The story is pretty simple. Jesus is up there in the northern part of the country, not far from his home town of Nazareth. It’s early in his ministry before he’s gone on down south to Jerusalem.
One day some highly placed religious leaders – elders in the synagogue - came to Jesus with a message. They had been sent by a Roman centurion and they asked Jesus to heal the servant of the centurion who was very ill – about to die. And in case there should be any doubt about this, or in case Jesus might be inclined to deny his request, the elders also added that the Roman centurion was sympathetic to the Jews and had even built a Jewish synagogue. So Jesus went with them to the centurion’s home. It wasn’t far, but on the way there, a very humble message came from the Centurion telling Jesus not to bother to come – he didn’t have to take time out of his very busy schedule to come. But if Jesus would only say the word, he knew his servant would be healed. And Jesus turns to the crowd that was following him (you remember that there were always crowds of people surrounding him wherever he went) He turns to the crowd and says, “I haven’t found this kind of faith anywhere in Israel.” Which would have been deeply offensive to the crowds of Jewish people who were surrounding him.
And the next thing we know, the servant is completely healed and entirely well. And Jesus goes on down the road to a village called Nain and there he brings back to life a young man who had died and was actually on his way – being brought to the cemetery.
But here’s the story behind the story.
If we had been in that crowd of people with Jesus that day we might have heard some comments. Some protests. Some strong protests. We might have heard people say to Jesus, “Don’t you know who this man is? He’s a Gentile. Didn’t your mother ever teach you the difference between Jews and Gentiles? This man doesn’t follow our customs. He doesn’t worship with us. He doesn’t know our Scriptures and he doesn’t obey our laws. He eats pork! He does all sorts of things our scriptures tell us not to do. Don’t you know that Jews don’t associate with Gentiles? We don’t go into their homes, or eat with them or talk with them on the street or have any contact with them at all. Our laws strictly forbid that we should do such things. Don’t you know that? So why would you go to his house? Even if he did build us a synagogue. This is a betrayal of everything we’ve been taught in our scriptures for hundreds and hundreds of years.” Somebody would probably have said that.
And somebody else in the crowd would say, “The man is a Roman! Where have you been all your life, Jesus? Don’t you know that the Romans have come sweeping across our country, overpowering us? Their governors have taken over our cities and they’re writing our laws to their own advantage. We’re paying outrageous taxes that go straight all the way to Rome and we’re being bled to death. We have to pay taxes to use our own roads and to sell our own merchandize and produce. And have you seen that gigantic extravagant, magnificent palace that Herod has built right there in our own back yard, Jesus? That we are paying for. Your good Jewish neighbors in Nazareth are literally starving to death and he’s building his huge, magnificent, elaborate palace. And you want to even talk to one of those Romans? You want to heal his servant?” They would say to Jesus “Aren’t there enough little Jewish boys with epilepsy for you to cure? Or aren’t there enough disabled Jewish beggars in the streets for you to attend to, or enough Jewish women with serious medical conditions? Everywhere you go Jewish people are clutching at your clothing and listening to what you have to say. A whole country full of Jewish people needs you desperately. Do you have to heal this Roman?” Somebody very well may have said.
And then they would want to say to Jesus, “And besides all that, the man is a Centurion. He’s a soldier. He’s the commanding officer of a hundred other soldiers, all based twenty-five miles from your home in Nazareth, Jesus. Surely have seen them. Surely you have met them on the streets. He’s the commanding officer of the men who are harassing your mother and your sisters in the streets. His soldiers are demanding huge bribes from your father and your brothers – just to guarantee their physical safety. Why would you want to heal his servant?” They might very well have said.
And we today know more of the story. And we want to say to Jesus: “These are the men who rounded you up that night in the garden of Gethsemane while you were praying. These are the men who hauled you off to be tried in the court system in the middle of the night. These are the men who pounded spikes in your hands and feet and hung you on a cross. These are the men who stood in their places at the foot of your cross and gawked at you and watched your agony for six hours while you died. And while they waited for you to die they entertained themselves by dividing up your clothing and shouting insults at you. Are you sure you want to go out of your way to heal one of them?” We would say.
And Jesus looks at us in that way that the does and he says, “Yes, I healed that man. Yes, I responded to the request of a Gentile, Roman, soldier. I healed his servant. And what I discovered is that that Gentile, Roman soldier has more faith than any of the rest of you. Who keep all the laws, and know all the scriptures and can recite them. You’re very careful who you associate with. You hang out with all the right people and you stay away from the wrong people. That Gentile, Roman, soldier has more faith than any of you. And God’s love reaches all the way to this Gentile, Roman, soldier.
And we shake our heads because we do not understand and we can’t imagine it. And we acknowledge that there are a lot of things about the Upside down topsy turvey kingdom of God that we do not understand.
So your assignment for this week or this month, or for the season of Lent. Your assignment is to think about people whom you might consider to be far from God. People way outside of the boundaries we sometimes construct for God. Way outside of God’s love. People whom we think God would never claim. Because of where they live or what they believe or how they behave.
And then sit in front of God with that for a bit and see what God says to you.