Taking a Lower Place (2 Kg. 5:1-19; Ps. 113; Lk. 7:1-10)
I always miss TEE in the summer months, mainly because it gives me a chance say things I’m thinking about and how they might go into a sermon. The passages we have read together this morning could have used a good session of TEE. The greatest puzzle among them is the Gospel Lesson, which seems to be a story about the long-distance healing of the servant of a Roman mercenary soldier, who never meets directly with Jesus, or hears his voice (so far as we know), and yet trusts Jesus in spite of that. Even Jesus, we read, was “amazed” by the fact that this foreigner would actually trust him, a local Jewish preacher and healer. The norm was that Jews and Romans had very little to do with one another. We’ll come back to this story in a bit, but I want us to begin with Psalm 113.
The Book of Psalms is the Hebrew Hymnbook. If this psalm were printed in a hymnbook today, it would probably have three stanzas: verses 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9. The theme statement of the Psalm stands at the beginning and the end: “Praise the LORD,” Hallelujah! Everything else between the “hallelujah’s” explains them, and is the meat of this hymn.
Stanza 1 simply commands that God is to be praised by worshipers from now until the end of time, here and to the ends of the earth; nothing short of universal and eternal praise. That’s a pretty tall order. What is it in God that merits such overflowing superabundant praise? Here’s where we come to the centre of gravity of Psalm 113. God is always and everywhere to be praised because God is greater than anyone or anything in the universe including all natural forces, as well as the might of all nations and their leaders. But God uses this overwhelming power not to beat people into one way of doing things, but to lift up the poor and needy, to give life to those who need it, and significance to those who lack it. In short, God takes a lower place than we might think God is entitled in order to serve the needs of others.
The Bible is pretty clear that that it is the duty of communities of faith to conform their actions to those they learn from the way God is in the world. If God uses power and authority to lift up the poor and needy, and to work for justice in the world, then communities of faith need to figure out ways to be and do these same kinds of things in their own situations, both inside and outside the particular community of faith. And, here is where we come back to that story in the Gospel of Luke.
Although, as I said earlier, it seems to be about the long-distance healing of a Roman centurion’s slave (and it is in a way), it’s really about more than that. At the end of the story Luke records Jesus as saying this about that centurion:
Jesus was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.
What was it about the faith that Jesus found in a Roman mercenary soldier, who never even actually appears in the story in person, but is only quoted, that “amazed” Jesus? By the way, the Gospels use this word “amazed,” quite often, to describe Jesus’ opponents’, parent’s, disciples’, or the crowd’s reaction to his words and deeds. They only use it to describe Jesus’ own reaction three times, and all of them have to do with the presence or absence of somebody’s faith or trust. The verb implies wonder, puzzlement, perhaps shock, surprise, and even a little fear. It is related to one of the common Greek words for miracle, but one that’s hardly ever used by the New Testament because the word’s connotes a “sheer wonder.” In the Bible, miracles are not about their sheer marketing value, but about God’s work of bringing wholeness to the world through them (much as God’s power was described in Psalm 113).
I think an answer to my earlier question about what it was that aroused this reaction of “amazement” in Jesus, is that this “outsider” acted in a way that showed that he “got” what Jesus was talking about without ever meeting him in person. Of course, this story provided Luke with a model for the faith of those who, like him (and us), only hear of Jesus, but have not met him physically. This centurion also recognized that faith was not primarily about a list of beliefs, but about a bold action of imitating the God that takes a lower place and lifts up the needy.
To understand the story a little better, it will help to keep a few principles in mind, that occur in a number of biblical texts. The first is the so-called “Song of Mary” in Luke, chapter 1, where we find words such as, “(God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…” Mary’s manifesto is about the overthrow of the rich and powerful in the interest of the poor and marginal. Mary asserts that, one day, God will force the mighty to a lower place. By the way, Jesus’ own beatitude’s that occur just before this morning’s passage echo his mother’s words. He said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation, woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry… (6:21-22).” These words tell what happens, eventually, when people refuse to take the lower place.
For Jesus, faith is an action that shows trust in God. Faith is an action, not a feeling, nor even a belief. I have no doubt that each of us will have beliefs that support our faith-action, but let’s not make these beliefs to be primary and the action to be the secondary thing. That’s just backwards. So, Jesus was already working with a definition of faith as action of a certain kind: being willing to take a lower place than we might.
Another important principle is found in the Old Testament Lesson about Elisha. Let me talk about that a little. Jesus’ own inaugural sermon in his home synagogue at Nazareth in Luke 4 (which nearly got him lynched) identified his mission with that of the old prophets Elijah and Elisha, neither of whom limited their ministries to Israel, but included those “outside” as well. In fact, as Jesus interpreted the Old Testament in his sermon, these outsiders were the preferred recipients of God’s grace (thus the near-lynching). Today’s Gospel lesson in Luke 7 is patterned on the story of Elisha and Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was a foreign soldier, who was ill with a skin disease. This is the very story to which Jesus had referred in that sermon in Luke 4.
