Humble Recognition – Br. Jim Woodrum
In our lection from Matthew this morning we observe something in Jesus that is rarely expressed in the gospels: we see a display of emotion. Other instances include Jesus feeling compassion: as in the hungry crowds who endlessly follow or seek an audience with him. Or in the case of the rich young ruler who when asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, the gospel of Mark says that Jesus loved him before telling him to go and sell all his goods then follow him. With all the dinner invitations Jesus received, I am sure there had to be some merriment and laughter during his ministry and I wish we had a confirmation that Jesus did in fact share a good chuckle with his friends. We know that in John’s gospel, Jesus wept in grief over the sadness surrounding the death of his friend, Lazarus. Today, we hear that Jesus was amazed. What is it exactly that could amaze the incarnation of God?
In this story we observe two men, from two cultures, sharing the same geography. Both men are powerful; both men have authority; both men have a following. From the outset, it may look as if the only thing different about them are how they look. One man is a Roman centurion, an enforcer of the Roman occupation of Palestine, a Gentile dressed in the finest uniform of the Roman army which displays his elite social status. The other man is an itinerant rabbi, a teacher and reformer, a Jew dressed in the clothes of nomad. The one thing they have in common is humility.
Jesus has displayed his humility in the willingness to reach the most disenfranchised of his people. In the reading just prior to our gospel this morning, we observe Jesus grant the request of a leper who asks to be made clean. Lepers were outcasts of society due to the vileness of their disease which was highly contagious and for which there was no cure. Jesus not only confronts the man who requests to be healed, but actually touches him in the process. This alone would have made Jesus ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the temple leaders and unfit to enter the temple. Yet Jesus heals him and tells him to go show himself to the temple leaders and to give his gift in thanksgiving
If Jesus has no qualm about touching a leper in order to heal him, then it should not surprise us that he would not hesitate to enter the house of a Gentile Centurion in order to fill a request for mercy and heal his slave. But the Centurion, whose uniform reflected the cruel and unjust occupation of Jesus’ people and culture, displays an extraordinary faith, not only by requesting from this itinerant rabbi an act of mercy, but by also understanding that it would be an act of ritual defilement for Jesus to enter his home.[i] He explains that he understands that Jesus is a man of power and authority, that the two are virtually identical in their positions among their respective peoples. The difference is the Centurion is experiencing a crisis he cannot solve and that Jesus word will be enough to make things right. This amazes Jesus, and in this instant, we observe these very different men caught in a glance of recognition. Jesus pauses and can not help but to express his amazement that this centurion would lay aside his reputation and ask for an act of mercy from one he was sworn to oppress.
This story is an icon of mercy and humility. It has much to teach us about power and authority, the poor and disenfranchised. It shows us that we are all capable of acts of kindness, humility, justice. Perhaps we can too can heal with just a word: a word of encouragement, a word of regret and reconciliation, a word of understanding, or even an act of silent compassion, abiding with someone in their pain. Maybe we can show the mercy and humility of Jesus by wearing a mask to protect others, or taking a knee in non-violent protest with our black sisters and brothers. Perhaps we too can channel the humble glance of our Savior towards another who even though they look different, is a fellow child of God.
[i] Carl, William J. “A Theological Perspective on Matthew 8:5-17.” Feasting on the Gospels. Ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. Print.
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My parish’s vestry spent half their meeting last week discussing ‘authority’ and how it is exercised in a small parish with no called priest and a congregation of people who glide easily in and out of positions of power as their gifts call them. I’m trying to imagine a world in which reactions to a story like this one formed an essential part of the initial job interview for future police and military personnel. If it were, we would never have to worry again about the culture of swagger, bullying and cruelty that so pervades the exercise of secular ‘authority’ (which is really simply power) in our time, and which a certain kind of ‘christianity’ supports and reinforces.