Foreigners have always been a problem. They have a different language, customs, cuisine, and ways of life; their houses often smell different and we can’t understand them; and the difference is often jarring. Those who presume themselves natives often ask, “Why did they have to come here? What good are those Irish? What benefit are the Italians? If we elect a Catholic as president, he’ll take his orders straight from Rome? Won’t the onslaught of Mexicans and Syrians destroy our way of life, put our nation at risk, and take away our jobs?”
There is nothing new about xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Even in the Winnie the Pooh stories, Rabbit gets nervous and devises a plot to banish Kanga and Roo from the 100 Aker Wood – after all they’re strangers and they hop all around, and who knows what they’ll do to destroy our way of life.
But, the worst kind of stranger is an invader. Someone who comes onto your land, takes over your government, forces you to pay taxes to support the troops that oppress you, and confiscates your property to raise money to enhance the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Most Romans were hated, and they deserved it. They were brutal and arrogant.
Jesus lived his whole life under the flag of an oppressor. He had no rights and could be conscripted for service at the whim of any Roman official. Some of Jesus’ followers were sympathetic to revolutionary movements, whose goal was to violently overturn Roman rule. Others were waiting for the Messiah, the hoped for ruler who would obliterate the Roman military and establish a golden age for Israel. Some of Jesus’ own followers even thought that Jesus might be that Messiah, and that he would be the King of the Jews.
Jesus felt the pain and uncertainty of oppression. He may even have been stopped on the street for no apparent reason and threatened with arrest if he stepped out of line. In that environment, fear and hate coexist, along with hopelessness at the realization that the oppressor is here to stay.
Some Romans are better than others. But, just being a Roman – especially a Roman soldier, even a kind one – still meant that, when push comes to shove, his loyalty to Rome would trump is concern for his Jewish neighbors.
It is in this context that a centurion, a decent man supportive of Jewish community projects, and the commanding officer of one hundred soldiers, comes to see Jesus on behalf of his slave. The centurion cared for his slave – he valued him highly and in more than material ways – but the relationship was still unequal. One commanded, even gently; the other obeyed!
Still, life-threatening illness equalizes humanity. In the cancer ward, there are few distinctions, except comfort level and insurance, between Sam Walton, and an unemployed office worker, both dying of bone cancer. Alzheimer’s debilitates Ronald Reagan and also an elderly farm worker. The centurion is panicking – he is fearful for this young man’s life is hanging in the balance. No one has been able to help him, and no medical intervention by authorized Roman physicians has made any difference. Only one outcome seems likely, and that is death.
Despite all his power, the centurion feels helpless and needs a power greater than himself. He needs the power of God, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth to bring healing to his beloved servant.
The Roman leader first sends emissaries to the Healer. Although the centurion has military power, Jesus has the real power – the power of life and death, and can say “no”. Moreover the centurion recognizes that he is unclean, ritually speaking, to most Jews – and that despite his kindness to the Jewish people – he represents bloodthirsty Rome. Just coming into Jesus’ house would contaminate the household, according to more traditional members of the Jewish community.
The soldier throws himself entirely on Jesus’ mercy – “Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus responds with appreciation and affirmation: Jesus’ love breaks down boundaries. In that moment time and space, oppressor and oppressed, clean and unclean, make no difference – Jesus’ healing energy restores the young man to life.
This passage is a theological and spiritual goldmine, and I want to address three key issues. The first is ethical and political. Remember Ronald Reagan’s words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” Tearing down the Berlin Wall is easy compared to tearing down the walls of fear, hate, and prejudice. But, Jesus tears down every wall: everyone belongs to God’s realm – there is room for a Syrian refugee and a Guatemalan family crossing the border; there is room for gay and lesbian couples, and persons struggling with their sexual identity; there is room for those who support Bernie and Hillary and the Donald; there is room for all God’s children to experience Jesus’ healing love.
Second, our faith makes a difference. I grew up with the refrigerator magnet motto, “prayer changes things.” Prayer as an act of faith can change cells as well as souls. Our prayers aren’t omnipotent, but they create a field of force, a loving energy around those for whom we pray and around us, that enables God’s energy to burst forth in surprising ways.
Finally, there is no distance in love and prayer. Studies suggest that intercessory prayer – described as “distant intentionality” by scientists – can make a difference in the health conditions of those for whom we pray, whether they are next to us or across the globe. We live in a tightly woven universe in which every feeling of love makes a difference.
What does this all mean? Can this scripture change our lives? I believe so – again, in three ways. First, practice hospitality. Welcome strangers, learn from diversity, explore the joys of ethnicity and race. After proper vetting is done, and we are insured of safety, welcome the immigrant and refugee as a brother and sister.
Second, have faith. That is, look to the positive. Trust that God is with you. See the best in yourself and others. Look for openings and not dead ends.
Finally, recognizing that we are all connected and that small acts can make a difference across the globe, live positively. Pray the news as you listen. Pray for the leaders of the world. Pray for the sick and the troubled. Let every interruption call you to prayer, and to attentiveness to God’s love.
That day, the impossible happened. A young man was healed at a distance. Such impossibilities still happen when we break down barriers, welcome strangers, and pray, trusting God’s love with all our hearts. Walls collapse, bridges are built, and healings happen – and we become God’s partners in healing the world.