Reflections by Jerry Webber

Sunday, July 1, 2012

More Seeing the Interior: What Makes Us Human?

Matthew 8:5 - 13

When Jesus was going into the town of Capernaum, an army officer came up to him and said, “Lord, my servant is at home in such terrible pain that he can’t even move.”

“I will go and heal him,” Jesus replied.

But the officer said, “Lord, I’m not good enough for you to come into my house. Just give the order, and my servant will get well. I have officers who give orders to me, and I have soldiers who take orders from me. I can say to one of them, ‘Go!’ and he goes. I can say to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes. I can say to my servant, ‘Do this!’ and he will do it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was so surprised that he turned and said to the crowd following him, “I tell you that in all of Israel I’ve never found anyone with this much faith! Many people will come from everywhere to enjoy the feast in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the ones who should have been in the kingdom will be thrown out into the dark. They will cry and grit their teeth in pain.”

Then Jesus said to the officer, “You may go home now. Your faith has made it happen.”

Right then his servant was healed.

Like all of us, this man had countless identities, several of which are named in this narrative.

He was a Roman, that is, he represented the Empire. And the Roman Empire was the occupying entity. It represented, for many Jews and Christians, the empire that existed counter to what they thought was "God's Empire." In some ways, the very designation "Roman" suggested "pagan" or "godless."

He was a centurion, a soldier, an officer in the military. As the story unfolds, he is a person of power, both under the authority of others, and with his own authority. By his identification with the military, perhaps the story infers that he is also a person of violence.

He was a Gentile, that is, a non-Jew. He lived and existed outside the Jewish Law and, in popular thought anyway, outside the covenant God had cut with the chosen people. In that sense, he was a foreigner, an outsider.

He was a slave owner. He had servants underneath him. He owned and controlled other people, more than his military command.

These are some of the outer labels by which this man could be identified. By these labels, he would have been embraced by some and shunned by others.

But Jesus did not deal with him at the level of these roles and exterior identities. Sacred Space, the Irish Jesuit prayer guide, says about Jesus' relationship to this man, "Jesus' life and prayer showed him that the narrow definitions of race, gender, and holiness were false."

Those narrow definitions never say everything about us that could be said. They make small. They limit. They stereotype. They box us in on the basis of one or two labels. They invite human judgments based on a very narrow field of evidence.

For example, in casual conversations -- on airplanes, in waiting rooms, etc. -- if possible I usually resist saying to another person that I am a minister. Because as soon as I say that word, the tenor of the conversation changes. It becomes more superficial. Among some there is embarrassment. Among others, a desire to hide or to apologize for their lives. And in many situations, the word "minister" has completely shut down the conversation.

And I, for my part, find myself spending too much time trying to break out of the stereotype, trying to defend my role, to be a "different" kind of minister, or white male, or whatever my role is.

In truth, none of us can be reduced to a job title, or a political party, or a sexual orientation . . . none of those categories are large enough, expansive enough to hold the weight of our being.

What is most true about you and me cannot be bounded by these descriptions. What is most true about us transcends. It resists simple labeling. These small identities I carry around do not make me more human. They likely make me less so. They reduce me to function. They make me small, manageable and predictable. They are not reflective of my truest self.

Jesus didn't see this man as a Roman, or as a soldier, or as a Gentile, or as a master. Well, of course he knew these things about the man, and acknowledged them. How could he miss them? But he did not relate to the man out of those categories. He looked inside. He saw the the man's interior, peering into what made this hurting, grieving man most human. And there, Jesus met him.

I believe that's how Jesus sees all of us. He sees to the core. He sees the interior. He sees what makes us human.

Thomas Merton said in New Seeds of Contemplation that these identities we carry around and invest value in are like wrapping ourselves in one long bandage. We begin to believe the wrapping is who we are . . . and Merton said that all too often, because we have invested so much in the bandage, we are hollow people inside.

Jesus sees beneath the exterior to what makes us human. He sees beneath the superficiality to our pain and brokenness and true giftedness. The way he dealt with this man in the Gospel is a type of how he continues to relate to you and me.

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