What is a miracle? At its most basic definition we could say a miracle is something that we cannot understand. For some of us, the sun raising every morning is a miracle. For others who really understand the way the earth rotates may not see it so much as a miracle, but perhaps more of an inevitability. For some bringing home their child is a miracle they long for, and for others bringing home their child is a burden they are afraid to bear.
So much of what we see and experience like running clean water, ipads, instant rice would be miraculous in other settings, but to us its everyday stuff.
Today’s passage is about a miracle, a healing, but what has stood out to me in the study of this passage is the viewpoints expressed surrounding the miracle.
A leader in the Roman army sends word to Jesus asking for the healing of a servant in his household. This doesn’t really seem like much to us, but in Jesus’ day this would have been unusual to say the least. This man for all intents and purposes was the enemy, the occupying force in the Hebrew land. He was a member of the military, not a higher up, but a middle manager who was directly responsible for troops and responsible to his own leader. Nothing on the surface about this man should have granted him access to Jesus or any Jewish Religious leader. On the surface.
When we stop on the surface we struggle to see the true value in some people. When we look only at the outside we deny the possibility of something more, something greater than first glances and quick judgement.
I watched a man run out of Target the other day chasing a woman with her small child. He was in workout wear, not the best kept, but not unclean. He was yelling “Wait, stop” My first thought was not the most generous to the man. I was looking around to see what would happen and I grabbed my phone to prepare to call the police if things took a turn for the worse. The woman seemed hesitant, but turned back to look at him. As he approached her she pulled her child closer and reached for her keys. And that’s when she realized they were not in her pocket, they were in this young man’s hands. She had left them at the checkout in her rush to gather her purchases and her child. He was returning them to her, doing a good deed. And she, and I had at first glance judged that he was someone with less than good intentions.
The centurion in the scriptures was probably expecting a less than stellar response from Jesus, so he sends some people to vouch for him. He, it turns out, has been a supporter of the Jewish people, even going so far as to help with the building or financing of the synagogues. He wants to put his best foot forward and knows that as someone who had been helpful to the community others will be willing to help him.
But as time draws closer something happens. He sends a delegation to Jesus telling them not to come to his home. He says that he is not worthy of Jesus’ presence and that he knows if Jesus will but speak the words, his servant will be healed.
This raises a lot of red flags for me. Why would he not want Jesus to visit his house? Was he afraid others might see Jesus and word would get back to his commanding officers? Was he afraid of the backlash of having a prominent Jewish teacher in his home? Was the servant who was sick his housekeeper and so his place was a wreck and he was ashamed for Jesus to see it in such disrepair? Why would he suddenly descide that the trip wasn’t worth Jesus’ time?
I’ll admit I’ve let this portion of the scripture bother me too much this week. But in some of my researched I learned something that I had not considered before. Perhaps, just perhaps he was showing grace to Jesus by telling him not to come. If Jesus had entered a gentiles house, the house of the infidel, the enemy, he would have been seen as unclean. There would have been religious and social consequences for this action. This centurion, who had helped build the synagogue would have known some of the purity codes the Jewish people followed. Could he perhaps have wanted to save Jesus the issues surrounding entering his house?
Jesus does not seem to question his motives. In fact, Jesus praises this enemy of Israel saying “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” There is something about this exchange that shows Jesus a faith he has not yet encountered. This man, outside in every since of the word, somehow has a faith that surpasses all of Israel.
Here we find Jesus praising this faith and then healing the servant. The two never meet, never shake hands. Jesus doesn’t touch the servant or give any extra instructions. He is amazed, heals and moves on.
And I’ll admit, this is what troubles me the most about this passage. There is no admonishment to go and sin no more. There are no instructions to sell all you have and follow me. There are no words of calling that come from Jesus’ mouth. Jesus is amazed at this outsiders faith, holds it up to be praised and goes on his way.
I’m not really sure what to do with that. Does this mean that there are those that are not followers of Jesus but might still have the faith that amazes even God? Does God use people from outside the known boundaries to share the gospel? Why would Jesus heal a servant in that household, the household of the oppressors? Was it because the servant was Jewish? And there really are so many more questions that fill my thoughts. And honestly, I have no answers. And that’s okay. Sometimes part of our faith is in the not knowing, in the questioning, in the stretching of our minds and hearts.
The church I learned faith from stretched that faith by participating in Habitat for Humanity frequently. It became one of the go-to churches for the local Habitat leaders as far as seeking volunteers, finances and other efforts. One such effort was a house that they built after 9/11 with the local Mosque and Synagogue called the House of Abraham. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was the church who joined with these two other organizations in providing a home for a family in the area. The relationships that were formed during that time were a testament to real faith. They all asked God’s blessing upon this family and the dwelling being built, and while all three groups met with opposition from members of their own religions they did not pull out of the project, but instead insisted that God was there in that work.
God was there, present, working through these people of faith to give shelter to the homeless, cloth the naked and give food and water to a family in need. Where people had drawn lines, these religious groups boldly stepped across them.
We like to draw lines of in and out, us vs them but as a seminary professor, Dr. Priebe, has said “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”
I think there is a lot of truth to those words. God’s ways are not our ways. God does not have the same criteria, the same thoughts, the same ways as us, and boy am I thankful for that!
I think at its heart this is a story about grace. Grace shared, by both the centurion and by Jesus. It’s about faith that moves mountains, even the mountains of social norms and expectations. And even with the questions it raises, its value to us as Christians today is tremendous.
May we strive to have the faith of the centurion, faith to step out of what we know and trust in the wildness and unpredictability of God. May we stop drawing lines and instead join Jesus on the outside!