6/2/2013 sermon: Healing slaves

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Luke 7:1-10
2Pentecost/Proper 4, Year C

Healing slaves

This is one of those gospel lessons today that I really struggled with. I had a hard time with what Jesus DIDN’T do. Jesus healed the servant, the slave boy, but Jesus didn’t set the boy free from slavery. This made me think about the whole concept of healing slaves. How DOES one “heal” a slave?

This sounds like the start of a joke, but slavery is no joking matter.

Oh, I know. You all will tell me about those times, versus these times, that in those days being able to totally direct someone else’s very life for my own benefit was an acceptable practice. You’ll tell me that we don’t condone slavery today. (Do we?)

I’m with you to a point; slavery WAS practiced back then, but surely you don’t mean to tell me that slavery was ever justified, do you?

So I struggled with our gospel lesson, and about what is required to heal a slave. Because this lesson perplexed me, I had to go back and bore deeply into the story. Come with me as I do this.

First, let’s visualize Jesus. Can you see how tired he is? Jesus had just been on quite a trip. He got into big trouble for grabbing and eating some grain from a field. In those days, by God’s decree, those who owned fields planted and left a portion of the field so that those who were hungry could eat. (I wonder when that decree ended?)

Jesus and his disciples hadn’t gotten into trouble for eating the food, just for harvesting grain on the Sabbath. The lesson tells us that the Pharisees had begun watching Jesus at this point to see if he did more NO-NOs, so that they could get rid of him. In response, Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath. Gutsy guy!

Next Jesus had gone on a prayer retreat, then he had cured a lot of people who had been waiting for him at the foot of the mountain. And, if all that weren’t enough, so many people had gathered to hear what Jesus had to say, that he gave an impromptu little sermon full of “Blessed are you” and “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Yes, Jesus must have been exhausted. And now he had returned to his home in Capernaum where he was met by some “Jewish elders,” as our text calls them. We might possibly know them by another name: Pharisees.

Surprisingly, though, these Pharisees didn’t give Jesus grief. They begged Jesus to visit someone who wasn’t even a member of their congregation, to visit someone who wasn’t even Jewish. Worse, the man whom these Pharisees wanted Jesus to help was a Roman centurion. They wanted Jesus to help the enemy. They wanted Jesus to heal that enemy’s slave.

Wow. This is surprising. Considering the Pharisees whom Jesus was used to encountering, this news must have made the disciples understand something that Jesus would already have known: this centurion was extraordinary in some crucial way.

So we have in our story the single most extraordinary person who ever lived (Jesus), extraordinary Pharisees, an extraordinary Roman soldier, and—oh, by the way—a seriously ill slave (a nobody) who needed healing.

Let’s leave Jesus’ point of view for a minute and reenter the story from the perspective of that extraordinary soldier. I visualize this man as a modern-day special forces commander in his prime: bulging muscles; scars galore; weathered; and wearing authority, confidence, and ancient Roman body armor like in the movie “Ben Hur.” (Maybe you’re so young you have never seen Ben Hur. If so, think of Russell Crowe in Gladiator, but bigger.)

Get the picture? What do you think such a man would be like?

Our gospel lesson gives us a fairly complete picture of this man’s character:

  • He was compassionate: he had a slave, but he valued that slave highly.
  • He was just: he wasn’t a Jew, but he was a devout God-fearer.
  • He was empathetic: he loved the Jews despite being their enemy.
  • He was generous: he had built the local synagogue, even though he himself would not have been allowed to enter that worship.
  • He was humble: he clearly subjected himself to Jesus’ spiritual authority.This is not at all what I expected this man to be like. He was a slave owner! He had taken this person’s very freedom for his own benefit. Isn’t this puzzling to you? I hope so, because I was baffled by how THIS KIND man, this KIND OF MAN, could have enslaved another human being.

So let’s go back to Jesus. Jesus was so amazed at this man’s faith that he did what the man had asked him to do, without even meeting him face to face. Jesus praised the man’s faith and he healed the boy. But Jesus didn’t release the servant from his slavery.

This reminds me of some complaints I sometimes have about Jesus in our own time. Why does Jesus give us a marriage, and then allow divorce? Why does Jesus give us a house, and then have a tornado take that house away? Why does Jesus heal our sickness sometimes, but not always? Why does he heal our sickness at all, but not our death? Why, why, why not?

Well, that’s when I remember what the apostle Paul told us, [just a few short chapters ahead in the same letter to the Galatians that our epistle lesson today is from]. Paul said that “Christ has set us free.” Paul reminded the Galatians that they were called to freedom, and that to be free we need, through love, to become slaves to one another.

Just how does Jesus heal a slave? Hadn’t the centurion, through love, been a slave to his slave, subjecting himself to Christ Jesus on behalf of the one he clearly loved. Is it inconceivable that this man would have freed his servant after almost losing him? Is it inconceivable that this slave might have continued to serve such a master, even after having been set free?

Once I had given up wanting to be God, to dictate exactly how Jesus should have healed this slave, I found the grace in our gospel lesson. In whatever condition we find ourselves in life, the love of Jesus and the spirit of Christ set us free. We can be free from whatever binds us, from whatever enslaves us, if we channel love.

Perhaps we, like the centurion, find ourselves somehow inadvertently enslaving others. Perhaps we, like this man, are devout and God-loving, yet the very clothes on our backs come to us through the economic enslavement of children on the other side of the world. Perhaps we, like this man, have great faith, despite being complicit by our silence in the exploitation of children for various inappropriate money-making enterprises.

Perhaps we, like the gravely ill servant, find ourselves enslaved, trapped in whatever we do to deal with the harsher realities of life.

In any of these cases—in any case at all—our gospel lesson today teaches us that Jesus CAN heal us and make us whole. And in the process Jesus frees us from whatever enslaves us, even if our physical situation remains the same. Jesus also gives us the grace to free others. How does Jesus heal a slave? Jesus heals slaves the only way Jesus does anything: through love—his love, and ours.

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