As a pastor, my heart is to offer some word to you all that will inspire and give you some encouragement and hope, and maybe challenge you a little. What that word specifically becomes is dependent on a couple things—first, obviously, is that the Spirit of God needs to guide our conversation. So there’s a lot of prayer that goes into forming the message. The second thing is an awareness of what you all are going through. It’s important that the message speaks to where we all are and what we are experiencing. It’s the second part that I’ve been having trouble with. With all the quarantine stuff and the “social distancing,” I’ve felt a little cut off, a feeling I’m sure you’re all too familiar with as well. I don’t feel as connected as I normally do, and so I have to take my best guess about what you are going through, and try to speak to that experience. And I might be a little off target, and for that I hope you’ll forgive me. If you’re getting a little tired of me talking about the topics that keep coming up in my mind, hopefully we’ll have more to talk about in the weeks to come as we reconnect.
In the interest of hopefully giving us something else to think about, I’m not going to talk about the coronavirus situation this week. Instead, I want to look at an interesting passage of scripture found in Matthew, and invite us to think about it. It’s in Matthew 8:5-13, the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant. The way the story goes, as Jesus enters Capernaum, this centurion comes up to him and asks him to heal his servant. There’s this interesting conversation about authority, and how the centurion understands the way Jesus has power over sickness. The centurion wants Jesus to just say the word and he knows that his servant will be healed, even from a distance. Jesus doesn’t have to come to the man’s house, doesn’t have to lay hands on the servant. A word will do. And Jesus is amazed at the centurion’s confidence in His healing power. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
Now, when we look at this story, we’re probably struck by the faith element. It’s a pretty big thing to have that kind of faith—that you know that if Jesus only speaks the word, that healing will happen. We often struggle with that level of belief, we’re not so confident that Jesus has good things in store for us. We understand it on some level, but we often just go about securing our own good, leaving Jesus out of it. But the interesting thing about this story is that for the original audience, faith was not the central element. What was more compelling was the person who had the faith.
Matthew’s Gospel has a few passages that are a little troublesome for us as Gentiles. In Matthew 10, when Jesus sends out the disciples to engage in some missionary work, He explicitly tells them to go only to the Jews. “Don’t go to the Gentiles, or even the Samaritans,” He says. Then, later in chapter 15, there’s this account of a Canaanite woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus responds to her saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” There’s this theme of Gentile exclusion that keeps popping up, and often it’s Jesus Himself that’s presenting it. Most Biblical scholars suppose that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish Christian community that was struggling a little to differentiate themselves from the synagogue system that had come into prominence after the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. So all the talk in Matthew about the actions and resistance of the Jews was directed at this conflict in the original community that received the Gospel. On one level, it’s all about this inter-Jewish debate—Gentiles are on the outside.
But there’s another theme that keeps showing up, too. And you see it in this story about the centurion. Imagine Matthew sitting down to write this big story about Jesus. And he knows his people, and knows what they are going through. So his story is going to be a mixture of what he believes they need to hear, and what the Spirit lays on his heart that they have to hear. This is where context is important to interpretation. Underlying the conflict between the traditional, synagogue Jews and the Jewish Christian community is this enormous, foundational conflict between everybody and Rome. Both traditional and Christian Jews would have had a pretty deep-seated animosity toward Romans. It was one thing they could agree on—everyone hated the Romans. If there were a hierarchy of people you didn’t associate with as a Jew, Romans would be near the top of the list.
So it’s pretty fascinating that Matthew is singling out this Roman centurion as one who has greater faith than anyone else in Israel. For a group of people that were struggling to define their community—debating which Jews were welcome and which Jews weren’t—a Roman centurion wouldn’t have even registered on the horizon of inclusion. Matthew seems to have known exactly what his congregation needed to hear, and that message was a message that the love of God reaches beyond just the people we want to love, and includes those we choose to hate. Matthew is pretty intentional in including this account as a counterpoint to the conversations about inclusion that were probably happening in his community. And it’s probably a reminder to us—the Spirit speaking across the centuries. When Jesus reaches across the boundaries of the community and commends, even embraces, those on the outside, then what are we to do? I won’t try to go into the complexities of what that embrace might look like, or talk about the tension between loving acceptance and the need for holiness in the family of faith. That may be for another time. Today, it’s all about that first step—considering love as a replacement for rejection, ambivalence or even hatred.
In our lives, there are people that we don’t get along with, who have viewpoints or outlooks or backgrounds we can’t accept. We’re frustrated by the way they don’t see things our way. And in a contentious and argumentative culture, where ideologies battle it out in the public arena and on the television, it’s a little too easy to believe that Jesus couldn’t have sent us to witness to them. But be mindful of Matthew’s words. He witnessed Jesus commending the very person that every patriotic Jew was supposed to hate. He saw Jesus’ love reaching beyond the comfortable to the inconceivable. And Matthew probably wanted to challenge his people to aspire to that same love. So who are we being called to love?