Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, May 29
Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Faith of an Outsider
O Singer, your song is welcome and holiness, healing and trust. Teach us a new song to sing your praise, and tune our ears to melodies we have never heard, that we may add our voices to the harmony uniting all creation as one in adoration and thanksgiving of you, through Christ, your all-embracing song. Amen.
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For 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." When 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." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
All readings for this Sunday
1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39 with Psalm 96
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 with Psalm 96:1-9
1. What do you think are impediments to a sense of community in our own time?
2. Do some folks see other Christians as "not quite as good" Christians as they are?
3. Do you practice an "assertive" faith that "critiques" the world around you?
4. When have you experienced God acting in a way that's "untypical"?
5. How would you describe faith?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Echoes and amazement: that's what we encounter in this week's text from the Gospel of Luke. When a foreign military officer requests that Jesus the prophet heal his servant, we hear echoes of another military commander long ago, another foreigner, another "other," Naaman, the Aramean commander and enemy of Israel, who seeks healing from his leprosy from Elisha, "the man of God" (2 Kings 5).
And when Jesus is "amazed" by the faith of the centurion, we hear echoes of the amazement of so many others already in the Gospel of Luke. Michael Card provides a litany of these folks: "Zechariah's neighbors, those who heard the shepherds, Joseph and Mary, those who heard the boy Jesus in the temple, those who heard the adult Jesus in the synagogues at both Nazareth and Capernaum, Peter and his partners, and finally those who witnessed the healing of the paralytic" were all amazed by the things happening before their eyes, and now Jesus himself is amazed by the faith of an outsider. No wonder Card has titled his commentary, "Luke: The Gospel of Amazement."
Presenting and re-presenting God's tender mercies for all
Most commentators, including David E. Holwerda, hear this echo, and they observe that this week's text really belongs with next week's story from Luke about Jesus raising the son of a widow in Nain (7:11-17). Both stories echo incidents from the Hebrew Scriptures that were used as illustrations by Jesus in his response to the skepticism of the hometown crowd in the Nazareth synagogue back in chapter 4. These stories about Jesus, then, would have sounded familiar to the early Jewish Christians who already knew about Elisha healing Naaman and raising the dead son of the Shunnamite woman, and about Elijah raising the son of the widow of Zarephath (another outsider). Surely, it's no coincidence that Nain and Shunem are in the same vicinity, writes Holwerda. Your point, Jesus? It must be true that God's tender mercies cannot be held in or held back, but instead they overflow every border, every boundary we set to contain them.
And yet, rather than assume that this is some kind of new teaching from Jesus, Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson suggest that stories like Naaman's and "other Jewish affirmations that God seeks to be compassionate to all in the human family (e.g., Exod. 16:11; Deut. 10:17-18Ö)" lead us to understand that this story from Luke "re-presents a concern at the heart of Jewish identity, and signals that the ministry of the church is in continuity with the ministry of Israel." I appreciate their careful hyphenation in "re-present" - a good way to make their point about that ancient, central concern, for God's expansive love is presented and re-presented throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, and, we hope, in the life of the church.
The importance of acting, not just feeling, compassion
Since that first and familiar sermon in Nazareth, Jesus has been teaching and healing around the countryside, and in chapter 6 he delivers Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount ñ that is, the Sermon on the Plain, in which he teaches us, among other lessons, the importance of loving our enemies and of "hearing/doing," of action that responds to, and expresses, the good news. From there, Jesus heads to this border town, Capernaum, the "village of compassion" that might also be called "the village of compassion but with a strong military presence."
Holwerda explains that soldiers were there to keep the peace so taxes and tolls could be collected, and although they were not Roman troops (he notes that "there were no Roman soldiers in Galilee before A.D. 44"), their commander was clearly a Gentile, an outsider, an "other" to the Jews gathered around Jesus. The centurion, so called because he commands one hundred men, was also a man of enough means to be a generous benefactor to the Jewish people, for he made "fifty to one hundred times the pay of an ordinary soldier," Holwerda notes. It's here then, in the village of compassion, that Jesus follows up his words with action on behalf of the very enemies he teaches us to love.
Emissaries as community at work
Both military commanders - Naaman and the centurion - work through intermediaries, emissaries who provide good references to vouch for them. M. Jan Holton sees community at work, not just in those who are interceding for the centurion and his servant, but in the relationships the centurion has built with those he chooses to "love" rather than intimidate. She also reminds us that the servant himself is a character in this story, unheard and unseen but greatly blessed by Jesus, and perhaps greatly loved by the centurion. After all, the military man is humbling himself in order to gain healing for one who can't ask for it himself. That says something about the quality of their bond. Holton notes a deep spiritual reality in the "web of human connectedness" that impels us to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
Several scholars contrast this communal spirit, or web, with the current cultural emphasis on self-sufficiency and privacy that has eroded our public life and hidden the life of faith behind a screen of personal privacy rather than making it an interpersonal, out-in-the-world experience. This is not a wholly accurate picture of many people and communities of faith, of course, and we've seen tremendous expressions of compassion and generosity every time there is a disaster or tragedy in our midst. The initial response to the 9/11 tragedies was an outpouring of donations even when folks didn't know exactly how they would be used. And here in Cleveland, a fund that helped three young women held captive for ten years grew quickly and impressively, demonstrating the goodness of people's hearts and the larger community moved to respond in times of need. People want to do something in the face of suffering.
