Faithful Foreigners

Sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Luke 7:1-10

“Not even in Israel have I found such faith”

An unexpected statement, to be sure. After all, Israel is where the faithful were supposed to live. Ancient Israel was supposed to be the home of God’s people. Ancient Israel were thought to be God’s people to the exclusion of all others. But there is an interesting trend that we see throughout all of Scripture — the idea of the faithful foreigner.

A faithful foreigner is someone who was not a Jew, someone who was not expected to be faithful, someone who was not expected to be good.

For instance, there was Rahab, a woman in the city of Jericho who hid the Israelite spies and refused to turn them over to the King of Jericho and helped them escape from the city. We also have Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite who married an Israelite, and when her husband, his brothers, and his father all died, she went to her mother-in-law, Naomi who was left destitute by losing all of her male family members. Several times she instructed Ruth to return to her home so that he could have a life ahead of her. But Ruth committed to sharing her life with Naomi so that she would not be alone, and she settled amongst the ancient Israelites who hated the Moabites. These are but a couple examples among many of faithful foreigners.

Scripture is filled with these stories of foreigners who are faithful, we see good sprouting up in the midst of bad, belief showing up in unexpected places. Faithful people were supposed to be found in ancient Israel and there alone, but at times we see unfaithfulness in ancient Israel and faithfulness outside of it.

Here we have the story of yet another faithful foreigner, and a surprising one at that. The person in the story is a Roman centurion — a mid-level military officer. Now, in order to understand the scene here, we must remember that at the time of Jesus, the land of Israel, or Palestine, was under Roman occupation and rule. For many of us, it is difficult to actually understand what it is like to live in an occupied country, and understand what it is like to on a regular basis see soldiers from this foreign occupier walking down the street and through town, always with the threat of force, and always reminding you of the fact that you are not free, that you are beholden to a foreign power.

While many of us cannot fully understand this, we probably could imagine that the Romans, particularly the soldiers, were hated. Not just disliked, but actually hated. The Jews in first century Israel/Palestine wanted to be a free and independent nation again without the heavy weight of Roman rule.

So here, we have a Roman military officer, and this particular person turns out to be a faithful foreigner, of course, no one knows it yet, but we know it. This centurion had a slave — which is not unexpected — but what was unique is that he valued his slave highly, in fact, he valued him enough that when the slave became ill, he sought out a way to have him healed He goes to great lengths, in fact, for something which simply would not have been done. Slaves, to them, were just like any other property or tool, something to be used, and when it becomes worn out or broken, simply discarded and replaced.

But as we have seen, this centurion does not regard this particular slave at least, in the same way, but regarded him higher.

Now, this alone is not what makes him unique, we also see that this centurion keeps an interesting group of friends. We are told that when the centurion heard that Jesus was coming near the town, he sent some of his friends to go out and find Jesus. The friends that the centurion sent out were not only Jews, but they were Jewish leaders, significant people in the Jewish community.

He was well aware of the dynamics at play here. The centurion knew that he was a Gentile, an outsider, and that Jesus was a Jew. Perhaps he worried that Jesus would not pay attention to him, perhaps he was worried that Jesus would recognize him for being a Roman centurion, and ignore him. Perhaps he was worried that Jesus would not think him worthy of attending to his beloved servant.  So he sends these insiders to find Jesus and make his case for him.

The Jewish leaders go to Jesus and bring up the situation. They serve as a character reference for him. They tell him that he is not your typical Roman centurion, that he loves the Jewish people of the town, and that he even built their synagogue for them. This is quite a character reference. Someone who followed a different religion built for them a place of worship. What is important here is that he loves these people who are so different, he loves these people who speak a different language, people of different race and ethnicity, people of a different culture, people of a different religion.  It is because of this that they argue that the centurion is worthy of Jesus coming to attend to him and his servant.

So, Jesus decides to go and visit the centurion. When he heard that Jesus was coming, he sent out more friends to meet Jesus before Jesus got to his house. This is now the second time that the centurion has never appeared in person in the story, but always through friends. The centurion argues that he is not worthy of Jesus to come under his roof — remember historically, Jews and Gentiles didn’t mix well — and that Jesus should not trouble himself in coming to his house.

But then he says something particularly interesting. “But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” This is what is interesting, the centurion does not ask for Jesus to come and touch him, he does not need to do any ritual surrounding the sick servant, he does not need to do any of that. In fact, Jesus does not even need to be standing by the sick servant to heal him, all Jesus needs to do is “say the word.”

