Sunday, June 2, 2013
Texts: I Kings 8:1, 11, 41-43a; Luke 7: 1-10
When it wants to, the Judeo-Christian tradition can handily divide the world into those who are God’s chosen ones and those who are not. In 1980 the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Rev. Bailey Smith said, “With all due respect to those dear people . . . God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. . . . It may be politically expedient, but no one can pray unless he prays through the name of Jesus Christ.”[i]
I suspect Rev. Bailey Smith never read I Kings 8:42-43. If he had, he’d have discovered that King Solomon, on the day the Temple in Jerusalem was dedicated, petitioned God Almighty to hear the prayers of Jews and nonJews like you and me and Bailey Smith. If God hears Bailey Smith’s prayers at all, it just might be because a Jewish king long ago asked God to hear even the prayers of a Southern Baptist preacher like Smith or a UCC minister like me.
Oh, I know many scriptures endorse religious chauvinism. In fact, the alternate lectionary reading from I Kings for today is the story of Elijah competing with the prophets of Baal to prove whose god was superior (I Kings 18: 20-39). Spoiler alert: Elijah’s God won. I’m not claiming that all gods are equal. But claiming that no other religion has validity draws you into the “my God can beat your God” competition which devolves into “I can beat you” which further devolves into “I can destroy you” which might eventually become “So I will.”
I, too, am tempted to categorize people rather than learn from those with different beliefs. Like you, I have a favorite news source and harbor suspicions about those who favor other television, print, or internet news sources. I struggle, as perhaps you do, to stand up for my ethical, political, and theological convictions while being in loving relationship with those of differing perspectives. And the opposite can also present a challenge: to love and admire someone without assuming that person shares my opinions on important topics. We as a diverse faith community also find it difficult at times to respect differing perspectives and especially to remember that different perspectives on politics and religion exist within our united and caring community.
So I welcome the examples of Solomon, who assumed God was at work among people of other religions, and, from our Gospel reading, an unnamed centurion who supported and received help from people of differing beliefs. Maybe the key movement in this delicate dance between fidelity and compassion is humility. Some believe that to be faithful requires bombastic certitude that God is on their side and an unswerving devotion to a set of beliefs. But Luke’s story of the humble centurion presents a different kind of conviction: a commitment to care.
Prepare to be “amazed,” as was Jesus, to see a powerful leader evince a gentle humility. Prepare to meet a person of deep faith who believed he could experience God through someone of a different faith. Prepare to watch Jesus upending our preconceptions by naming as his hero a person participating in the oppression of his people. Prepare to think of healing in this story as happening on a larger scale than you’ve come to expect.
It’s an amazing story about holding one’s beliefs lightly in order to live faithfully.
Shockingly, this humble faith is portrayed by the last person from whom we’d expect it. The oppressed Jews certainly would not expect humility from the commander of soldiers from the occupying army of the Empire. The faithful Jews would not expect Jesus to lift up a gentile as the paragon of faithfulness. But Luke’s very construction of this story establishes the humbleness of our hero because the unnamed centurion remains “off stage” of this drama. To help you appreciate the unusual way the story is told, I am going to ask for six volunteers to pantomime the story with me. All six will start out at the centurion’s home over here. I’ll give you further instructions as we go along.
First we need someone to play the centurion and someone to be the young slave. You’ll remain “off stage” to your right for the whole reading. The sick slave might lean weakly. The centurion will stand beside him.
The next two volunteers represent the Jewish elders. These are the religious leaders who voluntarily vouch for the kindness of the centurion when they appeal to Jesus for his help. One of you will read these words when I give you the cue.
Finally, we need two to be the friends of the centurion, who will later intercept Jesus as he makes his way to the centurion’s house. One of you will read these words when I give you the cue.
I’ll take the role of Jesus. The rest of the congregation becomes the crowd which is following Jesus.
Remember, we’re looking to the story to learn what a person of faith is like. I’ll begin reading again our Gospel lesson and this time we’ll see it enacted. Imagine what the crowd saw and didn’t see:
* * *
“After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, (Elder 1) “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
6And Jesus went with them, (Jesus and elders move toward the centurion’s house but remain “on stage”)but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends (friends move to Jesus) to say to him (Friend 1), “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Friends and elders return to the centurion’s house, “off stage.”) 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. (Elders move “on stage” next to Jesus.)
The actors of the drama may return to their pews. (applause!)
* * *
As you can see, you couldn’t really see the centurion in the drama of which he’s the hero. He never walked on stage and never directly encountered Jesus. His words were spoken by others. Similarly, his faith was not showy. This powerful man’s humility was underscored by the fact that he remained on the sidelines—with the servant. The greatness of this man was tied to his compassion for the lowly young servant who was weak, sick, near death. Of course, we must take into account the injustice of slavery, which we will do in a few minutes. For now, we focus on the unnamed centurion’s immediate effect on others in his community. Remember that we and Jesus met this military leader indirectly, through the testimony of others, as we now review.
