When peeking through a 2000-year-old window, it’s a good idea to polish up the glass. So, let’s get out the cleaning rags to help us read today’s story, about a centurion — by definition a Gentile, in the Roman military’s mid-management ranks — who has approached Jesus and asked him to heal his servant, who is lying at home paralyzed.
That right there seems a little odd; a Roman officer back in the day, worried about a servant?
It gets curiouser. If we get some help on the translation, we find the word used for servant — pais — also could mean son, in which case we’re looking at a story that parallels the Syro-phoenician woman’s begging a healing for her daughter (Matt 15:21-28).
In that story, Jesus’ initial response is a harsh refusal, an insistence that his time and energy are best used serving his own community. But the Syro-phoenician woman won’t let Jesus get away with such exclusionary behavior, and claims the raggedy edge of his power. Her faith presses him to do the right thing, and he does, healing her daughter from a distance.
Here, too, the translators reveal, Jesus answers the centurion ambiguously. His reply is not the simple statement presented in most translations, “I will come and cure him.” Rather, Jesus’ answer has an inflection more like “You want I should come and cure him?”
Like the Syro-phoenician woman, the centurion won’t be put off by Jesus’ resistance to involvement with Gentiles. “You don’t have to come in my house,” he says. “Just say the word, and you can make my child well. After all,” he goes on, “even I — a person told what to do by my superiors — can tell my men what to do, and they do it.”
Implication: “Jesus, you have no superior … you just need to say the word, and it’ll be done.”
Jesus is amazed; a Gentile is showing greater faith than anyone in Israel. As happens later through the Syro-phoenician woman, Jesus’ hand is strengthened by the centurion’s certainty. “Go,” Jesus says. “Your child will be healed, because of your faith.”
Over and over again, Matthew — that most Jewish of gospels — turns to the outsiders to say something about the Insider. It’s been so since the beginning of his story, where Matthew lists four women — outsiders, Gentiles all — in Jesus’ lineage.
What kind of Messiah is this?
For one thing, it’s a Messiah who is accountable to outsiders. Who listens, and will respond. When we are on the outside, trying to hold the insiders accountable, we can take courage from this kind of Messiah. When we are on the inside, uncomfortable with the demands of outsiders, we would do well to remember this Jesus who listened, and changed his mind.
This Jesus gets no power from purity. No power from politics. No power from money. No power from doing the right things in the right ways.
What this Jesus can do is enabled by the faith of the people around him, who ask and expect and believe. Occasionally that faith enables Jesus to reach someone far off, but for the most part his power operates within arm’s reach and ear’s hearing.
Is it any different for us?
In this season when the Powers running the world feel remote and oblivious to real human need, let’s not forget what we can do, within arms’ reach and ears’ hearing.
Who can you reach out to, with warmth in your touch? What word can you speak today, that will create healing in the life of another? Even we, who are under the authority of others, have this power: to speak the word of love.