotting as if the poor leper were dead already. Jesus cleansed the lepers, and their flesh was made as healthy as that of a newborn babe. In baptism Jesus gives us back our lives, made clean from original sin, and made new. In the sacrament of Absolution He gives us back our lives, cleansed yet again. In giving His Flesh for food and His Blood for drink He gives us the food and drink of eternal life, making Himself the tree of life from which our first parents were barred. In the sacrament of Confirmation by the laying on of the apostle’s hands, Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit upon us and into us.
As we present ourselves to Jesus Christ, returning to give thanks, we enter into a new life marked by gratitude. And that gratitude is the mark of humility. And all of this is the evidence of God’s grace working within us. The Holy Spirit is a very active agent in our lives as we return to Jesus to render thanks, for in drawing close to Christ by living this whole sacramental life within His Church, and by feeding on His word within our hearts, we surrender to the Holy Spirit; and we cooperate with his grace. This is how the fruit of the Spirit grows. The Law cannot give us this, because we are weak through sin. But, in drawing close to Jesus Christ in gratitude, His Spirit makes to grow within us love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. Against such there is no Law.