First, the Jewish elders appeal passionately to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf because he “loves our people” and he even built a synagogue for them. I think about the protests after 9/11 as some Christians tried to block the construction of mosques—in New York, in Murphreesboro, TN, and elsewhere. Just this week we’ve learned that a mosque in Mobile was denied permission to expand their facilities, perhaps because of usual zoning restrictions or perhaps not. Yet here’s a Christian scripture speaking favorably about interreligious support where a house of faith is built, at least in part, by people of a different faith. This story doesn’t mean all religions are equal. It does suggest that people of different religions can care for one another. And that cooperation creates a healing in a very fundamental sense. This is, after all, a story about healing on several levels, a point to which I’ll return later.
Next in the story we meet friends of the centurion who may very well be Gentiles like the centurion. They vouch for the centurion’s power and humility. Although the Jewish elders have previously volunteered that the centurion is worthy of receiving Jesus’s miracle of healing for the servant, the centurion has instructed his friends to say he does not feel worthy to host Jesus in his home. Perhaps the centurion belatedly remembers Jews are considered ritually unclean by entering a Gentile’s home. So a powerful military leader respects the custom of the native people while subordinating himself to Jesus—more evidence of the leader’s humility.
And Jesus responds with amazement, and with the highest commendation he gives anyone in Luke’s gospel. But clearly Jesus is not commending the centurion’s religious beliefs. Jesus does not seem interested in the man’s beliefs. Jesus simply observes a caring man who trusts him to help.
And Jesus does.
But isn’t it curious how little attention is given to the actual healing—also “off stage”?
In other stories, Jesus heals someone with words and actions and the reactions are often dramatic. But in this story Jesus never agrees to heal the boy, never mentions the sick slave, and of course never meets either the slave or his master. Jesus simply hears the story and commends the centurion’s faith. We learn indirectly and without any detail that the healing took place. Wouldn’t that have been a scene to develop dramatically?
It seems Luke missed a narrative opportunity to develop the climax of the story–unless the author’s purpose was to turn attention elsewhere, unless the real healing happens elsewhere.
What happened in our reenactment “on stage”? I saw Jewish elders and Gentile friends coming together for a common purpose.
Perhaps it is society that is sick. We, today, would certainly see that slavery itself is a sign of societal illness, that military occupation terrorizing people is also sick, that oppressor and oppressed alike are made ill by hatred. The centurion requests healing for the sake of his young slave, but his simple human concern may be all the balm that is needed to start a systemic healing at the heart of this story.
Society is diseased when our stereotypes and rigid belief systems prevent us from seeing one another as brothers and sisters. Faith heals, in this story, by healing the fabric of society as one man places his faith in God’s goodness, as one person moves closer toward compassion and equality and a bedrock trust that healing can happen.
We do need, at times, to make a stand, to speak our minds. Let’s not pretend our opinions and beliefs don’t matter.
But the centurion shows me the healing power of humility that can draw us together despite political, theological, and social differences—especially when those in power extend themselves humbly to those without power.
Robert Tannehill’s commentary on Luke offers us helpful context for this story and a suggestion that perhaps the community for which Luke was first written was experiencing the social healing the story promises. He reminds us that the previous chapter of Luke focuses on Jesus’s theme of loving the enemy (p. 116) and “is a carefully crafted attempt to awaken the imagination so that radically new ways of relating to enemies will result” (117).[ii] He continues: “The willingness of the Lukan audience to accept Jesus’ teaching of love of enemies may have been increased by their own experience of a community in which Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich, had joined in mutual support. To some extent Jesus’ way of loving enemies had worked, although a diverse community is likely to have had persistent tensions. . . . Differences in deeply-held religious beliefs often breed hatred and violence, but the community of Jesus is being told that it must find ways to love these enemies” (119). Therefore, “the experience of meeting and worshiping with a Roman soldier or official in a Christian community might have led some Christian Jews to believe that love of their national enemies, the Romans, was possible” (120). The early Christians were starting to heal these social diseases!
The centurion’s story suggests we might actually be a more faithful people when we’re less dogmatic, when we can love those we’d once called enemy, when we hold our faith firmly enough to make a difference in the world, yet lightly enough to hear a new word. Here’s hope for the healing of the world.
[i] Kaylor, Brian. “Anniversary of Bailey Smith’s Harmful Moment in Baptist-Jewish Relations” Ethics Daily.com (August 23, 2010)http://www.ethicsdaily.com/news.php?viewStory=16564
[ii] Tannehill, Robert. Luke: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.