For this transgression roots down to the very foundation of how we understand faith.
How Jesus keeps widening the circle
Proper 4C | Luke 7:1-10
As we return to the gospel we call Luke after several weeks in John and the last two in Acts, the lectionary drops us off in a story of Jesus’s encounter with a Gentile. And not just some Gentile, a Roman centurion. An occupier, a soldier, the very antithesis of the Jewish picture of faith.
Everything about him, his order, his place, his heritage, his vocation is wrong. He isn’t even someone Jesus should entertain a meeting with. Jesus should ignore this man. That he doesn’t ignore him speaks volumes.and then Jesus calls this Roman the most faithful Jew. Click To Tweet
So from the moment we start hearing about him, we should recognize how strange this story really is. For one, it is a departure from typical respectability and religious purity. And given how it comes so quickly after Jesus breaks Sabbath law and then calls his followers apostles (to do the work as he does, without him) this story should surprise, but not shock us.
So what should shock us is not that this Roman Centurion would come to Jesus for help, but that he is already respected by the Jewish people.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that the Jewish people of 1st Century Palestine are inhospitable. No. The respectability politics back then was of a whole different variety.
It isn’t simply that they entertained having an encounter. It is that they have given him an uncommon place in their society already. Hear again what they say about him:
“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.”
This is such a reversal, such a transgression of boundaries and expectations that I’m not sure we even comprehend its significance. This encounter with the Centurion is a living example of the Good Samaritan. A parable most of us know and which we’ll read in July.
The Centurion is an outsider. But one who has far more faith than any of the dudes on the inside.
So, let’s think about it this way. This Roman Centurion is actually the ultimate outsider. His job makes him do immoral and unethical things. He is the wrong race. He grew up in the wrong place. And he worships the wrong god. And good Jews were taught to steer clear of encounters with just such a person.
So reading about this centurion is like finding out that your high-school-aged daughter is dating a young man in college from the wrong side of town. And then when you meet him, you discover that he is just like a character in a romantic comedy: he is that too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, that Romeo to her Juliet and you just can’t trust that he is the real deal.
So we’re supposed to be all weirded out by this guy. Just like the Good Samaritan story, this should make us feel uncomfortable, because if we’re comfortable, we aren’t really listening to the good news. And then Jesus goes even further and says
“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
He has more faith in the Jewish GOD than any Jew in the Holy Land.
Woah! This is mindblowing stuff for these good, devoted Jews to hear. But the lingering question is not about them, but about us: how do we hear it?
Could we be thankful for such an encounter? If an Atheist or a Muslim or Hindu were raised up as having more faith in our GOD than any Christian in the world?
For this transgression roots down to the very foundation of how we understand faith. And just like those ancestors from 2000 years ago, we look at race and national identity and gender and religious tradition and we make judgments. Or we judge the one who rarely darkens the door of the church or the one who goes to one of “those” churches.
So we turn to our rules and our order and we make it about who gets to be baptized and how and when and if they are able to receive communion and then all of the other dominoes start to tip and our whole blessed church with all of its tradition and certainty starts to crumble and we don’t even know why we made such rules in the first place.
So then we go back to this story and we see that what we’re being invited to encounter isn’t just that “those” people can be good in an abstract sense, but that they can reveal GOD. Even outside of our precious order. And more importantly, they may be doing a better job of that than anyone here.
The Ultimate Outsider
This story seems so subtle, doesn’t it? Here’s this good man, doing good things, coming to the faith.
You and I know it rarely gets to be so simple as that.
This man expresses his faith. He isn’t circumcised. He isn’t following Jesus anywhere. He isn’t jumping through any hoops to prove his piety. In fact, put this guy up against the pious young man who comes to Jesus looking to find out the secret: how to inherit eternal life. Because he’s done everything he’s supposed to do and keeps the commandments and he’s in church constantly. He’s got to be GOD’s favorite, right? But Jesus tells him to give up the life he knows and take on the one Jesus offers and the dude runs away.
This guy is sticking. And Jesus is showing how central that part is. He is sticking with GOD.
In this way, it doesn’t seem to be about being in the tribe or demonstrating how much you are willing to conform to the tribe; it isn’t about creeds or creedal statements and acceptance of their truth; and dare I say Jesus isn’t being Martin Luther either and saying that it is all about faith in Christ. It is not about the tribe and what he believes about objective truths.
It is that Jesus called him faithful after a single encounter. An encounter in which he says that he didn’t think he was worthy to be in the same room with Jesus and yet these Jewish elders call this man worthy of Jesus’s time because of who he is in the community and what he himself has done for them.
They attest to him and this man, this Roman Centurion can’t even see it. But he knows that Jesus can heal his slave, his property, this one who society considers disposable. He knows Jesus can heal him. And he’s not sure that he’ll come do it, but he’s willing to give it a shot. To go out on a limb and ask Jesus to show up.
But he knows that Jesus can heal his slave, his property, this one who society considers disposable. He knows Jesus can heal him. And he’s not sure that he’ll come do it, but he’s willing to give it a shot. To go out on a limb and ask Jesus to show up.
And he does and then calls this Roman the most faithful Jew.
The New Thing
Perhaps it is easy to see our faultlines and all those places we divide ourselves from each other. How many of us were taught this saying: there are two topics you don’t bring up in polite conversation: politics and religion. But it is also geography and schools. Urban or rural. Educated or uneducated. Employed or unemployed. Race, gender, identity. So many to choose from.
For us good religious folk, in North America it was historically Protestant or Catholic. But it is also Pentecostal and Orthodox. Anglicanism. Maybe Emergence. High church and low church. 7 Sacraments or 2 or none. Drink or dip. Sing or speak. Sling incense everywhere or despise GOD, I mean, the divisions are everywhere.
And we know that all these divisions are beside the point, don’t we? We know. But they are so much more comfortable to deal with; they offer such clarity and certainty; we’d rather live like it is all so set in place.
But what we have here is the counterfactual example to all that certainty and order. To all our laws and rules for governance which say GOD only speaks this one way and that our faith is ultimately dependent on how we light candles and what someone preaches from the pulpit. That GOD is unchanging and so is our religious tradition.
Then Jesus goes off and does this new thing. And celebrates it, commending the outsider. And we just heard about all those new things the Spirit was doing all around the region in and after the Pentecost, all with these outsiders coming in.
It seems then that this is a story of faith. Not just of the Centurion, but of the community which loved him. The faith of Jesus to bring the divine spark into this unlikely encounter. The faith of all who hear it and know that this is how GOD works; how GOD loves to upset the apple cart. And the most faithful aren’t worried about a wooden cart; they are too busy sharing the apples anyway.