I Kings 8:22-23, 41-45
St. Luke 7:1-10
There is something in our culture, I think, that expects the stranger to be extraordinary or exotic. Lately we seem to be seeing strangers as interlopers and threats, and yet every day we encounter the stranger. We may not choose to acknowledge them on the street as they pass us by. Several years ago someone did a study about civic behavior in San Francisco. It was discovered that most people, when bumping into another person on the sidewalk did not offer either a “pardon” or any kind of apology. The sociologist determined that this had nothing to do with bad etiquette or rudeness, but rather a simple denial that one lived in a dense community. The stranger crowds us in, limits our perspective, and makes for fewer personal choices and freedoms according to contemporary thinking.
We also have a fantastical view of what it must have been like to live in the time of Solomon or Jesus. I suspect that many of us view the ancient world as disconnected with the broader world; parochial and separate. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however. The ancient world was a cross roads of cultures, languages, and religions, and they all got mixed up. Even the nomads realized that they were not alone in their wandering, and thus had rather explicit rules and expectations about honoring the stranger, and hospitality. It is this reality that gives us a different perspective on two of our readings for today.
Solomon is at prayer in the Temple in Jerusalem, and we see him in his role as priest/king – a role common in the ancient near east. In the first part of his prayer he acknowledges God’s greatness with language that is paralleled in the psalm for this morning, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath.” Hear the words, “O YHWH, God of Israel.” The verses that follow the first verses of our reading today are a rehearsal of a nation, Israel, and the stranger, and they give us clues as to when these verses were written and from which perspective. What is a reviewed are Israel’s experience with its God, YHWH, and the interactions with strange nations who act as God’s agents in guiding Israel, and pointing to God’s will. We move swiftly through passages that have shadows of Babylon and Persia and the return of the exile, and then back to remembrances of Egypt and deliverance from slavery.
It is here that we begin to see a movement from the God who is Israel’s unique and personal property to an Israel that ought to welcome the stranger. Solomon bids God to listen to the stranger, “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name — for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm– when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you,” A religion that welcomes ideas from without itself – what a concept!
There are several events that precede and prepare us for what Jesus does in today’s Gospel. If we look at the previous two chapters, we see a Jesus who is spading up the ground to plant new seed. He cleanses a leper, and heals a paralytic. He calls a tax collector to be one of his disciples. He calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath, and heals a man on the Sabbath. He preaches to people from Judea, Jerusalem, and the region of Tyre and Sidon. He expounds on our duty to love our enemies, and to stop judging others.
It is at this point where Jesus is confronted by the stranger, the stranger whom he and Luke have anticipated in the previous stories. The stranger has sent emissaries, notable Jewish men from the synagogue. He has sent them with a request – that Jesus heal his servant. He is so deferential, that he requests Jesus not to even come into his house, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” (This, by the way is a wonderful prayer that is said in the Roman Catholic liturgy and in the liturgy of the Church of England before the communion).
The stranger has faith! What enters your mind when you see someone you don’t know sitting next to you in the liturgy? Apprehension, nervousness, guilt, curiosity? How about having a sense of hospitality. The stranger has faith, and comes to us as a gift from God. This is more than just being welcoming for the sake of Saint Mark’s Berkeley. This is being welcoming because God has so welcomed others and us. Yes, they may have a different perspective, and they may be unfamiliar with our ways – but they know God, as do we.
We need to go back to the centurion for a second, for there is a detail that may have passed us by – one that might be useful to us. The centurion, the stranger, does not ask for healing for himself. He asks it for another stranger, his servant, who is described as one he “valued highly.” We could take a pessimistic view and discount the centurion’s altruism as just taking care of a good investment. Or we could take the other possible translation, that the servant was “dear to him.” It doesn’t matter for the stranger – the centurion – reaches out beyond himself to two other strangers. The one is Jesus, who he hopes will heal his servant. The other is the slave/servant, a member of his household. All of them are bound in an interaction that exhibits the community of love and responsibility that God expects of those who call upon God’s name. Lord, we are not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and our souls shall be healed.