Connections or relationships?
However, Holton notes that we may be more willing to give than to receive, because - in this culture of self-sufficiency - we don't like feeling vulnerable or in anyone's debt (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 3). What do you think are impediments to a sense of community in our own time? I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotations, by Julie Polter in Sojourners magazine: "This is the big lie that the world tells us: The world is connected by trade agreements, electronic banking, computer networks, shipping lanes, and the seeking of profitónothing else. This is the truth of God: Creation is a holy web of relationship, a gift meant for all; it vibrates with the pain of all its parts; its destiny is joy." Today, we think we are connected because of technology, and perhaps we are, but connections are not necessarily relationships.
The Tenement Museum on New York City's Lower East Side provides a history lesson in what countless thousands of our ancestors endured for the sake of survival and probably more for the sake of their children and grandchildren's futures. When the guide stood next to a tiny coffin and two candles in a small parlor, describing the calling hours of a young child of Irish immigrants, you could hear a roll call of the community, and the ways that had been created for people to support one another (some better than others; this was the age of Tammany Hall and its system of favors and obligations ñ its own kind of patronage system).
Encircled and supported by community
A century ago, widows and their children, as in every age, experienced harrowing poverty and struggled to "survive without a man to provide for them." (The number of children still living in poverty in the United States is shocking - more than one in five, by many estimates.) Even today, a young parent at home with small children fares better if a community is around them, someone to reach out to in times of illness, loneliness, and need. The church can often provide that larger community in which we can explore our faith, test our beliefs, find support and challenge, and be inspired to act together on behalf of others. What can the church learn from this story in Luke's Gospel, about reaching out in compassion in the face of suffering and need?
Things worked differently in those days
In the time of Jesus, this is how things worked: the practice or institution of "patronage" operated in place of what we might expect from our government today (welfare, protection, etc.). You needed to find someone "bigger and stronger" than you, someone with more resources who could help you when you needed something done: a "patron." This whole system is at work in this short story from Luke; according to John J. Pilch, the centurion is a patron because he "brokers favors and resources from Rome to the local citizenry," and the Jewish elders who plead his case to Jesus are "middle-men" who speak on his behalf to Jesus, who is perceived to be another person with power.
Scholars who view both men ñ Jesus and the centurion ñ as patrons also see a kind of delicate process at work, almost a dance, in which superiority and rank are subtly established or granted. Pilch believes that the centurion sees Jesus as his superior because Jesus is the "broker between the God of Israel and God's sick people," and the centurion wants to avoid a meeting where his military/Roman power is put up as a kind of "challenge" to Jesus' own, much more significant power.
Allen and Williamson focus on the way this story illustrates the powerlessness of status and brute force in the face of illness. Like powerful people in any time who should use their power for good, patrons, according to Allen and Williamson, should align their use of power with what God wants, "acting in ways that promote the welfare of all in the community."
A message about power
As long as we're talking about power, we might note with Justo L. Gonz·lez that the significance of Jesus' healing of the centurion's servant reverberates far beyond this small border town. Gonz·lez notes the location of the two stories that begin chapter 7 - Galilee - home to the humble and even despised Galileans, who "are not quite as good Jews as those from Judea," so Jesus here "sends a message that announces his power" to Judea and beyond, to Rome, "the powers that he will have to confront at the end, and that will bring about his crucifixion."
Ironically, while Jesus frees the servant from his suffering, he doesn't free him from his station in life, or address the social realities of things like slavery in the ancient world. Several scholars observe that our congregations today might wonder about the way Jesus, without comment, lets slavery, like the centurion's oppressive empire itself, go on, with all of its systems and classes and abuses. Allen and Williamson claim that the "larger theological framework of Luke-Acts implicitly criticizes both Caesar and slavery," but it also "presumes that the social world will continue as usual until the apocalyptic cataclysm." I'm unnerved by any theology that justifies inaction, for example, in the face of God's creation being destroyed, and Allen and Williamson do challenge us today to "be more assertive in critiquing empire and calling for freedom, justice, dignity, and egalitarianism in our social world."
What is a miracle?
