On the surface, this story seems to be, again, one of those amazing, spectacular “miracle stories” of Jesus – that Jesus can heal someone even from a distance. Merely by mention of a word, and not even being right there in the same room with the person, touching the person, holding the person, looking into their eyes, Jesus heals the slave in the story, while being physically, geographically, separated.
Only by mention of a word, the slave is healed.
Amazing, we think.
But thinking a bit more about it, we realize that what’s really at the centre of the story, is the centurion’s faith and trust, in God. He trusts that Jesus can heal his slave by just a mention of the word.
What an amazing, inspiring, trust that is!
It’s made all the more amazing the fact that this centurion was a “religious outsider” to begin with. The centurion was a Roman, belonging to the militia of King Herod Antipas, living in the fishing village of Capernaum on the shores of Lake Galilee. A non-Jew. An outsider to the established Hebrew religion of the day.
And yet, this centurion really liked the Jewish community in Capernaum. He had a real attraction to, and affection for, his Jewish neighbours in Capernaum, and their religion – the monotheism (worship of one God), and the ethical teachings and commandments of the Torah. He liked his neighbours and their religion, so much so that he completely financed and built the synagogue in Capernaum, for the Jews to worship in!
Imagine that! A non-Jew, building for the Jewish community, their new synagogue.
What love and generosity!
As I imagine this situation, what impresses me is this centurion’s openness to his Jewish neighbours. Not a whiff of hostility, or suspicion, or fear, or coldness. But rather a warmth, a neighbourliness, a care and high respect.
He didn’t allow his Roman military identity lead to some kind of hostile, distant, “I’m-better-than-you” attitude toward the Capernaum Jews.
Instead, this non-religious, non-Jew, in fact and ironically, was demonstrating the very fullness of the love and compassion which stand at the heart of Torah, the Jewish religion, and the ways of Jesus. This Gospel passage describes a man who is the epitome of Judeo-Christian spirituality: one who is hospitable, generous to those around him, compassionate toward those weaker than him, and kind toward those of different ethnicity.
And, he shows immense respect for, and trust in Jesus, that Jesus is able to heal the centurion’s slave “by only speaking the word.” It’s remarkable, I think, that the Gospel-writer, Luke, chose to highlight this particular centurion – this unexpected “outsider”– as the example, the “model” of someone having bold trust in the goodness and power of God.
What does it mean for us today to follow the example of this centurion – to look to our neighbours around us, however “different” they may be – ethnically, physically, mentally, psychologically – and to see in them “the face of Christ”, to see in them goodness, value, wisdom?
What does it mean for us today to follow the example of the centurion’s self-awareness – to embrace in ourselves, the unique, the “different” and “other”; to realize that we are just as unique, odd and different to other people, as they are to us; and, yet, regardless, to come together in mutual support and encouragement?
What does it mean for us today to follow the example of the centurion’s trust in God?
In the midst of crisis, stress or despair, to nevertheless look to Jesus and be able to say: “Just speak the word, Lord.” To look to Jesus, and say, “We will trust you God, and keep putting one foot in front of the other, not knowing exactly how things will turn out, but knowing that You O God are walking beside us, freeing us from crushing fear and anxiety, and freeing us to be fully who we were created to be for the sake of the well-being of the world!”
I recently read about how lobsters used to be hunted generations ago in the Greek Islands of the Aegean Sea. Lobster hunters would free dive into the water and into the underwater coral caves. Typically, these divers would have to swim into underwater dark tunnels, some of them quite long, and where it’s impossible to know initially whether there’s an exit, or a dead-end.
When these divers would swim into a tunnel, they know there’d be a point of no return, when you’d no longer have enough breath to turn around and double back. There’d be a point of no return, where one would need to decide, either to risk it, and to trust that there’s an exit farther down, and just swim on blindly, or, to go back. But once a diver has decided to go forward, he’s committed, and the only choice is to swim forward into the unknown…and pray for an exit.
As scary as this image seems to be, it makes me think about what trusting in God is all about. Even though we may be afraid or uncertain, we step forward anyway, placing our whole lives and selves into the hands of God, resting in God’s grace and mercy, trusting that God is already out there, ahead of us.
When I hear or read about Christian congregations and leaders today…
…reaching out to local Muslim communities and Imams,
…of Pastors and Imams having lunch together, pledging support and friendship to each other,
…of Christian and Muslim faith communities having joint potlucks and different cultural meals together,
…being neighbourly and friendly, and caring for each other,
– these examples show how followers of Jesus today have trusted God enough to break out of the “safe and familiar,” and to move into “unknown territory”, and to trust that God is already out there, ahead of us, filling the world and others with grace and goodness.
Author Brian McLaren put it best: “In doing so we experience the profound belonging that Jesus called “My Father’s House,” in which there is no hostility, only hospitality. There we experience God’s welcoming embrace of us … but not only of us: of all the others too.”
In doing so, we truly follow Jesus, who time and time again, in his own ministry two thousand years ago in the dusty roads and villages of Palestine, embraced the “different”, the “other,” who reached out to heal the sick and the suffering, who preached good news to the poor, and who, on the cross, opened his arms to all.