Year C Proper 4: un/worthy

There is a wideness in God’s mercy that covers the ends of the earth and beyond.

The conveners of this lectionary clearly put these stories together to demonstrate to the listening church the breadth of God’s embrace, the wideness of God’s mercy. As we heard at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit speaks all of the languages of all of the peoples.

So Solomon declares that his temple will be a magnet for the prayers of all nations. Paul preaches the one true gospel to the Gentiles of Galatia. Jesus commends the faith of the centurion, a foreign presence to the peasants of Galilee.

The in-crowd worship in splendour and in majesty, whether in Solomon’s temple or in a synagogue built on donated foreign funds. The foreigners, likewise, turn towards the altar and their prayers are graciously received.

As one who has lived, by some measure, more than half her life as a foreigner of one sort or another, the grace of God’s preference for all people is reassuring. Still, the stories themselves are not without difficulty.

Solomon’s temple was built as a testament to the presence of God with the people of God. It was built on prodigious scale, with such extravagance as to put the tower of Babel to shame in its aspirations to reach towards the glory of God. It was built that way not only to offer glory to God, but to boast to the neighbouring nations of the chosenness of the people who built it, and their special relationship with God. It was built to attract friends of God, and it was built to warn potential enemies that this was the side on which God would fight.

At the dedication of the temple, Solomon hailed it as a beacon to the nations, who would come to know God and the favour of God; God would hear the prayers even of foreigners drawn to its doors. But what of the foreigners already there?

The bible says over and again that Solomon built the temple, that Solomon finished the house of God, that Solomon lined the house with gold, and that he carved the cherubim on its walls.

 

 

Of course, Solomon did nothing of the sort. He even arranged for it that the stone used for the temple would be carved outside of the city, so that the court of the king would not be disturbed by the sound of hammer and chisel within the city walls.

The bulk of the labour for the temple came from a census that Solomon took of foreigners living in the land. “Seventy thousand of them he assigned to carry burdens, eighty thousand to quarry in the hill country, and three thousand six hundred as overseers to make the people work” (I Chronicles 2:18). So Solomon built his temple on the backs of 153,600 conscripted foreign slaves?

Fast forward a thousand years or so. The temple has been razed to the ground at the time of the Babylonian conquest; and after the return of the political elite to Jerusalem, a new temple has risen from the ashes. But foreigners, the Romans now administer the wealth and status of the city.

To the north, in Galilee, a Gentile centurion working for the Jewish king, Herod Antipas, has a slave whom he values highly. The slave becomes ill, and the centurion, who has established good relations with the community he oversees by means of generous donations to the church building fund, calls in a favour with the local religious elders. “Find me that miracle worker.”

At our Bible Study on Tuesday night, which I commend to you, we were a little merciless with the centurion. By the end, one of our members said wistfully, “I used to like the centurion.” But our hero in this little healing story is of a foreign faith, he is a slave-holder, and a wheedling, fawning politician.

He is right to tell Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” And yet in the next breath, he proceeds to describe just how powerful he is, just the same, telling his subordinates to jump and expecting the answer, “How high?”

He has bribed the populace into quietude, and what happens to those of his slaves whom he considers of lesser value when they fall sick?

 

 

Fortunately, the centurion is not really the hero of the story. Neither is Solomon the hero of his. The Jewish elders tell Jesus that the centurion is worthy, deserving. The foreigners flock to Solomon’s spectacle.  But it is the unseen, unnamed slave with whom Jesus is concerned at this moment, and it is he who is healed. Not even he is the hero of the story, of course: but only Jesus.

When I was growing up, we used a prayer twisted from the words of the prideful centurion as our prayer of humble access to the altar:

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”

There were those of us for whom it was a heartfelt plea, and others who, like the centurion, really could not conceive of their own unworthiness, given their status in society and so on, but who prayed it anyway, just in case.

And all approached the altar of God, and none, in the time that I was watching, was struck down by lightning.

The faith that the centurion held in the power of Jesus to heal his slave did not undo the corruption of his position of unequal power, nor did it diminish his pride in his own status and ability to influence peasant preachers such as Jesus of Nazareth. Neither did those things hold Jesus back from helping him.

The helplessness of the slave, unnamed and unseen, confined in the house of a Gentile and unable to receive Jesus at his bedside; these things did not hold Jesus back from healing him.

The confusion of the elders, who thought that they were in a position to tell Jesus who was worthy and who unworthy of his attention; this did not bind Jesus.

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”

Jesus told the people, the first time he preached in his own home synagogue – not the one that the centurion had helped to build – Jesus said,

 

 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18)

He is not bound by the confusion of pride and humiliation that brings us to the altar of God. He is not dazzled by our branding nor is he deflected by our shame, nor even defeated by our hidden sickness, our unnamed helplessness.

We come to the altar of God, the in-crowd and the outsider, the natural-born citizen and the naturalized, and the one hoping to remain unseen, flying beneath the radar. We come as cradle Episcopalians and converts, as centurions bearing authority, and as those bearing only our own names. We come, weaving slightly under the influence of a heady cocktail of keeping up appearances and dropping our guard, of self-justification and secret shame. We pray,

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and I shall be healed,” whatever we mean by that;

and Jesus receives us here. He affirms our faith, however faltering. He astonishes us with his healing. He loves us and values us highly, not based on how we are judged or valued by the world, but simply out of the vast expanse of God’s mercy, the breadth and depth of God’s love, no exceptions.

Amen.

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