Sermon: Healing beyond the Boundaries

Scriptures: Isaiah 2:2-4; Matthew 8:5-13

Preached: online for NPC on February 28, 2021 by Rev. Merritt N. Schatz


          Was it a question or was it a statement? You could ask this of either the request of the centurion or of Jesus’ response. The centurion comes from a position of power – who would dare to deny a centurion a request? On the other hand, the centurion seems to be asking with genuine humility.

          Jesus’ response is less clear. The New Revised Standard Version, read today, indicates Jesus gave a positive response, “I will come and cure him.” The New International Version translates this phrase as a question, “Will I come and cure him?” Given the differences between ancient texts, and the fact that punctuation was not standardized as it is today, either translation could be correct. The one thing that written reports lack is intonation – or emojis! Maybe we better look at both possibilities. What would each tell us?

          As a statement, Jesus’ response creates a parallel with the event Matthew places directly ahead of this story. Last week we looked at that story, Jesus declares that he does choose to heal. Jesus then healed the leper. I do choose. I will come. I will cure.

          As a question, we find a parallel in Matthew 15:21-28, the troubling story of the Caananite woman who petitioned Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus initially declines, stating that he has been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Only after she reminds him that even the dogs eat of the crumbs from the table, does Jesus grant her request, and declares her great faith. This story comes just after Jesus has several run-ins with the Jewish authorities. The faith of the Cannanite woman is a rebuke to those authorities who thought so highly of their own faith. Could Jesus be taking the same tactic here? Jesus speaks highly of the faith of the centurion. He even states that many will come from east and west and sit at the table in the kingdom of heaven, while many who expect to do so will not!

          Imagine being part of the crowd that day. Jesus has healed a leper – awesome! Amazing! Even those who were astonished that Jesus let a leper come near him, must have had some compassion on the leper and been impressed by Jesus’ power. Some of these must have followed Jesus to Capernaum where the centurion approached Jesus. Many in the crowd must have wondered what Jesus would do. Some, who knew the good works of the centurion, might hold their breath hoping that Jesus would help the man. Others, who knew only the brutality of occupying soldiers, might have cocked their head and hoped to hear Jesus send this foreigner on his way. This was their healer, not his. What would Jesus say?

          Some heard him say, “I will come and will cure.” ‘What? First lepers and now a Gentile? Does this man not have any boundaries?’ ‘Oh, be quiet! Why shouldn’t Jesus help a centurion? He calls Jesus, Lord. Imagine that! This representative of the ruling power admits Jesus is great than he! Listen as he is telling Jesus that Jesus need not travel to his unworthy home; Jesus can heal from a distance!’

          Others remember it differently. They see Jesus turning to the crowd, throwing out his arms, and asking, “Will I come? Will I heal?” It is a challenge to the crowd just as Jesus later challenged the temple authorities, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Like the authorities, the crowd is silent, and in the pause, the centurion ventures to declare that Jesus need not come himself. The centurion acknowledges the power of Jesus, not only healing power, but the authority to command. This is faith that is more than grateful for healings done or healings that might be done. The centurion recognizes the allegiance and obedience which the love of God commands.

          In response, Jesus declares what the centurion has implied – God’s love knows no boundaries. People will come from east and west and sit at God’s table. People who expect to come, yet do not submit to the authority of God’s grace and love, will find no place for them at the table.

          This Lenten season we are exploring the gospel of Matthew with reference to healing stories. In the atmosphere of repentance which is appropriate not only in Lent, we are looking at the various forms of brokenness in ourselves, in our communities, in our country and in our world. Last week we looked at healing of our physical bodies. This week we are looking at the brokenness of our communities, within the Body of Christ and our communities of society, and around the world.

          The brokenness of our society has been evident for many years, but has become highlighted during this pandemic. Disparities in economics, opportunities, justice, and health care are some of the most egregious examples of our failure to live up to the “justice for all” that we proudly proclaim, and which God commands. The 500,000 and counting deaths due to Covid-19, disproportionately occurring among the poor and people of color, stand in stark witness to the destructive boundaries which exist. Yet this is not the only example.

The sinful boundaries in our culture have sometimes been literal – redlining of housing and access to voting come to mind. Other boundaries have been more subtle – admission to colleges, job applications, access to accomplished lawyers for defense, distance from healthcare either by cost or location, are among many other examples. Because some, through extraordinary effort, have been able to cross these boundaries, we have assumed that all could if they just tried hard enough. Most of us have been able to live as if the boundaries do not exist. This is not because our lives are easy; many have not been. However, the statement is still true because we do not face the additional hurdles which many in our society encounter.

          What would Jesus say to these sinful boundaries? Whether Jesus responded to the centurion with an immediate positive “I will come and will cure,” or challenged the crowd first with “Will I come and cure?” the message of Jesus’ response is clear. Before praising the centurion’s faith, Jesus shakes the crowd up with his declaration that the boundaries have shifted. Laws and ritual sacrifices are not God’s boundary. Ethnic allegiances are not God’s boundary. Economic security and power are not God’s boundary. Religious affiliations are not God’s boundary. