There are four assumptions which we regularly bring to our reading of the Gospels, all of which are shattered by today’s Gospel story. The first is that the Romans despised the Jews; the second is that the Jews hated the Romans; the third is that the Romans were a brutal lot; and the last one is that the Jewish religious leaders opposed Jesus and wanted to get rid of Him.
This just shows how very careful we must be about stereotyping people, because in today’s story we have a Roman centurion who loved the Jewish people, was attracted by their belief in the one, loving God, and even built them a synagogue. We have a relationship between this Roman centurion and the Jewish elders that is clearly based on mutual respect, and that same respect and more is extended to Jesus by both the centurion and his Jewish messengers. Indeed, one of the most startling aspects of this story is that the Jewish elders recognise the authenticity of Jesus’ miracles, and, by implication, the authenticity of His mission.
This is clearly a story that is going to challenge us. The centurion was a man of compassion – he was concerned for one of his slaves who was ill, and appealed to the man he thought most likely to be able to heal him. Under Roman law a slave was not counted as of any value – a slave owner could discard a useless slave and even killing your own slave didn’t incur a penalty in law. Slaves who were old or ill were often thrown out to die. This was the culture of the society in which the centurion lived, but he clearly lived by different values. He valued the life of his slave highly, and acted with compassion, doing all he could to help him. It is possible to live in a society, but not adopt its entire value system. We can live as a mutually loving and caring Christian community, but in a wider society that puts individual wants and aspirations above the common good, and values people by their ability to pass exams or to command a high salary rather than by their goodness or compassion.
St. Luke tells his story with an acute ear to its internal echoes. ‘He is worthy’, the Jewish elders say of the centurion. ‘I am not worthy,’ says the centurion in his message to Jesus, ‘but only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’ Such a deep understanding of the nature of faith amazed even Jesus. And this faith is shown by a Roman, a Gentile. He didn’t even have to see Jesus to believe in Him and His power to heal. Without even having met Him, through his own faith and the intercession of others, the centurion has the joy of seeing his servant healed.
The centurion lived in a pretty brutal society, where he could so easily have abused both his position of authority and his Jewish neighbours, but he did neither. He treated those around him with love, care and respect. In a society of many and fickle gods, he chose to believe in the one, true God, and in His Son, Jesus Christ. He was in the world, but he wasn’t of it. We, too, as Christians, are called to live out our faith in a society that has many and fickle gods, where compassion is not really at the top of the political agenda. Our society may not be so outwardly brutal as first century, Roman-ruled Palestine, but it can be very cruel - young people who are different from their peers are often mercilessly bullied, and people of particular cultures or religions are stereotyped and parodied because of the actions of a few.
Our Epistle reading this morning reminds us of the responsibility we have not to pervert the Gospel. Not to redefine it in order to make life easier for ourselves, or to help us fit more comfortably into the society and culture around us. Not to distort it in order to discriminate against, or make life more difficult for others from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds. It’s worth reflecting that, in our Gospel reading today, the most important person in the story, the one whose life was most changed by Jesus’ intervention, was not the powerful soldier, or the Jewish religious elite, but the unnamed, desperately sick slave whose origins are unknown.
There are two commandments which Jesus told us we must obey – to love God (who loves us) and to love each other and if we get that right we’ve grasped the essence of the Gospel. Our primary relationship must be with God. Our bodies are getting older by the minute, and the time comes when the ‘wasting away’ of our ‘outer nature’ becomes only too obvious, no matter how much we spend on anti-wrinkle serum or botox. I won’t even go there with cosmetic surgery! But we shouldn’t lose heart, because our souls are being prepared for eternity. The earlier we begin this work of soul cultivation the better. The soul needs far more attention than the body – it has to last much longer. But having cultivated our relationship with God, our spiritual life, the next thing we have to do is to see Him in those around us, and especially those who are the poorest and most vulnerable.
Next Wednesday, in the Christian calendar, is the Feast of Justin, Martyr at Rome, one of the very first Christians called upon to give his life for his faith. On Friday we celebrate the nineteenth and twentieth century Christian martyrs of Uganda. We have amazing examples, from the Roman centurion onwards, of Christians who have demonstrated courageously their love for God and of their fellow human beings.
In the light of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we can read our Gospel story today as the clear voice of God, calling us to trust him and reminding us that we don’t need to hedge the Gospel round with rules, regulations and exclusion clauses of our own invention. The Gospel is God’s and He will give it any protection it might need. We mustn’t stereotype our fellow human beings, or try to decide who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. Our job is simply to receive the Gospel with joy, to live it, however uncomfortably that sits with the society we find ourselves in, to share it with gladness, and to be surprised by joy when someone different accepts it.