Rev. Teri Peterson
5 February 2017, NL 3-22, Epiphany 5 (Listen Up!)
Today’s reading begins with a phrase that could be translated “After all Jesus’ words had filled the people’s ears…” Those words that Jesus had been speaking just before today’s reading were the sermon on the plain, or what in Matthew is called the sermon on the mount. Jesus said things like “blessed are the poor, hungry, and mourning”…and then he also said “woe to you who are rich, full, and laughing now.” He taught that we are to love our enemies, to avoid judging others by our own imperfect human standards, and to do the things he says, not only let them go in one ear and out the other. These are the things he had been talking about when we pick up the story in Luke, chapter 7, which can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
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.
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
I have to confess that I have had some pretty serious problems with this scripture reading, all week long. A centurion, head of a battalion of the Roman army which is occupying and oppressing the Jewish people and many others all around the Mediterranean basin, owns another person. He probably owns several people, actually—slavery was common in the ancient world, as people either sold themselves or family members to pay a debt, or as people were captured during the Empire’s expansion. The person enslaved by this centurion is so sick he is near death...but his labor is valuable, so the centurion/slave owner asks for help. The local elders tell Jesus that the centurion/slave owner is worthy of having his enslaved worker restored to health, because he built the synagogue for them—in other words, they owe him a favor. The centurion/slave owner tells Jesus that he is used to being obeyed, so he expects Jesus is too, what with his even higher authority. Jesus pronounces this great faith, and the enslaved person is returned to good health (i.e., to productive worker status).
I think this is a troubling story in lots of ways. The implicit acceptance of slavery is the most obvious issue. Then there’s also the part where everyone from the elders to the friends to Jesus himself say that the centurion—the officer of the occupying army, the owner of slaves—is so good and generous and faithful that of course he deserves to have the slave healed so he can get back to unpaid work. And also the fact that the reasoning given by the Jewish elders for why Jesus should help a Roman centurion is because he gave the money to build the synagogue…they were in his debt, and he called that favor in when he was in danger of losing a slave in the most unprofitable of ways.
And Jesus went. And he said nothing about the enslaved person at all. The man was healed, of course, by Jesus’ word that is so powerful he can work miracles from afar. But he was still in slavery—he was healed, but not freed.
Then Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd continue on their journey, only to encounter a funeral procession. Where most of us might pull over out of respect, or lower our eyes until the people have passed, Jesus sees this widow whose son has died and he has compassion for her. Compassion isn’t just sympathy, or even empathy—it’s a stomach-twisting suffering with the other person that is incomplete without action…and Jesus acts when he sees this grieving woman. A widow was vulnerable, and a widow with no male children was even more so. She was dependent on either her father’s family or on the charity of her neighbors, and was often separated from society due to her lack of status and lack of resources. With a word, Jesus heals the man and returns him to his mother—and by extension returns her to stability and community.
One man was nearly dead, and the other was dead…and with a word, Jesus heals both of them. But he doesn’t only do it for them—he also heals them for the sake of others in their lives. For the sake of the mother. For the sake of the centurion. Or perhaps in both cases, for the sake of the whole community.
The centurion is a well-off man, in charge of a segment of the world’s most powerful army. He asks for a miracle, knowing he deserves one, either because of his station or because of what he has done for the town. The people around him believe the same—he has done good things, he has earned a healing or two. By all our worldly standards, he is a prime candidate for receiving good things from God: he has power, money and status, and the whole town owes him a favor.
The widow, meanwhile, is not just underprivileged or at-risk, she is worthless. She asks for nothing in the midst of her mourning. It’s not even clear whether or not she sees Jesus at all, or whether she is just walking beside her son’s body, weeping and wailing, immersed in her own world of pain. By all our worldly standards, she deserves nothing, because she is nothing.
We could hardly ask for a wider difference between two recipients of Jesus’ attention. There is a chasm between their circumstances and stations in life that seems impossible to cross. Yet his voice reaches each of them, exactly where they are. The living word speaks not only to those who ask, not only to those who are worthy, but also to those who are overlooked or even trampled down. And the whole community listens in.
What do they hear?
That God has compassion for the lowly.
That God cares about people in distress, especially those we might otherwise overlook.
That God does not work according to our human rules, customs, social groups, or religious traditions.
That God’s power is not defined or confined by what we consider to be “deserving.”
And when they had heard—when their ears were full of all the things Jesus said and did—the word about him spread throughout the country.
They kept the word—the powerful, compassionate, loving word that brings healing—moving and living throughout the land. They didn’t let the word stop with them. Jesus said the strong foundation for the life of faith requires putting his teaching into action, requires feeling the suffering and the joy of our neighbors and then doing something about it.
Both of these miracle stories offer us the opportunity to join that community that heard the voice that could raise the dead and the dying, and then shared the word. Because, you see, both miracles are unfinished. The enslaved man is healed, but not freed. The widow and her son are reunited, but the woman is not freed. The work of healing our community and culture is still ours to do. The bodies are restored, but the wholeness that comes with justice is still a ways off. As long as some are not free, none of us are free. When Paul wrote that we should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, he wasn’t only giving instructions about empathy and prayer, he was reminding us that our wholeness is bound up in one another. When one part of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. Each healing story gives us the first step, and calls us to join the transformation of the world into God’s kingdom where no one is left out, no one is just a prop in someone else’s story, no one has to worry about who will take care of them. Jesus showed us his way: no barriers, no hierarchy of deserving, no judgment of circumstance. He spoke the word…now comes the hard part where we try to live as if the word is true. When all of us who make up this community hear and obey Christ’s healing word, the truth will set us free—all of us, not just some.
May it be so. Amen.