Even Enemies Will Do Good Through Faith in Jesus
A sermon based on Luke 7:1-10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 29, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I am not a centurion . . . but I played one once on stage. I was in the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. We ran the show all summer long which made for a lot of stories. I plan for us to be together long enough that you’ll hear them all. Two of the stories I want to try and relate a little to our Lectionary lesson. Jack Coin, the lead actor, played a Greek slave seeking freedom. Jack had been on Broadway and we shared a number of scenes in the play, one in which another character came on stage and provided important transitional lines so we could get to the next scene. Except in our show almost every night the actor playing the part failed to appear on cue and give the lines that only he could give. Usually we could hear the tardy actor clomping out of the green room and running to his entrance spot. While he was clomping, Jack and I had no choice but to ad lib until he arrived. Early in the run we decided to alternate every other time which one of us would start the ad lib. Jack and I developed a great deal of faith in one another as we rifted before a live audience silly lines waiting for another actor to do his part.
The other story is that that local theatre troupe had a famous patron, renown playwright William Luce who wrote Broadway shows including the plays Lillian and Barrymore, but probably his most famous work is The Belle of Amherst, a one woman play about Emily Dickinson.
A lot of teenage girls read and love and even act out parts from The Belle of Amherst. They are not alone, I love the play. It’s a one woman show with a fantastic female role and monologues. Our oldest child Tristan was just such a teen and she was also in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. We have a number of fond memories working together all summer long on that show. But no memory is better than what happened after the opening night curtain came down. It was a gala with high priced tickets and champagne and hors-d’oeuvres and a-meet-the cast-on-the-stage event after the show. William Luce was in the audience that night and came on stage and introduced himself to the cast only as Bill and made sure to complement us on the show and our roles. When Tristan found out who Bill was she was ecstatic. Somehow this got mentioned to Bill and he made sure to wander back over to her and spend a generous amount of time talking– answering her questions and asking about her interests and experiences in shows and with his script. It was incredibly gracious of Bill to go out of his way to give an impressionable teen compassion and attention– and let me tell you she was walking on air for days afterwards.
And just a side note, Bill was nice to me too. He not only claimed to have enjoyed my performance, but years later brought me an autographed copy of Barrymore at our UCC church in Oregon, which he later started to attend and even once in awhile play the organ. Bill is a great organist . . . and I might add a Gay rights advocate – which is how he ended up at our church.
So what do these mildly amusing stories have to do with the reading today? I was afraid you’d ask that . . .not really. I’m getting us primed to think about faith – trust– in others to help one another (even more so than Jack and I did), and to think about what happens when barriers break down between the culturally high so that they care for the culturally low, even more so than well known William Luce did for our unknown teenage actor Tristan. See our scripture reading is about faith – trust– in Jesus’ Way so great in a cultural person of high esteem that together with Jesus they shatter the barriers between high and low treating a slave’s life as having equal worth, so much so together the centurion’s faith, and his and Jesus’ compassion, save that person’s life.
The centurion in our scripture is not just a Gentile, but an enemy officer in an occupying army that has ruthlessly taken over Palestine. He is a very powerful foreigner to be feared by Jews like Jesus and his followers. He is not to be liked or loved or even to share his presence with them. We can actually hear the centurion as “getting” this and rather surprisingly respecting that the locals considered him unclean and so he headed off Jesus coming into his household’s impure presence. We are told “when [Jesus] 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.’”
The centurion is not angry or livid about the negative view of him by local culture. He is humble about it, turning his cheek at the cultural slap in the face. We are told that this enemy centurion loved the locals, Jewish people–his enemies– and even helped finance a local synagogue.
The centurion’s love of neighbor can be heard echoing in the more famous story about the “Good Samaritan” found later in Luke. The centurion, like the Good Samaritan, is a loathed to the culture non-Jew who acts the role of good neighbor that Jesus calls us all to be . . . so loving we love EVEN our enemies.
The centurion is an example of what we used to call “The man” powerful authority as “Good Samaritan.” He is not the oppressor the first century listeners would have imagined. There’s a huge disconnect between Roman oppressors and this guy. He is doing life right in his time and place. He is a heathen with faith in Jesus, so much so even he can be love in the world and respectful of other faiths and wait patiently and humbly for help from God– through a local poor and homeless nobody to Rome rabbi– Jesus.
This is a very, very uncommon Roman army officer–he represents an early interest in the Jewish Jesus Movement to reach out to Gentiles, to everyone at every level, and treat them as worthy humans. It is virtually unimaginable that a Roman army officer would care about the locals – but the uncommonest thing of all about this Roman is that his efforts at the center of the story are for a slave.
This slave is unworthy as a rule in Roman culture. He’s an expendable nobody. But he is also an expendable nobody to the First Century Palestine culture because he is a Gentile foreigner slave. We do not hear the local religious leaders ask help for the slave, but for the rich benefactor master who owns him. We are told that
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 [Jesus], 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.”