This Old Testament story has Elisha the Prophet healing the Syrian soldier Naaman at a distance by asking him to do something that Naaman thought “beneath him.” At first, Elisha irked Naaman. He was too important to lower himself to wash in the muddy, ugly Jordan River to heal his skin problem. It took common folk like his servants to ask why he was balking at doing something easy, when he could have been asked to do something hard? Of course, Naaman thought it was hard because he thought it beneath his dignity. It only looked easy for his servants because they were already in a lower place. Naaman finally “got it,” washed, and was healed. He took the lower place by obeying a prophet from a foreign place.
Last, before we actually look at this story in Luke 7, let me talk about some things about its ancient social setting. In the world of Roman Israel there were people who had wealth and power, and those who didn’t, and the two groups did not change. However, rich people really needed the poor to do the physical work that kept them rich. So, as a method of survival for the poor, the rich would often be willing to do favours for them. The rich became known as patrons. It was culturally understood that the patron could ask for repayment of the favour at any time and in any way. The poor persons, called clients, would have no choice but to comply. Whole families of clients often became attached to patrons through many generations. Wealthier patrons attracted many clients, and survived by calling in favours. It was also often the case that a patron could act as a middleman or broker of favours for someone even higher-up (for example the governor or the emperor).Such patron/client/broker relationships would have been taken for granted by Luke’s audience in the latter first century CE, and we need to understand them too to enrich our understanding of our Gospel story in Luke 7.
Once again, here’s the story. After Jesus preached his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, he went back to the village of Capernaum and set up housekeeping. It seems that there was a Roman centurion in the village with a valued servant who was near death. This centurion would have been a powerful person in the little village, and was concerned about his servant (perhaps only as an investment), so, presumably, having heard of Jesus’ prowess at healing and that he was back in town, sent a delegation of the elders from the local synagogue to summon him. We might ask why these folk, not known for their love of the Roman army of occupation, would do that for him? We learn right away. One of the elders says that this centurion “loves our people.” Now, remember how many times I’ve said to you that, in the Bible, words like “love” and “hate” are not about feeling things, but “doing things.” The centurion loved them by building a synagogue in the village. That means, he was the synagogue’s patron, and he had called in a favour. He said go, they went. Jesus accompanied the elders as an obedient Jew.
But, as they neared the centurion’s house, they were met by a group of the centurion’s “friends” that withdrew the invitation. The title “friend” in that day, most times, meant a social equal with the patron, so these folks would have been upper class gentiles. They did not mean to insult Jesus, but, perhaps to save this Jew from becoming unclean by coming in contact with gentiles. I doubt that from the way Jesus had already dealt with purity laws. I rather think what I said before that the centurion “got” that faith is an action that imitates what God does, and takes the lower place. Bringing Jesus under his roof would be treating him as just another client, and this the centurion was not willing to do. In fact he made himself a client of this itinerant preacher who would be far beneath him on anybody’s social register. He treated Jesus as the one with more authority, as a patron or, perhaps, a broker, of God’s healing gifts. Those terms may sound a little crass in our ears, but the situation would have sounded perfectly normal in the ears of Luke’s congregation. The centurion’s “friends” quote him even further:
But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am also a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,” and the slave does it.”
This is where Luke said that Jesus was astonished or amazed and attributed to the centurion faith that outstripped any Israelite he knew. Again, I think he said this because the centurion understood that having authority means that there is a close relation between what is said and what gets done. He spoke, others listened. That’s authority. This “outsider,” who understood the chain of command has recognized that Jesus’ words (again, he never met him personally and didn’t need to) contained within them the power to accomplish what he said. “Speak the word and he is healed.” And it happened – apparently even without Jesus uttering a word. To Jesus, the essence of faith was understanding that he wasn’t in charge, who was, and to take the lower place. And it surprised him to find such understanding here. The centurion’s act of faith put aside his own importance and took a place of dependence on God. No one that Jesus had met in Israel was willing to set aside the importance of being “God’s chosen” take a lower place as a servant of God to those who weren’t.
What can this mean to us who live in such a different culture? I suggest that “taking the lower” place does not mean that we become doormats, but that we identify with those who are lowly and disempowered, standing together with them, using what power and authority we have on their behalf. The real revolutionary part of what Jesus taught, coming from his mother’s thought of “God’s taking the mighty down from their thrones,” actually happens when the mighty take themselves down from their thrones and identify themselves with the last and the least. All of us, probably, have more power and authority than we think. Where do we (or do we) choose to take a lower place? Where will we recognize “amazing” trust in those that the world devalues? How can we identify and lift them from the ash heap, to use the words of Psalm 113. Good things to think about.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.