After this, the centurion goes into this explanation of his life. He explains that he is someone with authority and that he commands soldiers. If he tells soldiers to “go” they go, and if he tells them to “come” they come. If he tells his servant to do something, the servant does it. The centurion is used to making things happen, he is used to giving orders which are followed out, he is used to speaking words and things being done. However, with his sick servant, he cannot do this. He cannot tell his servant to get better, he cannot order a soldier to make him all better. He is a man that is used to results and making these results happen, but now he cannot.

So why does he tell Jesus all of this? Why does he tell Jesus all about his ability to give orders and the fact that they will happen? Well, sometimes a well placed pause is more effective than speaking, and what the centurion is getting at is that he is used to giving orders, which are followed, and Jesus can do the same. Jesus can command that his servant be healed, and he will be. There is no, “do you think that you can do something?” There is no, “If you are able”.  There is only, “Jesus, I know what giving orders is like, and I am used to seeing my orders carried out. This is something that I cannot order, but you can order, and it will be carried out.”

This is the root of Jesus’ declaration that not even in Israel has he seen such faith.

Now, while the healing of the servant was great, and these healing stories are great, the story isn’t about the servant. In fact, I think that the main character of focus in this story is the centurion, and interestingly enough, he never himself appears, he only appears through friends and neighbors. The main event, I think, in this story, is not the healing of the servant, but rather the expression of faith from this outsider, this foreigner.

The thing that is so great about this story is not that the slave was healed, although that is good too, it is the fact that faith can show up in unexpected places, and that God can show up in unexpected places.

Throughout his life, Jesus spends a lot of time with outsiders. He spends time with the hated tax collectors, he touches the unclean lepers, he eats in the homes of Gentiles. There is something about outsiders that Jesus is drawn to them. Perhaps this was the first step in the change that the message of God isn’t just for this one ethnicity, but rather, for all kinds of people, perhaps Jesus is expanding the peoples’ ideas of who God is and where God works.

Perhaps Jesus is trying to show us that God can work even in the most unexpected places. I think that this story tells us that sometimes insiders lack faith, and sometimes outsiders show tremendous faith. Sometimes we also suffer from this insider/outsider mentality. We look at people who don’t go to church, and we label them outsiders, and sort of write them off. We look at people from other traditions, perhaps Pentecostals, perhaps Roman Catholics, and we write them off and do not expect to see any faith there. Perhaps we think that because we show up at a church, we have a special significance that others do not. But perhaps we forget that there is more to just showing up at church, or there is more than going to this particular church or that particular church.

There is a faith component, and that faith component comes through not only in our interactions with God but also our interactions with one another. This faith component opens us up to seeing faithful foreigners, seeing God in unexpected places. It is a trust, not in ourselves, but in God. I also want to add that faith is a process, and coming to faith is a process. Don’t listen to me and think, “if I don’t have it I may as well give up.” A tree does not appear from nothing, it begins as a seed, and there is water, and the sun, and other elements which helps that seed to mature and eventually sprout, and it takes a long time for the tree to grow into a big mature tree.  So I want to be sure that if you feel like you’re faith isn’t strong, or it waivers, or you have doubts, or you’re unsure if you have faith, that is okay. Remember, faith is a gift from God, not something that we muster up on our own.

The one thing that is important here is that we do not lose our capacity for being surprised by God. Perhaps you have experienced this in your own life. Someone who you thought was incapable of faith, expresses the seeds of faith. Someone you thought would never come to church has snuck in the back door and sat in the back. Faith can show up in surprising places, and God can show up in surprising places, but we typically see it only if we do not lose our capacity for being surprised by God.

Our passage says that even Jesus was amazed at the faith of the centurion. It is important that we retain the possibility of being amazed. When we lose the ability to be surprised, when we lose our ability to be amazed by where God shows up and works and is present in the unexpected, then we will miss most of God’s action and involvement in us, in others, and in the world around us. You see, you never know where God is going to act, where God is going to plant seeds of faith, who God is using for God’s purposes. Part of faith is being aware of where God is, and what God is doing, even in the ordinary and unexpected.

2 responses to “Faithful Foreigners”

  1. One part I liked in this message was the contrast between what the officer knew he could control and what he knew he could not; all his commands couldn’t heal his servant. He knew he needed someone greater who could make that happen. Thanks for sharing this; I’m enjoying this series of messages. The small-towns image is still sticking with me from last time too.

    1. Jeannie,
      Thanks for sharing, the passage from Luke is a rich text, for sure. Glad to hear that you’re enjoying these!

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