Breaking Down the Walls of Fear – Br. Jim Woodrum
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1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Many of you will know that four of us brothers recently returned from leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. With the exception of that wild and dangerous frontier to the north of us known as Canada, it was my first trip out of the country. And for my maiden journey across the world, it was epic. I have been asked many times what part of the experience was most significant for me. I’d like to say it was touching the rock of Golgotha; or renewing my baptismal vows on the banks of the river Jordan; or perhaps even the celebrations of Eucharist on the Mount of the Beatitudes and at Emmaus. And yes, all of these were greatly poignant but in a way that I expected them to be.
What I didn’t expect was the immense sadness I felt in the presence of the wall dividing Israelis from Palestinians. I am embarrassed to say that I have not paid much attention to the situation there mainly because of the daunting layers of the geographical, cultural, and political climates of that region. If you are one who knows little about that difficult and complex situation, where do you even begin? But also, and perhaps to be more shamefully honest, it’s easy to be apathetic when it’s not your neighborhood. If it doesn’t directly affect you; if it’s thousands of miles away, then you can go on blissfully with life as usual. This was my attitude until I stood in front of this cement wall with prayers for peace painted in graffiti along its expanse.Suddenly, I was aware of all the media coverage I had selectively ignored over the years. Certainly, there are many valid arguments that support the existence of the wall and equally as many that support its removal. The situation is not black and white. But in spite of these arguments, in the tension of that present moment, what the wall represented to me was palpable: fear of the other.
Perhaps it is not unlike the fear that existed in that region in Jesus’ day. There was no affection between the Jews and Gentiles. The Roman occupiers terrorized the Jews into submission, enslaving and murdering the people, crucifying people beside public roads for all to witness.[i] There were many Jews such as tax collectors who colluded with Rome to stay safe taking extra cuts to pad their own wallets. The Jews viewed Gentiles as unclean and were not permitted to enter their homes or places of business for fear of ritual defilement. There were deep divisions of caste among the Jewish people and if you were poor, sick, uneducated, or unable to keep to the letter of the Law, you were considered anathema and were cast out of society, placing you in a very awkward and vulnerable position. It is in light of this fear that makes the story about the Roman Centurion and Jesus so curious.
Both Matthew and Luke remember this story. In Matthew’s telling, the Centurion approaches Jesus and asks him to heal his servant. Jesus’ immediate reply to his request is yes. But the Centurion tells Jesus that even though he is a man of authority and power, he is not worthy for Jesus’ to enter his house, but he knows that Jesus can simply speak the word and his servant will be healed. Amazed by this man’s faith Jesus agrees: “And to the Centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that same hour.”[ii] The gospel of Matthew was written for the Jewish audience, people who were coming to have faith in Jesus yet who were processing their conversion through the lens of Jewish Law. Power and most especially authority would be strong concerns for this audience.
But unlike Matthew’s gospel, the gospel of Luke was written for a Gentile audience. The writer of Luke was concerned with how “the other” fit into the God’s kingdom and so we notice that there are slight differences in his account of this same story.[iii] In Luke’s telling, the Centurion and Jesus never meet each other. The Centurion’s case is presented to Jesus by two groups of intermediaries, and it is through them that we learn about this man. A Roman Centurion was a man of great military prowess who was respected by his peers.[iv]He would be very astute not only in the strategies of war, but also in the geography, politics, and culture of the land under his occupation. This Centurion knows of this itinerant rabbi and that He has a great following in the region,because that is part of his job; therefore, he has heard of Jesus’ acts of healing. So he sends a delegation of Jewish elders with a request for Jesus to heal his slave. “When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’” Not only was this Centurion shrewd in his knowledge of the land but it can be said that he was compassionate toward the people under his charge.
Perhaps it is this compassionate plea by His own people that captures Jesus’ curiosity. Jesus follows their lead to the Centurion’s house but on the way is met by a second delegation, made up this time of the Centurion’s own friends. Speaking to Jesus in the first person they tell him: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” By this, we can see that the Centurion is sensitive that Jesus being a religious Jew might consider a Gentile home to be unclean. Similar to the Matthean account, the Centurion recognizes through the experience of his own social position the power and authority that Jesus is entrusted with. Amazed, Jesus says to all those who had followed Him there, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
So how might we pray with this gospel lesson from Luke? Well first ask yourself: Who is “the other” in my life? Who do I view with a posture of ambivalence, caution, or fear? Where do I find myself building a wall in order to stay guarded? If you have been paying attention to American politics as of late, you’ll know that when fear is used as a tactic to get votes, even the most ludicrous possibilities can become realities. Considering who is leading in the polls, the building of walls to keep out those we fear is not an unfounded possibility. Our gospel lesson from Luke informs the notion that reaching out to those whom we don’t understand or view with caution may break down the barriers of our preconceived notions and provide a way forward together: In the case of the Jewish elders it was the fact that this Centurion was sympathetic to their needs even to the point of building a synagogue for them to worship. For the Centurion it may have been that even a religious Jew acting in a posture of mercy and compassion would enter his household for the sake of healing. How might this gospel inform our faith in people of different cultures, religions, and beliefs? How might this gospel encourage us in our relationships to those we feel alienated or estranged? How might “the other” fear you? And is that fear grounded?
And a second thing to consider in your prayer is: what in my life is in need of healing? Over what in my life do I have little or no control? What is striking about the Centurion is that in spite of all his power and authority, he is in touch with his humanity. He knows he has limits and that at least in this one instance, he is powerless. This is something that has brought him to his knees. And so he hands the situation over to someone whom he knows to be more powerful than himself. He offers his helplessness to Jesus and says, “….but only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
How this healing will happen for us and in what time is a mystery. In the Lukan account, Jesus pronounces no word of healing but the gospel writer says: “When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.” When you come forward to the altar in a few moments, lift up your hands and give to God that which cannot control, and then receive a piece of bread with the assurance that God will redeem and transfigure that to which you have entrusted Him. Perhaps you could make this prayer by Rheinhold Niebhur your own prayer. Let us pray: GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.[v]
[i]Horsley, Richard A. Galilee: History, Politics, People. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity International, 1995. Print.
[iii] Musser, Donald W. “A Theological Perspective on Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Gospels. Ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. Print.
[iv]Barcay, William. The Gospel of Luke. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001. Print.
[v]Neibuhr, Rheinhold. “The Serenity Prayer.” The Original Serenity Prayer. SandersWeb.net, 2004. Web. 31 May 2016.
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Thank you brother Jim for putting into words some of the feelings I had on our pilgrimage. The image of the wall particularly with the political conversation now about building walls is incredibly troublesome. Your words have brought insight into where Jesus is in this painful situation. What a blessing to give to God the many things we cannot control and to be grateful that we are not in control as we in our humanness might just continue to build walls.