Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Healing of the Slave: Sermon on Luke 7:1-17

Scripture can be found here...

In today’s reading, on the surface, we have two healings. But two weeks ago, we read that Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, stood in his hometown synagogue and read from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because [God] has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. ~Luke 4:18-19

Today, we begin to see what that looks like: the year of the Lord’s favor, also known among the people of Israel as the Year of Jubilee.

The year of jubilee is described in Leviticus 25. Every fiftieth year is to be a year of jubilee. At the beginning of the year, on the Day of Atonement, the yobel, or ram’s horn, is to be blown, its sound marking the year in which freedom is to come to everyone: all debts are to be forgiven, and all slaves are to be freed. And this is where it starts.

On the surface, we have two healings. We can do a compare and contrast.

On the one hand, we have a man, a Roman centurion, a professional officer of the occupying army.

On the other hand, we have a woman, a Jewish widow… in Luke, and in most of the bible, that word, “widow,” is code for “a vulnerable woman alone.” Widows were the most likely to slip into devastating poverty in the absence of a male head of household.

We have a soldier and a widow. But neither of these seems to be the person in need of healing.

The Roman officer approaches Jesus in search of healing for a slave, but he doesn’t approach Jesus directly. He sends intermediaries, Jewish elders, who testify to the soldier’s worthiness and kindness to the Jews.  As for the slave, our translation says that he is “valued,” but the Greek word means “precious” or “dear.” This slave is precious to his owner. Not daring to show himself to Jesus personally, the officer begs from a distance.

As for the widow, her adult son has died: her only son, her male head-of-the-household, the one on whom all her status depends, the one who is the only thing standing between her and devastating poverty.

The officer, we learn, is a man of authority. He commands people to do things and they do them. He assumes that Jesus has the same kind of command over the causes of illness and death.

The widow, who has no status or authority over anyone or anything, does not even ask Jesus for help. He simply observes her in her grief: a weeping woman in a throng of mourners, following a stretcher that carries the body of her son to be laid in a tomb.

And then there’s the ironic juxtaposition of the issues around ritual cleanness and impurity: the Roman centurion does everything in his power to prevent Jesus from coming into contact with him, an “unclean” Gentile, even to the extent of asking for healing from afar. And what does Jesus do? He walks up to the bier holding the dead son of the widow and touches it, which according to the laws of Leviticus, renders him ritually unclean for seven days.

From afar, Jesus pronounces the slave, precious to his owner, healed. With intimate contact, Jesus says, “Young man, arise!” and the son of the widow is raised from the dead.

Two healings—or, a healing and a raising from the dead, really. Two very different casts of characters. And yet, what they have in common is so much greater than the things that divide them. They are all outsiders. A Roman. A slave. A widow. A dead man. What unites them is Jesus’ compassion, the compassion of God for them. It is the year of jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.

The year of jubilee has come, and that means that God’s compassion is being unleashed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And we are included, you and me.  Jesus includes those who are hungering for bread and those who are hungering for justice. Jesus includes those who have lost their jobs and those who have lost their hearts. Jesus includes those who are somebody and those who are nobody. In the realm of God, there are no “nobodies.”

And Jesus’ love, Jesus’ compassion, is also Jesus’ commissioning, to all of us who have ears to hear and hands to do the work of God’s reign. We are still being sent to release the shackles of the slaves, whether that means those in the no-man’s land of minimum wage jobs that don’t pay the rent or the real, living slaves still in our midst.

Did you know that Super Bowl Sunday is the single largest target for sex-trafficking and child prostitution in the United States? It’s not just that people are victimized at the game—the huge crowds enable countless women and children to be hidden in plain sight for the use of the men who travel to the game. They are “nobodies,” whose bodies are sold for profit. At the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa, tens of thousands of women and children were trafficked in Florida in the days leading up to the game.[i] But in the realm of God, there are no “nobodies,” and if we are to continue to unleash the compassion of Jesus, we are the ones who need to raise awareness, to work, to pray, to give, for the rescue and the healing of these slaves.

Jesus’ compassion is being unleashed now. Today. Here. Where we are. We are the ones who need to bring good news to the poor, whether they are the downtrodden or the broken-hearted. We are the ones who need to continue to embody Jesus’ compassion in a world that is still hurting, for the poor in purse, and spirit, and oppression. And we do it the way Jesus did: one person at a time. One touch at a time. One action at a time. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Tina Kaufmann, “Super Bowl is ‘single largest magnet for sex-trafficking, child prostitution in US’”, Newsnet 5, Sunday February 3, 2013.

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