Such faith…where do you see it?
She was just 13, but her clothes and hair and mannerisms might have led you to believe she was 20. Her mother had a long history of drug abuse and alcoholism and all the behaviors that went with that -- and had shared her habits with her daughter. You wouldn’t have expected her to show up on a Sunday evening for youth group. But she did. Attitude and all. But she engaged in the conversation, had great questions in the Bible study, and stayed afterwards to talk. “I see the road my mom is on – and I think I want to go another way but I don’t know how. Can you help me?” Not what you would have expected from this lost young woman. Not who you would expect to preach a sermon later that year. Such faith…that God could help her. That life could change.
Who matters to Jesus?
Every time we think we understand Jesus, something unexpected happens. SOME-ONE unexpected happens. Jesus came to save the lost sheep of Israel, right? But today’s story isn’t about the lost sheep of Israel at all.
In this story, a Roman Centurion – a soldier, a Gentile, a Roman shows up asking Jesus for a favor. His slave is paralyzed and in great pain. He just tells Jesus this, assuming that Jesus will act.
We actually don’t know much about this Centurion or his slave. We don’t know his motives. He could have been concerned because his servant wasn’t able to serve him due to his physical condition. He could have been truly concerned that a man in his care was in need of assistance, was in pain. We don’t know. We know the power dynamics of the Roman army a bit. A Centurion was a foot soldier who had risen through the ranks to become an officer in command of 100 soldiers. There were 6 centuria in a Roman legion. The centurions were the backbone of the Roman army and were responsible for discipline. They also participated in councils of war. This was a man who had leadership ability, or he wouldn’t have been made a centurion. He dealt with discipline regularly, and would have had a concern for the soldiers under his command. Perhaps it is a similar concern for his slave that prompted him to approach Jesus.
Jesus’ response was probably a crowd shocker. “I will come and cure him?” Umm….Jews didn’t go into gentile houses. It wasn’t done. It would make Jesus unclean. It would shock his followers, and could potentially have had some risk for the centurion as well to have an itinerant Jewish rabbi come to his house. The writer of Matthew is pointing out the social barriers that existed between Jesus and the Centurion. A gentile centurion wasn’t a part of the community AND he is pleading for a slave, also excluded from the community. Jesus’ response was probably said as a question…but shows that Jesus’ concern for this person he had never met, a gentile slave of a Roman soldier, was sufficient to pose the question.
We think of Jesus as caring for everyone…but this is on a different level. This is a truly powerless person outside of his circle of influence. Some might have considered the centurion, and by extension his slave, an enemy. Some might have thought Jesus might have replied with something like Mercutio’s Shakespearean curse, “A pox on both your houses.” “Healing provides the nexus in which people can palpably experience the authority of Jesus to re-envision and remake the family of God.” Gentile. Roman oppressor. Soldier. Slave owner. Slave.
No – today’s story is not about the lost sheep of Israel at all.
Just say the word
This story might be titled, “Just Say the Word” because of what happens next. The Centurion responds to Jesus’ incredible question with an alternate suggestion. “Just say the word…” The centurion doesn’t want to inconvenience Jesus. He understands what it means to have authority, and he assumes that Jesus has authority over whatever is causing his slave’s paralysis. “Just say the word.”
Jesus is amazed. That actually doesn’t happen a lot in the scriptures. This is extraordinary. This gentile soldier occupying Israel believes that Jesus can and will heal his slave with a word. Just a word.
And Jesus’ reply is a pronouncement about God’s kingdom, God’s kindom…that reinterprets the promises of “someday” that we find throughout the Hebrew Bible. The promises have been to Israel that the Jews scattered in the diaspora will return to Zion from East and West, North and South to worship God on God’s mountain. But Jesus says that many (read gentiles) will come and sit at the family table of Israel with the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. AND goes on to say that many who consider themselves to have a seat at that table – heirs of the kingdom with the rights and privileges thereof – will find themselves cast out. The faith of the centurion is a “sign of eschatological reversal” – of how God is doing things differently to create a new world, a new era.
You can almost hear the audience gasp. They wouldn’t have expected this. What is this pronouncement with more than a tinge of judgement doing in a healing story?
First, it explains why the centurion’s slave is going to be healed. Healing doesn’t just come to the privileged – which are defined as Jews in this story.
Second, it re-draws the circle of influence, the circle of concern for Jesus and for God to include the whole world. There are no unclean persons. There are no reasons to keep people on the margins. The Centurion’s faith that Jesus and will heal his slave makes him one of the chosen few – and with him his slave. And while we may gasp at this a bit – as certainly Jesus’ first century audience would have – we do know that significant faith is not a common commodity. Not in Israel. Not in the church. “Just say the word, Jesus, and it will be done.” Nope – not common at all.
Jesus challenges us, even 2000 years later, to draw our circles wider. Jesus challenges us to invite in people who may be on the margins. And Jesus tells us that we may not be insiders like we thought. How are we going to respond to all of this?
This centurion may be the key. After all, Jesus praises him very highly for his faith, “in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” That apparently includes the disciples. What was this great faith of the centurion?
The most obvious answer is that Jesus could and would heal his slave with just a word – from a far distance – that Jesus had authority over whatever was causing paralysis and pain. The Centurion apparently knows what we profess to believe, that Jesus is the Lord of all the earth.
But perhaps there is something more. Perhaps the centurion also knows that a servant or slave matters to Jesus. Just perhaps part of his praiseworthy faith is that he doesn’t ascribe to the power dynamics of the time in the way that other people do. Just perhaps part of his great faith is that he is ACTING to make God’s vision of full inclusion of the powerless come about by asking Jesus to heal his servant. Perhaps he understands that things aren’t well until everyone is well – and he therefore brings his slave into the family circle of God. He includes his slave into his family – who’s family now? Faith isn’t just words with him – he is ACTING to make a different world come in to being.
Jesus’ healing powers create division and conflict in many of these stories. The dividing factor is whether or not people can perceive the meanings behind what they see and hear. Those who do not understand are angry at the ways he challenges their understanding. Those who do understand respond with a change of heart, and new practices of inclusion and love. How we respond matters.
Jesus is challenging us to draw our circle wider too. WE too choose our response to that challenge. We can resist the idea of Jesus healing outside the circle that we have drawn, or dismiss it as his own practice with no implications for our lives. OR we can let this story work on our hearts. We can ACT in ways that bring about this new reality in our world as well! Just imagine…bringing people who have been hurt by the church into the family circle. Imagine…defining who we are as a community of faith by reaching out to strangers, as well as those within the church, with love -- as though they are the presence of Jesus in our midst, no matter what they look like, or sound like, or act like. Imagine….using our power and privilege as the Centurion did in this story to name others as family and invite them into the family circle.
No, this story is not about Jesus reaching out to the lost sheep of Israel. It has an unexpected hero with great faith who is outside the circle, who gives us new insights into God’s intentions of drawing the circle wider and wider still until it encompasses the whole world. And now it is our turn to respond.
1. Walter Wilson, Healing stories in the Gospel of Matthew. 55.
2. W. Wilson, Healing, 57.
3. Wilson, Healing, 58.