1 Kings 8.22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96.1-9; Galatians 1.1-12; Luke 7.1-10
The word enemy jumped out at me as I read commentaries about the story from Luke - specifically in connection with the centurion. A centurion was a military commander. Definitely an outsider, likely a bitter enemy. This man was part of the military machine that kept people down, in their place, and crucified those who fight back (not just Jesus). This character is meant to draw out the reflexive biases of people hearing this story. In fact, it seems as though Jesus himself may have had the same bias. Perhaps it was partly why he was so amazed when the centurion confesses faith.
The truth is, we all have our biases - we all have a lens through which we see and experience the world that is specific to who we are and our experiences. For me, my own biases mean that when I hear ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’, especially in connection with the Christian call to love and welcome them, I’ll be thinking of the refugee children of Syria, transgender people, and illegal immigrants who simply want to work to feed their families. Because to me, those are the outsiders and foreigners that are easiest to love.
But our call to welcome and love the foreigner and outsider isn’t about those that are easiest to love, it’s about when that call is painful and difficult. It’s why I kept coming back to the word enemy. My picture of my enemy as a child was simply someone I didn’t like very much or who didn’t like me, making it pretty easy to love my enemy and pray for those who persecute me, as Jesus tells us to do. Yet, after 9/11, the picture of my enemy became much clearer. Suddenly I knew of specific people in the world who specifically hated and wanted to kill me without knowing me at all. But we put that label on others as well – those we disagree with, those who have hurt us in any way.
But if we go back to that centurion, that assumed enemy, we find that the Jewish leaders spoke well of him - he built their synagogue and good relationships. He proves himself to be humble, he confesses faith in Christ. So is he really an enemy? When he confesses his faith in Jesus’ ability to heal only with his words and from a distance, Jesus is amazed. This story is taking the bias’s of the hearer of this story, taking the assumption that this man must be an enemy and turning it all around.
One of the things this gospel lesson is calling us to do is think twice about how we throw that word ‘enemy’ around. Certainly, we need to be able to point out evil in the world and we need to be able to identify what we need to defend ourselves against. And yet, using the word enemy often seems to rob a person of their humanity. Once we label someone as enemy, does it become easier to hate, to slander, to kill? If someone or some group is no longer a foreigner or outsider, but instead is an ‘enemy’ do we shy away from these themes we hear today - themes of welcome and hospitality?
I may be hopeful, but I’m not naive - I know that some we have labeled as enemies are truly very dangerous - I know we can’t, simply with love and prayer, magically turn all the ISIS terrorists into friends. If it were that easy to fix world tensions and deep and long hatred, we wouldn’t be honoring the vets who lost their lives tomorrow on Memorial Day. But in an increasingly polarized world, in which we see people demonizing the ‘other side,’ we need to get back to seeing each other, even our enemies, as people first. As beloved children of God. As those whose faith may, like the centurion’s, amaze even Jesus himself.
I am one who loves to ‘go and do.’ But I find this story inviting me to ‘stop and think.’ To dig deep and really re-consider the labels I use and how those labels affect what I say and do.
During this week of thinking about the word enemy, I kept hearing the echo of this common phrase - “Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.” Now we may not put that specific label of ‘enemy’ on ourselves, but the things we say to ourselves, the things we do to ourselves certainly mean we have picked other dehumanizing labels. We call ourselves things like stupid, worthless, lazy. We say things to ourselves that we would NEVER say to someone we love. What’s up with that? Turns out that we can use labels to dehumanize even ourselves right alongside the people we fear or hate the most.
And today’s gospel story is saying to us what Paul is saying to those Galatians. KNOCK IT OFF! Perhaps someone you have labeled enemy isn’t after all, and even if they are, they are still a beloved child of God. Perhaps you have been treating yourself horribly under the guise of humility. This story says stop. Jesus healing is for all, and it is powerful, it can change someone’s world with just a word.
While Jesus may be showing a human bias in this story (which helps the story make its point), God’s doesn’t. Healing, good news and grace are for all, including those we least expect, including ourselves even when with think we are not worthy.
God’s power to heal goes far beyond physical ailments. God’s power to heal touches relationships, injustice, and all of creation. What might be healed in our world if we stop and think about what labels we use for ourselves and others? How might reconsidering those labels – especially the label of enemy - heal the way we talk to each other, talk to ourselves? God is using us to be agents of healing and reconciliation in the world – when we are open to that powerful word of God, we will find ourselves healed as we mend the wounds of the world.