Healing stories are not tidy. Healing stories are often as uncomfortable as they are triumphant, as much about struggle as about peace.
The next few weeks we’ll be looking into some of the healing stories in the Bible. What we’ll see is how Jesus really steps into the messiness and complexity of the lives of the people he encounters, the people who come to him in need of healing.
Jesus witnesses the brokenness and beloved-ness of each person before God, the vulnerability and the strength of their hearts. They then come to see their brokenness and beloved-ness by the light of that love and power of God that Jesus embodies.
Jesus is in fact very clear in these stories that what heals them is this trust in God’s love for them as broken and beloved children of God. It’s almost a litany in the gospel of Mark – “Your faith has made you well.”
That’s Jesus has an eye for: the brokenness, the belovedness, and the faith of his fellow humans.
The healing stories taken as a whole make it very clear just how indiscriminate the love is that Jesus embodies. The kinds of people who come to Jesus for healing through the course of the four gospels read like a catalogue of all the different classes and kinds of people walking around 1stCentury Galilee and Judea. This actually can be scandalous, it was part of his spiritual & peaceful insurrection against the forces of domination and idolatry in his time. There doesn’t seem to be a boundary that Jesus doesn’t cross out of lovingkindness for people’s brokenness and beloved-ness.
This is beautiful and inspiring, and it’s challenging, and it’s also, I find heartbreaking. Especially with all the pain and heartbreak these days, as I read through Jesus’ healing stories, the stories of the people who seek out his love, it just opens my heart more to feel the entire landscape of human suffering – then and now.
Now remember, just because Jesus’ love was indiscriminate, and it was so broad that he called us to love even our enemies, even those who persecute us, that didn’t mean that he avoided having enemies. He was bold, and very clear that his ministry was to “bring good news to poor people, proclaim release to captives and restoration of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” This call to justice and jubilee outraged a lot people.
The healing story for today is pretty extraordinary, I think- there’s a lot going on here.
This is the story of a captain in the Roman army, an officer called a centurion, who came to Jesus to ask him to heal a young man, who, we are told, is the captain’s beloved or precious servant. We’ll talk more about what that may mean.
For now, let’s talk about what it means in the first place for this Roman army captain to come in need to Jesus.
This is a big deal.
Jesus’ people are under Roman occupation, right? The violence of that and the threat of violence is very real. That’s part of what crucifixion represents. The Romans could be horrifically cruel.
Violent rebellions flash out and are put down throughout the first century, culminating in a full-scale revolt among the Jewish people the generation after Jesus that ends with Roman Legions destroying the second temple and them subjecting countless Jews to the same fate they gave Jesus.
During Jesus’ time there was tremendous political tension among the Hebrew people because of the occupation. Just like happens throughout history with imperialism:
Some people ally with the more powerful occupiers, and find ways to benefit from that. King Herod in Jesus’ time, and then his son. The high priests, the priests of the temple.
Some people openly rebel or secretly plot rebellion. This was the Zealots in Jesus’ time.
And a lot of people just keep their heads down and cope the best they can.
And there’s tons of internal strife and power contests among the occupied people that the occupiers play off to their advantage. That was definitely true in Jesus’ time – complex politics, as always.
Jesus, it seems, did not fit neatly into any camp.
One of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, we are told, is a Zealot. These are the radicals, right?, fighting to kick out the Romans. Another of Jesus’ disciples, Matthew, used to be a tax collector. They’re the collaborators, the ones extracting the taxes from their neighbors for the Romans. The Zealots hate the tax collectors. Now, Matthew quit being a tax collector and gave away all his money to follow Jesus. But one of the reasons why Jesus upset people so much is that he hung out with tax collectors, as well as other outcasts and sinners.
The Messiah, the Jewish Savior, was supposed to kick out the Roman pigs and become king. The half-Jewish king of Judea whose rule was blessed by Rome felt Jesus to be a threat to his power. The charges against Jesus was that that was he was fomenting insurrection. That’s why Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus mocked him by calling him the King of the Jews.
Those charges were trumped up, but Jesus was obviously up to something truly dangerous to the powers that be. But his insurrection on behalf of the upside-down Kin-dom of God was not of a violent kind. When the soldiers came to take Jesus he told his disciples to not take up the sword because the vicious cycles of violence are not of the kind of Kin-dom Jesus serves. There is something much deeper afoot.
