NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
1Kgs 8:41-43, Gal 1:1f., 6-10, Lk 7: 1-10, Faith and “Outsiders” Against Exclusivism and Elitism; The Gospel is for Everyone; Openness; What Kind of Person is the Person of Faith?
What did you have for breakfast today? Cereal? Toast? Eggs? No Matter in what form, you literally ate a piece of a star. It consisted mostly of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, with a sprinkling of other elements. Except for the hydrogen, those atoms had been forged in a star that exploded, left its remnants in the universe, and died long before our sun and solar system were born. The hydrogen was made in the big bang that allegedly began our universe. Some astronomers think that it was on dust grains floating in interstellar space that these atoms first assembled themselves into the organic molecules that are the forerunners of life, and that the water that’s three-quarters of our body came from a comet. So our breakfast and we are stardust.
In light of all that, it doesn’t become us to be small-minded. Especially abhorrent is small-mindedness in religion. Did Jesus save people on other planets, if they exist? We can be sure that God has made provisions for all people, no matter where. On earth, is salvation for all people linked to our Judeo- Christian tradition? Today’s Gospel tells the story of a man who was outside that tradition. The story is from St Luke’s Gospel, which pays special attention to non-Jews, avoids Hebrew terminology, and rarely quotes the Jewish Scriptures.
On the face of the Roman centurion’s situation, the prospects for an intervention by Jesus weren’t good. The petitioner was a military officer in command of a “century”, a company of 100 soldiers. But because the Roman legions were seldom kept at the maximum strength of 6,000 men, the century often consisted of only 50 to 60 men. The centurion, a company commander, was probably the equivalent of a caption today, though he rose from the ranks and would be considered a non-commissioned officer.
The centurion was to the Roman legion what a mainspring is to a watch. The whole army depended on him. Circumstances suggest that this particular centurion was probably in the service of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. In addition to the centurion being a representative of the hated occupying army, this incident took place in Jesus’ adopted town of Capernaum, which is in Galilee, where the memories of Roman cruelty were fresh.
The centurion sought a cure for his dying servant, very probably a poor Jew and possibly the reason behind his master’s faith. Knowing the way things work in the military and politics, the centurion enlisted the help of Jewish elders to present his credentials to Jesus. They in turn presented the best-case scenario to Jesus – that the centurion was racially open-minded and a philanthropist.
The centurion was a person of faith. He was an honest and generous man, well-disposed and even loving toward the Jews. He had built a synagogue for them. And now he showed his sensitivity toward the Jewish custom of not entering the home of a Gentile, which would make the Jew ritually unclean. In words we paraphrase just before we receive Holy Communion, he said, “I am not worthy to have you entre under my roof” (v. 6). That’s the cry of every honest person before God. We hear its echo in the voice of many who lament, “I’m not strong enough in my faith. Help me!” Jesus marveled at the centurion – marveled at him – and expressed surprise and delight at the centurion’s request. But that was nothing compared to the excitement and joy of the centurion’s messengers when they returned home and found the slave in good health (v. 10).
The centurion was the kind of open person King Solomon had in mind when he voiced the prayer in today’s First Reading as he solemnly dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. Solomon prayed that God’s house would be open to non- Israelites and that they, too, would be able to be heard within its precincts. For Solomon, coming to know God’s name and dedicating the Temple in that name was a way of expressing the tension between God’s nearness and His utter transcendence. Earlier in this same prayer (8:27), Solomon had told God that if the highest heavens couldn’t contain Him, how much less the Temple which Solomon knew that the largeness of God is unfathomable. But adherents of a faith can become more rigid than its founders. Despite Solomon’s prayers, the Jerusalem Temple had become a place strictly for Jews.
So, too, some early Christians very much wanted things to go their own way rather than God’s. After St Paul had converted the Galatians, for example, some teachers attacked Paul’s standing as an apostle and told the Galatians to follow First Testament rules. The agitators seem to be avid Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who insisted on the absolute necessity of circumcision and Jewish dietary laws for acceptance into the Christian community. They seem to operate on two diametrically opposed fronts. On the one side, they rejected Paul’s authority to preach and didn’t have the Gospel first-hand. At the same time, they seem to be members of some pre-Gnostic sect who worshipped angels or gods who they thought inhabited the stars and saw themselves as a new race, a bit better than anyone else.
Paul looked for a larger- minded view. He asserted (v. 1) that he wasn’t an apostle commissioned by a congregation, or even by prophets, but an apostle through Jesus Christ and God the Father. Instead of the thanksgiving that he usually placed at the beginning of his letters, Paul, with little to be thankful for in the Galatian situation, expressed amazement at the way his converts were deserting the Gospel of Christ for a perverted message. He reasserted the one Gospel he had preached (vv. 7-9). Against opponents’ charges that he had sought to conciliate people with flattery and to curry favour with God, Paul began a vigorous defence of himself (v.10).
In the Christian view of people, there’s no room for isolationism, or provincialism. In God’s eyes, there are no “foreigners”. All are equal and are called to become His children. Solomon saw, however vaguely, God’s plan to reveal Himself to all nations. Paul saw that all human beings, of whatever culture, nation, or race, could belong to God, through Christ. The moral conversion that Jesus’ Good News demands is profound and far-reaching; it makes for the development of all persons as full human beings. Nothing truly human is alien to the Good News, and all people, of whatever culture, colour, or race, can accept it.
What kind of person is the person of faith? At the very least, not bigoted, biased, or prejudiced (a humorous but accurate graffito reads, “If I didn’t believe it with my own mind, I never would have seen it”). The person of faith is, rather, welcoming, hospitable, and friendly, open to God and to others. Solomon’s prayer in the Temple is a reflection of that spirit. Paul’s response to the Galatians pleaded against a closed-intype of faith that could be measures only by living up to legal prescriptions. And the centurion’s servant was healed against all odds because of the centurion’s faith.
In the centurion and his faith, there are further lessons for us. Concerned over his servant, the centurion was a man of compassion. He was a humble man, sending others to plead his cause. He was ego free, and so was able to recognize authority in Jesus. He was vulnerable in the face of Jesus’ power, open to what he needed but knew he didn’t deserve, and he reached out to what can only be called grace. He was sensitive, not asking Jesus, a Jew, into his Gentile home. He’s a great example of the discerning heart which we all need.
The centurion showed spiritual growth, which is the evolution of an individual. An individual’s body may undergo the changes of the life cycle, but it doesn’t evolve. Within a person’s lifetime, however, the human spirit may evolve dramatically. New patterns may be forged, spiritual competence take advantage of unlimited opportunities for growth to increase until the moment of death in advance old age. The centurion represents, by far, most of the people in the world today. The faith of the Christian should go out to his like, and should be as great as the stardust from which all of us came.