There are several themes here that we might explore, beginning with the question of miracles. Gonz·lez suggests that, instead of seeing a miracle as something that violates the laws of nature that undergird our existence in the material world, as "an interruption of an order," we should see a miracle as "the irruption of the true order ñ the order of the creator God ñ into the demonic disorder of the present world," a reminder, if you will, of who is really in charge. (See Augustine's thought on miracles, below.)
Scholars say that the healings performed by Jesus are signs of the Reign of God drawing near, so every time we experience or witness healing, we too experience a taste of the Reign of God; as followers of Jesus, we strive to participate in bringing this healing into the world. This story teaches us that we shouldn't occupy ourselves with who deserves God's grace and mercy and healing, Dianne Bergant writes, because we hear that "the reign of God went in search of the outsider. It is so typical of God to be untypical. Crossing boundaries before us, the power of God moves us out of ourselves and of our narrow worlds."
"So typical of God to be untypical" - I love that.
God's miracles and natural disasters
We often hear and perhaps participate in conversations - in person but also on social media - about the role of God in natural disasters. Several years ago, after a tornado in Oklahoma, some folks zeroed in on the video of an elderly woman who found her little dog in the rubble (while being interviewed on TV!) and joyfully proclaimed that God had answered both of her prayers ñ her own experience of a miracle, as she might call it. Some folks commented that they wondered why God granted a miracle to her and not to others whose children were killed. We struggle to answer questions that have no easy answers, and with what to call a great gift and a great wonder, and how to respond to heart-breaking loss and destruction, but we do not struggle alone. What do you think about that?
Hearing and doing
Another theme that might be explored is the "hearing/doing" that is illustrated so well by Jesus putting his words to work in the healing of a servant and the raising of a son. Have the people really heard what he's been saying? Have they really listened? Have we? In any case, Jesus shows us, and he does so by offering healing ñ and therefore the Reign of God ñ even to one who represented the powers that be, the empire that oppresses the people of Israel. (Somehow, Caesar looks pretty small at times like these.)
N.T. Wright's words about this Gentile, this outsider who is drawn to the faith of the people of Israel, are quite beautiful: he describes the centurion as "looking in at Israel and Israel's God from the outside, liking what he sees, and opening himself to learning new truth from this strange, ancient way of life." According to Wright, this outsider is able to see right to the heart of the matter of faith in Israel's "one true God," and then, to see even more, that "the one true God was personally present and active in Jesus." We assume that the centurion has heard about the wonders and the words of Jesus from a distance, and has already been living according to what he has heard, for example, love of his "enemy" ñ a powerful example of hearing and doing.
The question of faith
Related to questions of miracles and hearing/doing, of course, is the question of faith, which most commentators focus on because Jesus is "amazed" by the faith of the centurion. This always prompts deeper questions in my mind: what did "faith" mean to the centurion? I was raised to think of faith as a treasure that's handed down in a kind of guarded lockbox, timeless and unchanging, from generation to generation, and later, I learned that some people say we're saved by doing good deeds while others say we're "saved by faith." (Pope Francis continues to provoke new conversations, and not always happy reactions, by his comments about who can be saved - and his actions that follow up his words are meeting even more bewilderment, and from some, great excitement and joy.)
I suspect the vast majority of folks in our "Christian" nation (we claim to be such, whether we behave like it or not) would be hard-pressed to explain what "saved by faith" means. Marcus Borg has written most helpfully on the question of faith in books like "The Heart of Christianity," seeing faith as a matter of the heart, a question of trust rather than assent to theological statements that prove that we have "the truth" more than other folks do. I think the centurion's faith is the deep hope, the deep longing of the outsiders, the least-likely-to-be-included figures that populate the Bible, up-end our assumptions about who belongs and who doesn't, and teach us all a lesson in the process.
A centurion's humility
We could also reflect on the humility of this outsider's faith. I'm struck by his willingness to be humbled right in front of the people he oversees, when he sends a message to Jesus, proclaiming his unworthiness for Jesus even to enter his house. Fred Craddock has a succinct way of describing the centurion's attitude: "Regarded worthy by others, regarded unworthy by himself ñ not a bad combination of credentials." Michael Card describes it this way: "He asks for what he knows he doesn't deserve and faithfully expects to get it anyway! He asks for hesed."
This centurion reminds me of the Syro-Phoenician, pagan woman in Mark 7 who breaks in on Jesus' vacation time and insists on (faithfully expects?) a healing for her little girl. Or Ruth the Moabite (the enemy of God's people!), who stubbornly refuses to leave Naomi and return to the safety of her home; instead, her faithfulness and love lead her on a journey toward becoming an ancestor of King David, and of Jesus as well. There's also the insight of the centurion in Mark 15:39, witnessing the death of Jesus and exclaiming, "Truly this man was God's Son!" Or the thief on the cross next to Jesus who has no time to make up anything to anyone, but trusts Jesus enough to throw himself on his mercy (Luke 23:42).
