It is interesting to me that the Narrative Lectionary skips from last Sunday’s passage in which Jesus gets in trouble for upending Sabbath laws to today’s passage in which two miracles are done. It completely skips over the “Sermon on the Plain,” Luke’s shortened version of major teachings of Jesus which Matthew presents in the “Sermon on the Mount.” My guess is that we will look at that pretty closely in the year we journey through Matthew. Anyway, I hope you are keeping up with your daily reading schedule so that you have read all of that sermon in preparation for today.
If you have not, then I suggest going back and reading Luke 6:17-49 this week, because the teachings give us much understanding about the way Jesus lived and the things we see him do, including in today’s stories. It includes the Beatitudes, the injunction to love one’s enemies, to judge not lest we be judged, and recognizing the value and priorities of people by looking at the fruit of their lives rather than listening to their words. Today’s stories illustrate the limitless compassion of Jesus and his willingness to live out the values he taught regardless of what others thought.
Do you remember a few weeks ago when we looked at the story of Jesus going back to his home synagogue in Nazareth, a day that began well with the Scripture reading but ended with his neighbors wanting to throw him off the cliff? The reason they got mad was that he put an offensive twist on two Old Testament stories. He reminded them that in Elisha’s day there were plenty of lepers but the only one healed was not an Israeli Jew but a Syrian army commander who was the enemy. And he reminded them that there were plenty of needy widows in Israel during the drought during Elijah’s life, but Elijah was not sent to any of them but a widow in a foreign country in Sidon. While living with her he even raised her son from the dead. Today’s stories mirror these stories.
The first story has to do with Jesus and an officer of the enemy’s army. It’s a topsy turvy story. A Roman centurion. Ordinarily a hated figure in Israel, because he was the sword of the oppressor to keep the oppressed in line. A Gentile, an outsider. Jesus – the kind of character Rome wanted to keep an eye on. No permanent address. No job, no income, no taxes. Had a following of people who were pretty excitable, and these messiah types were usually rousing the rabble against Rome. They were probably questioned and intimidated pretty frequently by soldiers to remind them who was in charge and the consequences of non-compliance.
But neither the centurion nor Jesus fit into these stereotypes. The centurion, whose area included Capernaum, made it his practice to respect the people, the culture, and the religion of the people. As a part of honoring the local religion he had even helped in the building of the synagogue there. Jesus, for his part, never advocated revolution against Rome, never spoke disparagingly, never treated a Roman with less respect and dignity than a citizen of Israel. This was all the recipe for a miracle.
The centurion had no doubt heard the stories about Jesus healing and performing miracles and had likely been on watch as some took place. So when a valued servant became critically ill he thought of Jesus. This also speaks well of the centurion, that he would value a servant highly enough to take the risk and humble himself in the ways he was about to do. The stereotypical expectation would be that if the Roman soldier wanted something he would just take it. He would march up to Jesus and pull his sword and demand that he heal the servant.
Instead, the centurion took a more tactful and respectful route. Rather than threatening Jesus or putting him in a bad spot with his companions by violating his sacred space as a Gentile, who he knew Jews regarded as unclean, he asked some of the Jewish elders from the synagogue if they would advocate for him with Jesus. The Jewish elders, who we also stereotype as being opposed to Jesus in everything, come to Jesus and ask him to do this because of the centurion’s sincere love for the people and support for the synagogue.
Without question, Jesus goes. He could have gotten sidetracked into a theological discussion. “You people are always after me about doing things on the Sabbath I shouldn’t be doing, and now you want me to go to the home of a Gentile and heal his slave? I guess Gentile money talks as loud as Jewish money, huh?” But he didn’t do that, he just went. And before he arrived, the centurion sent messengers out to say he wasn’t worthy to have Jesus come into his home and that if Jesus would just say the word he knew his servant would be healed. Jesus was astonished at this expression of faith and told the people with him that it exceeded anything he had experienced with the Jews. He did not go on to the house and when the messengers returned they found that the slave was indeed healed.
Soon after this, Luke tells us, Jesus went to a town called Nain which was about ten miles southeast of Nazareth. It was not a particularly significant place, and this is the only time it is mentioned in the Bible. A great crowd of followers were with him. As they approached the gates of the city they met a large crowd which was going out of the city. It was a funeral processional. A crowd coming to bring life is met by a crowd overwhelmed by death.
For one particular woman this death was a catastrophe. The deceased was her only son, and her husband was already dead. These are two of the hardest experiences anyone can go through, to lose a spouse and to lose a child. To lose both left her totally bereft. And even beyond all that grief is the grief of knowing that her life has just become infinitely more tenuous and vulnerable. Without a husband or son she has no ability to own property and has no social status. She may well be reduced to begging.
Learning the story and seeing the woman’s grief, Jesus is moved to compassion. The word used for this is a vivid word which literally means gut wrenching. Jesus found his stomach churning he was so moved by her plight. He stepped over and touched the body, saying, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and started talking. In an interesting turn of phrase, Luke says that Jesus then “gave him to his mother.” It was not primarily for the son’s sake that Jesus restored his life, it was for the mother. In the previous miracle, it seems to be primarily for the centurion’s sake that Jesus heals the servant.
The point of all this for me is that Jesus doesn’t care who you are. Whether you are at the top of the social scale or the bottom, he has time for you. When he said he came to bring good news to the poor and release to the oppressed, he meant it. He entered into their lives and circumstances and made a difference. There were no limits to his compassion.
The drawing on the front of the bulletin is a literal portrayal of the way Matthew tells this story, but it is figuratively true of the way Luke tells it. The powerful Roman centurion, armed and dangerous, is on his knees before the plainly dressed, open handed, unarmed Jesus of Nazareth, who accepts him and willingly helps him and who ultimately learns from him and is moved by his faith. In the next scene it is Jesus who is a man of power and could easily have passed by the funeral procession on his way to see the more important people of Nain. This desire and determination to truly see and take seriously every single person regardless of who they were or where they were from is one of the most admirable characteristics I find in Jesus.
Every society everywhere struggles with issues of favoring some people over others and issues of prejudice toward people who look different, talk different, act different, believe different. How do you react when the doctor who comes into your loved one’s hospital room has a name you can’t pronounce and an accent you have to struggle to understand? For most people that quickly comes not to matter. Like the centurion, we fervently hope this person can use his or her healing gifts to make a difference in our loved one’s life. Do we pay as much attention to the person who comes in to clean the room? If it was a widow whose only son recently died, would we be paying enough attention to learn that?
Christians are called to be different, to be salt and light for the world. It doesn’t take a lot of either to make a big difference in the world. This is one of those things we can all do right where we are. You don’t have to go around the world, you don’t have to go to seminary, you don’t have to have great wealth. Just treat people the way you’d like to be treated. Whether they are black or white, rich or poor, CEO or janitor, American or foreigner, Christian, Jew, or Muslim – be kind, be gracious. I guess the Scouts still encourage what they did when I was growing up, which is to do a good deed for someone every day. I believe it was the first President Bush who urged us to be “points of light,” to do “random acts of kindness” regularly.
Can we turn around a society based on attack ads, get in your face confrontation, and irrational social media rants? I doubt it. Jesus couldn’t. But through the centuries millions of people have looked at his manner of life and his limitless compassion and have been deeply moved and said, “That’s it. That’s how it should be done.” As we attempt to let our lives be guided by his, we do our part to make sure that movement does not die out in our time.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 5, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson