Be Merciful as your Father in heaven is Merciful – Luke 7: 1-17
The seventh chapter of Luke begins with two stories that on the surface appear to be about healing. Yet, read within the greater context that Luke has set forth from the very beginning of his proclamation of the good news, one begins to see deeper dimensions and layers to these two stories.
In the first, a foreigner, a gentile, and a leader with authority in Caesar’s occupational force, a Centurion, begs Jesus to heal his ailing slave. Suspecting, correctly, that Jesus and others might find this beyond the pale, some leaders of the Capernaum synagogue community commend the military man as one who has helped the community by building them a new synagogue, the remains of which may be what one sees when visiting Capernaum today. Then as Jesus heads to the man’s house, the Centurion sends word to Jesus saying, “You don’t need to come here for I am not worthy to have you in my house. But, I understand how the chain of command works for me and I trust it is so for you as you represent the very highest authority in heaven. You need only say the word, just as I would give orders in the name of Caesar, and it will be done.”
Jesus is moved. We are told has not encountered such humility and such faith anywhere before, and the man’s slave is restored.
Jesus moves on to a town called Nain. There is a funeral procession for a young man, the son of a widow in the town. We are told that Jesus has compassion for her and asks her not to weep. Then he stops the procession, touches the funeral bier or casket, and instructs the young man to rise. The young man sits up and begins to speak, “and Jesus gave him to his mother.” Her household was restored. The word spreads.
These stories are not just about the slave or the son – they are about the Centurion and the widow. They are about the power of the Lord as derived from his Father in heaven. They are examples of what Jesus was talking about in the previous chapter (6) in his Sermon on the Plain: to be merciful just as our Father in heaven is merciful. That such mercy means reaching out in compassion for those who are poor, hungry and those who weep. These stories mean to connect Jesus to Israel’s past when Elijah raised a widow’s son from the dead (I Kings: 17-24), and his apprentice Elisha healed a commander of a foreign nation from afar (2 Kings 4:32-37).
And the reader/listener is meant to remember that at his first sermon in his hometown synagogue Jesus made direct reference to these very prior actions of Elijah and Elisha to justify taking his mission beyond his hometown and ultimately beyond Israel (Luke 4:14-30). And we are meant to recall the announcements of the angels at his birth, and the songs of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) and Mary (Luke 1: 46-55) promising that this child, now a young man, has come to restore not only Israel but all of humankind! These are all stories of restoration.
That is, Luke has set the stage for these two stories very carefully so that when read in the context of the whole story we might see what is really going on here and not be tempted to try and explain how the slave and the woman’s son are revived, but rather to see that their stories are part of a greater story – what some have called The Greatest Story – and is part of God’s ongoing story of the restoration of humankind, of all people – not some people, not a lot of people, but all people.
The Centurion is the ultimate outsider – and quite literally a resident alien, and in the minds of most people, an illegal and dangerous alien at that. And yet, like some of our troops today in Afghanistan who build schools for boys AND girls in that country, he has built a synagogue, a house of study, for the people of Capernaum. He is an example of compassion and mercy which Jesus recognizes, the likes of which he has never seen.
As we meet the widow, she has now lost her son. With no husband or son she is poor and without resources – ie there is no one in her household to take care of her. Jewish law demanded that there be special care for women like her. Add to that the grief of a mother having to bury her own child – like Mary Theotokos, the mother of God will be faced with near the end of Luke’s story.
So Luke’s literary skill has the reader looking back to the beginning of the story, even to the very beginnings of prophetic ministry in Israel, and looking forward to the end of the story, all the while inviting us, the listener, to ponder in what ways this is our story as well.
While volunteering one day at Paul’s Place our diocesan feeding center in Baltimore my friend and colleague Bill Rich looked out at the hungry, poor and homeless and widowed clientele and said, “There by the grace of God am I.” These are our stories.
Not only are we to be merciful as God is merciful, a tall order indeed, we must also first recognize that we are, every day that we rise from sleep and begin a new day, recipients of God’s boundless mercy. I say boundless because as these stories and their predecessors in First and Second Kings illustrate, God’s mercy extends beyond boarders, beyond denominations, beyond religious and geo-political boundaries. God’s mercy has no bounds. Created in God’s image as we are, our mercy is to know no bounds as well. Note that in these stories Jesus restores people from far off or up close and personal, and that those restored make no confession of faith in Jesus – that God’s mercy and restoration does not depend on believing in God or Jesus.
This is how the restoration of Humankind happens. This is how unity overcomes estrangement, forgiveness heals guilt and joy conquers despair. This is how we are to represent Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world – not by building walls, condemning other traditions and fomenting fear and despair, but by being merciful.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that being merciful is the one good idea we have been given so far. Perhaps, he mused, we will get a second good idea. His hunch is that music, the one thing common to all cultures and traditions, the one thing that moves the human spirit in mysterious ways, will somehow be that second good idea being born. That’s why it is so important that we sing and play and listen to music – to allow God’s imagination give birth to new ideas as rich and as important as being merciful. For the one thing we might all agree upon the world over is that we all could use some mercy now. The restoration of the world depends on it. Amen.