In this same chapter 7, we'll meet another uninvited outsider, the "woman in the city, who was a sinner," who burst into the presumably "non-sinner" Pharisee's dinner party in order to show her great love, her great faith, by anointing Jesus' feet with her tears. That outsider is followed by the woman in chapter 8, the one with a hemorrhage who thought she only had to touch Jesus' cloak (the smallest amount of physical contact ñ and certainly not a person Jesus should be touching) to experience a healing from her long suffering, to be brought back into the circle of the community. Goodness! Who let all these people in?
Walking through "God's front door of mercy"
Verlee A. Copeland, pastor of First Parish Congregational Church in York, Maine, has written a beautiful reflection about such "gate-crashers," the ones we least expect to meet at the party God will be throwing for us. She notes that the usual advantages did the centurion no good when confronted by the illness of his servant, for "faithfulness did not depend on membership in the club (house of Israel), on social status (free slaveowner), or on economic status (those who make greater financial contributions)." Jesus, she writes, "turned on its head the prevailing understanding of who was invited to the welcome table, by his willingness to restore health based not on who held the printed invitation, but on who by faith was willing to walk through God's front door of mercy." Who by faith was willing to walk through God's front door of mercy. What a lovely way to say it!
Of course, these Gospels were written for people who would hear them much later, people who were struggling with questions of faith, of who was in and who was out. A huge controversy in the earliest church was the matter of allowing Gentiles in, a decision that eventually led to a largely Gentile church. This question is between the lines of Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts, both of which, in Craddock's words, express Luke's belief in a "both-and" God, "not an 'either-or' God." Also, these "later" Christians, like Christians in every age, who had not personally witnessed these works of wonder or marvelous words of Jesus, were challenged to believe because of what they had heard from those who came before them.
Trust as our gift to God
A poetic reflection on humility and trust that contributes to our reflections on this text is found in Brennan Manning's book, "Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin's Path to God," a book Richard J. Foster, in his Foreword, calls "a frontal attack on all the egocentric, hyphenated self-sins of our day: self-indulgence, self-will, self-service, self-aggrandizement, self-gratification, self-righteousness, self-sufficiency, and the like." I have a feeling that Manning would understand the heart of the centurion, the suffering of the servant, the compassion of Jesus in this story, for he was keenly aware of the distinctions and barriers we set up among us, and he trusted in the Spirit to blow them all away.
Manning claims that "the splendor of a human heart which trusts that it is loved gives God more pleasure" than great works of art and music, or even the magnificent beauty of nature, and we sense that at some level, the centurion trusted that God loved him and his servant. Manning calls trust "our gift back to God," one that requires courage and, it seems, some time to develop in our lives. As an illustration of that growth, he notes how often the great Henri Nouwen used the word "faith" in his early works, while "in his swan song, he uses faith once and trust sixty-five times." Sure enough, Nouwen wrote in that last book, "Somewhere along the way, in the life of the maturing Christian, faith combined with hopeÖgrows into trust."
The source of our hope
And so we turn to Henri Nouwen's tender story of his visit to the Castro district of San Francisco in 1988, during the terrible days of the AIDS epidemic. He describes the loneliness and suffering he encountered, but also the generosity and love: "Many people are showing great care for each other, great courage in helping each other, great faithfulness, and often unwavering love." And then he remembers talking about Jesus with a friend there, whose parting words were, "'I am glad you came. There are too few people who mention his name in the district. There are so many negative associations with his name, and still he is the greatest source of hope." Hearing and doing. What do people hear about Jesus from us? What do they experience in what we do and say, that leads their hearts to greater trust, and to wanting to do the same?
All of this boundary-breaking, surprising trust and healing and great wonders in one Gospel suggests to David Holwerda that Luke is offering "a pre-Pentecost anticipation of what Pentecost inaugurates in its fullness," and an "epiphany story" as well that helps us to understand just a little better who this Jesus is. But Luke also prods us to wrestle with questions of who is in, and who is out, and who belongs to the people of God. To whom does God listen? Who, indeed, can receive the tender mercies of our God? We hear the ancient prayer of Solomon in this week's reading from 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43: "Honor the prayers of the foreigner so that people all over the world will know who you are and what you're like and will live in reverent obedience before you, just as your own people Israel doÖ" ("The Message"). Amen!
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Corrie ten Boom, 20th century
"Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God."
Carolyn McCulley, 21st century
"Men trust God by risking rejection. Women trust God by waiting."
Augustine, 5th century
"Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature."
Peggy Noonan, 21st century
"I think miracles exist in part as gifts and in part as clues that there is something beyond the flat world we see."
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."
Richard Rohr, 21st century
"Faith does not need to push the river because faith is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing. We are in it."
Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
"When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility."
Frederick Buechner, 21st century
"Go where your best prayers take you."
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