“He,” the centurion, “is worthy,” but the religious leaders say nothing of the worth of the slave. We can presume we are meant to hear that silence as lack-love for the slave, that he did not matter to them, because for goodness sake, he was a nobody-to-two-cultures slave.
But that nobody-to-the-world slave matters so much to the centurion that he humbles himself and seeks help spending a good deal of time and energy and humility for him. And that nobody-to-the-world slave matters so much to Jesus that He left what He was doing; changed course; and began to walk toward the unclean-to-the-culture, enemy household that the slave was in. Then Jesus healed him from afar because an enemy solider had faith and because the slave mattered. See both Jesus and that centurion valued the slave highly and their faith in one another and their love for a human being others would just as soon cast-off, made all the difference. True faith and love know no barriers! That is the theme over and over and over in the Gospels.
The story may seem a bit simple when we first hear it, but it is very complex. In our modern American post-slavery era it would have been far better ending if the slave had been literally set free to be a slave no more, but that modern lens misses the original point of the story. It’s about a very Gentile centurion and a very Jewish Jesus healing and saving from death the lowest of the low to others, a slave. Their actions of care and compassion, alter his de facto slave status even if legally he still remains one. The slave as a slave matters much– and must.
It is a sad and horrifying fact that for most of human history slavery was a legally acceptable practice and at the time Luke was written it was very much part of the culture. Slaves were not equals to anyone but other slaves – unless you are Jesus or one who has faith in Jesus.
And such faith is something that even a Gentile enemy soldier can have – and amazingly– through which love can be created and thrive and transform. It’s a type of love that turns the other cheek to insults, humbles it possessor and makes even a Gentile-nobody-expendable get miraculously treated as an equal and worthy human being— by both earthly and worldly powers. That is the whole thrust of the Gospel, to make the world such a place where earthly powers and heavenly powers operate to save all from oppression and injustice, to tell us to love, love, love, love.
So we hear in this story what that looks like. A Gentile slave is not treated in the cultural fashion of his time. Worldly power done right by “the man;” and Heavenly power done right by the Son of God treat a slave as one of worth who matters equally, no matter what status the rest of world gives him legally or otherwise.
This has long been the message of Judaism. It’s not just in the New Testament but the Old too. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt at a time when gods were thought to only side with the rich and powerful, But they find and experience Yahweh the one true God who sides with the oppressed – the Hebrew slaves and every other oppressed person. The Jewish religion to which Jesus belonged understood God to be an Exodus-wise God, a loving God who cares about justice for slaves and everyone else, including foreigners. So Judaism has these threads of love for neighbor, love for aliens, that are summed up well in the words from Micah on our walls that we are to seek justice and love kindness . . . and walk humbly with God.
Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, lives into these Old Testament teachings. He lives into them. He emphasizes them. He claims that the first shall be last, the lowest form of nobody to the world needs to be the highest form of somebody to us all. That all are to be loved.
So we have this story of a slave to the world being provided respect and dignity, care and compassion by Jesus, yes, but also by Roman power transformed as evidenced by the centurion with faith in Jesus. God’s love is extended through those two polar opposites to the one person they both could have, should have, under cultural rules of the day cast off. This is a story about the promise and miracle-ness of earthly and heavenly powers done well, done right, done Godly. Jesus and “the man” working together for-ever-so-brief a moment in time flip the entire cultural custom and way of treating one another around. As one commentary puts it:
Luke . . .shows that the healing power of God is not bound by space or limited to those who are recognized as God’s people. It is available to all without exception. The centurion has understood this, and in his recognition of Jesus’ status as God’s representative he allows that power to become evident. It is for this reason that Jesus commends his faith. 1.
Through faith in Jesus’s Way the centurion recognizes the worth, the human worth, of his slave and uses all the power of the universe he can access, every chit he has accumulated, and every humbling act he needs to make the very last-to-two-worlds, Gentile slave, become the first to both worlds , and he, the centurion a first level citizen, humbles himself as the unclean last to ask Jesus for help. And Jesus gives it.
Originally this story was heard as the unimaginable happening, a miracle that is not super-natural, but rather natural. Caring treatment of enemies by Jesus of both the high and the low of Rome. And caring treatment by an enemy of both the high and the low of both cultures when the centurion respects both Jesus, an expendable to the Roman world homeless Jew, and a Roman slave, an expendable to the world Gentile nobody.
Jesus’ way is that powerful. Faith in Jesus is that powerful. The high and mighty and earthly powerful–even among enemies– can do good and Godly deeds of love. The low will matter when anyone, anyone has faith . . . trusts . . . Jesus’ Way.
In Jesus there is one way, and it is not the 1970s meaning of “one way” where we have to believe as some church or religious leader says to get heaven after we die. The one way is understanding all as worthy to God and making all worthy to our self. Faith in Jesus requires that understanding and corresponding actions to make it so in the world. That’s what brings heaven about on earth in the here and now.
1. Feasting of the Word, Year c, Vol 3, p 97
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