by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
I have lived in several small town and rural places in the South. In one of those communities I had a friend whose brother was married to Maria, a young woman from Mexico. My friend was part of a large and close-knit farm family where everybody worked side by side on each others’ farms and frequently had meals together in their various houses. “Daddy,” the patriarch, didn’t go to the field much anymore and spent most of his days in town, gossiping with other retired farmers on the benches in front of the courthouse.
One night at dinner, after he had spent the day filling up on misinformation, he passed the bowl of potatoes, and with it, this opinion, “This county is just being overrun by “high-spanics.” Feller at the courthouse told me.” Fortunately, Maria was in the kitchen fetching the biscuits when Daddy said this and my friend kicked her father under the table and said, “Daddy, watch your mouth.” Daddy was startled and confused and said, “What, what did I say?” “Hispanics, Daddy – don’t talk about Hispanics.” Daddy was now even more confused, “Well, why not?” My friend sighed and said, “Daddy, Maria’s Hispanic.” Daddy smiled and said, “Naw, it’s all right. She ain’t high-spanic. She’s Mexican.”
Fear of the foreigner, exclusion of the other, has been a part of human culture forever. My friend’s father knew and loved Maria, knew and loved her children, his grand-children. But when someone suggested Hispanic people were a threat, he jumped on board, not realizing they were talking about beloved members of his own family.
We sometimes mistakenly characterize first century Judaism as being closed off from foreigners. This is simply not true. For example, our first lesson was about King Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple. Three things are of interest here. 1) Solomon himself is the great, great grandchild of Ruth, who was not Jewish, but was a Moabite. 2) In the text itself, Solomon prays for foreigners – specifically expecting them to come and pray at the temple and asking God to treat the foreigners the same way God treats the Israelites, the Chosen People. And 3) This text was written several hundred years after the dedication of the temple. When the prayer was written down, the temple was in ruins and the people of Israel were in exile, themselves strangers in a strange land, living among foreigners in Babylon. And yet, through the writing of this account, they expressed an awareness that all people are God’s people. While it is true that there were some who understood Judaism as an exclusive religion, that was not the norm. While their vision of inclusion was not our modern one, they were not any more anti-other than any other culture of that time or place.
Our Gospel lesson reflects this culture of interaction with foreigners. The centurion was a foreigner, a foreigner who should have been hated I suppose. He was the agent of a foreign military power. Since there were no Roman troops stationed in the area of Capernaum during this time period it is likely that he was either a part of the Customs Service of the Empire or he was a retiree. It was the policy of the Roman army to reward it’s retirees with grants of farms or estates in the provinces. Either way, the centurion was a powerful and important man living in the midst of the Jews. And apparently he had reached out to his Jewish neighbors and had built a good relationship with them. The Jewish Elders were happy to represent him, to speak up for him in requesting that Jesus come and heal his slave. They said, “He is worthy, he loves us, he built our synagogue.” He had done much for them as a benevolent force in their community and they were glad to help him out.
Yet, while the Jewish elders called this foreigner “worthy,” he calls himself “unworthy.” When Jesus is almost to his house, the centurion sends friends to tell Jesus not to come. “I am not worthy for you to come into my house. Just say the word and my slave will be healed.” He adds an explanation for why he thinks this way. “I command troops, they do what I say. I assume you command spirits and they will do what you say. End of story.” And indeed Jesus does heal the slave.
These two stories model for us a faith that reaches out to and interacts with foreigners, even in the midst of larger conflicts at work in society. The writers of the story of Solomon’s temple prayer were the losers in a war that wiped out their country and they were living in the midst of the people who had conquered them, yet they wrote about Solomon praying that God would welcome the prayers of foreigners. The Gospel story took place in a time when the people of Israel were under the rule of a foreign power and yet when an important and powerful soldier of that foreign power offer help in the form of building a temple – they accepted his help. And when he asked for help they were happy to approach Jesus on his behalf.
A friend of mine was raised in a very conservative church. In the 1960s he went off to college at the denominational college. There he became a part of the civil rights movement. One Sunday a multi-cultural group of students walked across the street and up the steps, dressed in Sunday best. They had notified a newspaper reporter of their plans and on Monday morning there was a picture on the front page of the largest paper in the state, showing the group standing on the porch arguing with the church board, who had barred them all from the premises. That weekend my friend went home to wash his clothes and eat some home cooking and his mother groused at him over the picture. “I just don’t know where you learned such crazy ideas.” My friend said, “Why mother, I learned them from you at church, in Sunday School.” “When did I ever teach you such a thing?” “When you taught me to sing,
‘Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the children of the world.’ I figured if Jesus loved all of us when we are children, he also loves us when we grow up.”
Jesus loves all of us, and Jesus calls all of us to love all the rest of us.
Amen and amen.