2 June 2013
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 4C (RCL)
1 Kings 18:20-39
Welcome to ordinary time. The readings from Scripture for this Sunday seem unconnected (and any connection will be accidental) since we are reading from different books “in course.” For the Old Testament, we are reading stories from the Elijah/Elisha cycle. For the epistle, we are reading Galatians in course, and in the Gospel, we are plowing our way through Luke for much of the rest of the year.
The Elijah cycle is a tradition that comes from the northern kingdom (Israel) after the separation from Judah, and is anti-monarchical. The contest with the prophets of Baal sets out the great conflict in the northern kingdom between YHWH, a God of a wandering people under Moses, and the agricultural gods of Caanan. Agricultural gods need to guarantee fertility, and much of the material in the books of Samuel shows that YHWH (probably originally a war god) can guarantee fertility as well (think of the story of Hannah). Baal (a word that means “lord” or “husband”) and Asherah were the gods worshiped the hill tops. The contest is narrated in very dramatic fashion, and we leave off the last bit. Elijah has the people fall on the prophets of Baal, and kill all 450 of them. Needless to say, Jezebel is not pleased. It is this event which prompts Elijah to run away into the wilderness and come to the encounter God on the mountain in the still small voice. Next week, we go backward briefly, and meet Elijah with the widow of Zarepheth.
Galatians is the sternest of Paul’s letters. There is no flowery introduction in which he flatters his addressees, and he makes sure they know that he has been sent, not by human authority but divine. The issue (we will discover over the coming weeks) is the preaching of the “Judaizers” among the Galatians. The “super-apostles” have convinced the Galatians that in order to become Christian, one needs to become Jewish first. This threatens Paul’s vision of an inclusive Christianity, and he responds in the strongest possible terms.
In Luke’s Gospel, we have a passage that picks up on the sermon at Nazareth. At Nazareth (Luke 4:16) Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah, and then for his sermon, announces, “Today, these words have been fulfilled in your hearing” (the proclamation of liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, etc.). Between that sermon and this story, Jesus has cured a leper, cast out a demon, called a couple of disciples, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and sent the twelve on their mission.
Chapter seven opens with the words, “When Jesus had fulfilled all these words in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” This is exactly the vocabulary of Jesus’ sermon on Isaiah. Immediately after that sermon, he had recounted that Elijah went only to the widow of Zarepheth, and Elisha cured only the leprosy of Naaman the Syrian. Jesus now encounters a centurion. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry opens immediately to the Gentiles.
The centurion is an interesting character. He is well respected in Capernaum. He has built their synagogue. A centurion had charge of 100 foot soldiers, and was responsible for the billeting and discipline. We don’t know if this centurion is a retired officer and settled in Capernaum, or connected with a nearby legion. Either way, he could have thrown his weight around and supplemented his wealth at the expense of the local population. Instead, he has earned the respect of his Jewish neighbors.
When Jesus draws near his house, the centurion sends friends to relieve Jesus of the responsibility of entering a Gentile’s home. “Don’t trouble yourself” the centurion says. The word skulein in the active means “rend” or “mangle” or “flay”. Don’t harm yourself; I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. The centurion respects the traditions of the Jews, and is willing that Jesus need not render himself unclean by entering a Gentile’s house.
Jesus replies, “Not even in Israel have I found such faithfulness.” His exclamation is not (just) about the centurion’s trust that Jesus can heal at a distance, but about his faithfulness to the local population and to the traditions of the people. He’s an all around good guy. Luke’s concern for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Realm of God is apparent here. Even a centurion can be faithful.
This story seems at odds with the story in Kings. Elijah is concerned to show that syncretism is unacceptable, and only purity of worship counts, and the liquidation of the other is assumed. Luke is painting a very different picture (as is Paul). We still struggle with the tension between inclusion and boundedness. Luke portrays this inclusiveness as the fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, and therefore faithful to the tradition.