The captain in the Roman army who comes to Jesus in need of healing seems to know that Jesus is up to something far beyond the fabricated walls of politics. He doesn’t show up in a way that inspires fear or anger or resentment or servility, as you would expect when a centurion enters the scene. No, the captain approaches Jesus through intermediaries in a way that demonstrates his deep respect and reverence for Jesus and for God, for the God of the people whose land the centurion’s people occupy.
The captain also demonstrates his deep care for this servant of his whose health he so strongly wishes to restore. “A servant who is precious to him, dear to him.” One word that’s used here is “doulos”, which means “servant” or “slave.” The other word is “pais,” which can mean both those things but also boy or young man, and it has another connotation.
Centurions and enlisted soldiers were not allowed to marry until after their tours of duty. During those tours of duty, it was known for centurions to enter into a kind of sexual relationship that existed in the Greek and Roman world between an esteemed man, such as a centurion, and a young man of lower-class, servant or slave class. The young man was referred to as pais.
It’s possible that this is what’s going in this gospel story. There are biblical scholars that make a good argument for it – the young man is called “a precious pais.” There are smart people who argue against it. Part of the challenge is that it’s only been recently that classical scholars have dared to get a clearer picture of the full spectrum of sexuality in the ancient world.
Certainly, if the relationship here is sexual, we’d now say there are big power issues here – we couldn’t say that this was consensual or ethical. The pais could well have been a child. very practice of slavery and indentured servitude is rotten to its core. Slavery itself is problem that’s not addressed in this story, which is a problem. This healing story has a lot that remains at loose ends.
But what we do know is that this centurion cared so deeply about this young servant that he crossed tense boundaries to ask for healing from a Jewish Rabbi whom a lot of people did not dare associate with. And we do know that when he dared to reveal to Jesus his brokenness, Jesus saw his beloved-ness as a fellow child of God, and he was moved by his faith in God. And Jesus helped him and healed the young man.
All of the tensions and complexities at play in this story don’t map onto our contemporary world. I hope we can appreciate it on its own terms in the historical context.
But at play here is something that is universal: that all of us are broken and beloved before God, and in need of healing by love and power of God, which Jesus embodies.
Now, this story doesn’t map onto our modern society, as I said. But it does make me imagine:
Suppose in Minneapolis, say, a police officer who is White and is gay asks to meet with a Black minister who is a leader in the struggle for the dignity and equality of Black lives before the law. Suppose this officer comes to this minister and says to him, “Reverend, can I talk with you? My beloved partner is sick and is dying. I’m scared. Will you pray for him?”
That minister would pray for him, wouldn’t he? They would pray together. And Christ would be in the midst, healing power would pour fourth. This sort of thing happens a lot, by the way. Two people praying together in their shared brokenness and beloved-ness. It takes humility on the part of the person who has more political power. It takes sometimes a Christlike grace on the part of the person who has less political power – and it’s something none of us have the right to demand of someone.
It doesn’t cure any of the larger problems of power and injustice and racism and homophobia in America. This doesn’t take the place of needed social and policy change to make this country a safer and less violent and fairer and more just place where everyone’s lives and dignity are honored.
But it’s how we can pray together and pray for each other, to keep God at the center, recognizing our brokenness and beloved-ness, the brokenness and beloved-ness of our neighbors, and the brokenness and beloved-ness of those who may seem to be our enemies, all broken and beloved before the light and the power and the love of God.
(Delivered June 14, 2020, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg with First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, UCC)
A captain in the Roman army had a servant who was precious to him, and who was seriously ill – almost to the point of death. And, hearing about Jesus, he sent some Judean elders to him, with the request that he would come and save the servant’s life. When they found Jesus, they earnestly implored him to do so, “for he is devoted to our nation, and himself built our synagogue for us.”
So Jesus went with them. But when he was not far from the house, the captain sent some friends with the message:
“Do not trouble yourself, sir; for I am unworthy to receive you under my roof. That was why I did not even venture to come to you myself. But speak, and let my attendant be healed. For I myself am a person under the orders of others, with soldiers under me; and if I say to one of them ‘Go,’ he goes, and to another ‘Come,’ he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ he does it.”
Jesus was surprised to hear these words from him; and, turning to the crowd which was following him, he said: “I tell you, nowhere in Israel have I met with such faith as this!”
And, when the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave recovered.