So a few things:
I really did preach in between these two sermons. But I used notes, and they don’t make a whole lot of sense outside of my head. Sorry.
I have to thank Deirdre Good, my NT prof from seminary, for this reading of the centurion’s slave story. I really like her exegesis of it, and so did my parish. In fact, a couple that’s getting married in October asked to use this gospel at their wedding after this sermon. Awwwwww. 🙂
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
May 29, 2016
Ordinary Time, Proper 3
2 Kings, Luke
I spent the last few days in Las Vegas for a friend’s birthday. (I realize that this sounds like the start of a joke–priest walks into a casino! But it’s true) Every evening, we noticed that there was one guy who would place himself on a corner of the Strip with a ginormous cross, and yell at people through a megaphone.
All the normal stuff–we were all sinners, all going to hell, all in need of a personal relationship with Christ, etc etc. He was a blast.
What was interesting about him, was not only his dedication to his shouting, but how ineffective he was at it. No one stopped to talk to him. No one paid any attention–the Strip in Vegas, after all, is where you can see pretty much every sort of person God created, wandering around in every sort of weird clothing choice available. And a guy yelling in front of a giant cross really isn’t the oddest thing to see–especially when he is yelling about how horrible and condemned you all are. That’s not a good conversation starter. His method seemed really flawed–and on the last night, he changed his tune. He yelled about how to preach the gospel was the greatest task one could engage in. “Oh” I thought. “This made sense. He’s not actually out here for us. He’s doing this for himself.”
But for some reason, this Yelling! Form of evangelism has remained very popular. Elijah himself pioneered it, as we see today. Now–this is an awesome story, because Elijah is the original James Dean of biblical prophets. He wanders around, annoying the king. He summons bears out of the woods to carry off kids who make fun of his baldness. Elijah is great–albeit not a nice guy. And here is no different. Israel is again struggling with whether or not to be faithful to God. The king has married a foreign woman (Jezebel–she’ll earn her reputation in a bit). And as a result, there’s a lot of political pressure to follow her religion, and not the religion of Israel. This really isn’t new.
So Elijah decides to combat this nonsense in flamboyant style–he yells at the opposing priests, taunts their non-existent god, then calls down fire from the sky to consume them. Then, you can probably imagine him strutting off, really proud of himself, and all he accomplished. Because, as we all know–nothing converts people to your cause like intimidation and genocide.
And spoiler alert–worship of other gods continues to be a problem for Israel. While showy, Elijah’s trick here doesn’t actually solve the problem. (And remember–just because someone does A Thing in the Bible, does not mean God likes that Thing, or wants us to replicate it.)
We don’t get the resolution of this story until a few weeks from now.
But I want to point something out. Mount Carmel is where the Elijah story happens–in the north of Galilee. Capernaum is where the Jesus story happens. They’re pretty close together. And growing up in Nazareth, as a good Jewish kid, Jesus would have known this story of Elijah. Would have gone to the Mountain where it happened. Would have maybe wrestled with what Elijah did in the name of God.
So it’s in that context that it’s helpful to look at the story from Luke. Because on the surface, it’s not so complicated–it looks like another healing story. A Roman centurion has a slave that’s sick, and he wants him to be healed, so Jesus heals him. No biggie–happens a lot.
But there are some weirdnesses about this story. First of all, the Roman centurion–a high-ranking army official from the army that was occupying the town–first goes to the Jewish elders for help, and asks them to intercede for him. He’s definitely not one of them–he’s not Jewish, he’s even part of foreign government sent to oppress the Jewish Israelites, yet he gets along well with the local population.
And also–it’s not usual for an army official to intercede for a slave like this. The language he uses (in Greek) is pretty emphatic–this part about ‘a slave whom he valued highly’–literally, “who was precious to him”. The centurion himself refers to the slave as “my boy” which makes it even more unusual. Slaves were nice to have–but the way this guy fights for his is similar to how parents intercede for their children, or spouses intercede for each other, in other healing stories. This makes some scholars believe that the centurion has a romantic relationship with the boy–which wouldn’t have been unusual in Greco-Roman culture…but would not have been so proper in nice Jewish culture.
And so, Jesus is basically talking to the sort of person that Elijah would have definitely burned to a crisp. From most outward appearances, the centurion needs to get yelled at, if Jesus is an old-school prophet.
Yet, that’s not what he does. Jesus talks to him. Listens to what he has to say. And instead of chastising him, or reminding him of how horrible he is–Jesus shows him mercy. Jesus shows him love, and heals the boy.
Because, it turns out the centurion didn’t need convincing of his unworthiness. He knew it already. Getting a lesson in how wicked you are wasn’t what he needed–what he needed was someone to show him the love of God in that moment. That had the power to transform his life.
There is enough in the world that communicates how awful we are. The world doesn’t need more of that. The world doesn’t need more people screaming about how wretched we are. What the world needs–what has the power to transform it–is each of us embodying the love of God for one another. Not waiting for preconditions to be met, not insisting on a level of compliance or righteousness–but simply loving one another.
That changes the world. That changes lives. That’s what we’re called to do.