"Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven, but the children of the Kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."
There is much astonishment in this passage from the Gospel of Saint Mark. Jesus, his disciples, bystanders, onlookers and the centurion are amazed at what happens when the soldier approaches Jesus.
Astonishment has become a major theme of our time, especially as bioengineers and technologists keep developing wonderful new machines. In fact there are studies of awe and wonder; amazed researchers believe such feelings promote harmony and loving kindness.
We should suppose that the encounter of the centurion and Jesus is at least unexpected. What would these two have in common? The Jewish teacher and the Roman soldiers operate in different hemispheres of the universe. Had they lived in our time and surfed the Internet they would have met one another as often as I search for information about AK47s and RPGs -- never. In fact they would have avoided each other as I avoid horrifying information about killing machines.
But meet they did because the centurion had somehow heard that Jesus was a compassionate healer, and the soldier's servant, for whom he had a particular affection, was "paralyzed and suffering dreadfully." They were not drawn together by idle curiosity but by the officer's compassion for his servant and God's desire to save us.
What happened next provides a challenging lesson especially for our time. It is described with words like diversity, openness, hospitality, multiculturalism and inclusiveness. Jesus and his coterie were not naturally disposed to welcome military officers of an occupying army. Nor was the centurion given to respect those he was commissioned to intimidate. If he had any interest in their sense of wonder it would have sounded like "shock and awe." He would have discussed with his fellow officers ways to cow the populace into submission. If Jesus was not quaking in his sandals at the approach of the centurion you can be sure his disciples were.
But when Jesus recognized the deference of the Roman who could not permit the Messiah "under his roof," he was amazed; and this amazement led to harmony and loving kindness.
His statement to the disciples and onlookers was equally astonishing:
"I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven,but the children of the Kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."Today Christian churches struggle to open their doors to people of different classes, races, ethnic and language groups, political convictions and sexual identity. They feel an obligation to observe hospitality for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels. But they also have powerful convictions about how people should relate to one another, convictions based on their reading of scripture.
Meanwhile, the secular press eagerly discomfits the churches as they dig up stories of distress and confusion in the congregations. If it's new or interesting or curious the news media have already decided how the churches should deal with it. They define compassion and use it condemn a multitude of cultural sins.
In this passage from Saint Matthew everyone is amazed and, we can suppose, everyone experienced a change of heart. Even Jesus apparently experienced an unexpected conversion when he met the Roman soldier face to face. How else would he be so surprised if he had not supposed centurions managed their households with the same steely indifference as they controlled the populace?
I take from this story a readiness to encounter and engage strangers -- people who are strange to me. They're certainly all around me in the VA. It is quite an opportunity to hear different religious opinions, political beliefs and personal disclosures. If I judge people as soon as I see them, my judgement is changed by the ensuing conversation. I am converted often by the people, if not by their opinions.
I remember that God loves the people, not necessarily their opinions. The Savior did not suffer and die to redeem opinions, much less ideologies or economic systems. How this will all shake down in the end I don't know and do not need to know.
Being open to complete strangers, I am more likely to meet the stranger in my own family or friary, the one I thought I knew. Every human person is like God, an ongoing revelation, and should be greeted with amazement, like a visiting angel.