by Rev. Heather Blais, Rector
Today we return to Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus has just finished giving his Sermon on the Plain, which parallels the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. In his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says:
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).
Jesus, having just barely finished this sermon, arrives in Capernaum and is immediately given the opportunity to practice what he preaches. He was anxiously greeted by some Jewish elders. They were there on behalf of a local centurion, whose beloved slave was ill and near death. The centurion had asked that the Jewish elders appeal to Jesus, requesting that Jesus might heal his beloved slave.
Now, such a request was a bit unorthodox. Afterall, the centurion was not a friend of Jesus or of the Jewish community. The Jewish elders may have seen him as their friend--as he treated the Jewish people well enough and even built their synagogue--but make no mistake, the centurion was no friend of the Jewish community. He was a Gentile, considered unclean by the Jewish community at that point in time.
Yet more importantly, the centurion was an employee of the Roman Empire and reported to the Emperor. He was a Roman officer in charge of a company of 100 soldiers. And while there were no troops on the ground in Galilee, the Roman Empire yielded great power, authority, and control over the Jewish people. There were aspects of Roman rule that were downright oppressive and belittling to the Jewish community.
So while the centurion could never have been a friend, in the most authentic sense of the word, to the Jewish community given his participation, position and power in a corrupt system--he certainly seemed to be neighborly. He treated the Jewish people that he oversaw well, and let them worship their God. He even respected them.
Afterall, he didn’t go to Jesus directly and use his earthly power and authority over Jesus to try and force him to heal his slave. More importantly, as Jesus drew closer to his house, he sent a delegation to greet Jesus, so Jesus would not be required to come into his house. As a Gentile, the centurion’s home would have been considered unclean according to Jewish purity laws. If Jesus entered the house, he would have been considered unclean.
Yet the most amazing part of this entire story is that the centurion believes. He believes that if Jesus merely gives the word, his slave will be healed. We don’t know if the centurion became a follower, or simply remained in the Roman world clinging to that belief in Christ deep within himself. And at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what happened with the centurion. What matters is that his faith amazed Jesus. So much so that he actually heals the centurion’s slave.
This story is a powerful reminder of how much we have to learn from our enemies. For all intents and purposes, the centurion, as an employee of the Roman Empire, was an enemy to Jesus and the Jewish people.
Yet Jesus is compelled by the centurion’s request, and then amazed by the centurion’s faith. It would appear that even Jesus learns in this exchange.
Did Jesus realize when he was giving his Sermon on the Plain and preaching about loving our enemy, that he would have such an opportunity to show his followers how to love our enemy?That in loving our enemy, we are sometimes opened to learning from them? Do you have an enemy that you might learn from?
Last week, I read a reflection by Richard Rohr called, “In the End, It All Comes Down to This” where he reminds us that if we want to love our enemies and be open to learning from them, we have to begin from within ourselves. Jesus certainly did, and I think he asks us to do the same in his Sermon on the Plain.
Rohr says, “We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, not by demanding it of others or trying to force it in others” (Trinity News, 21). Rohr had a few pieces of wisdom when it comes to this work, that I want to share with you. I invite you to take the one that grabs your attention and pray on it this next week. (Trinity News, 21):
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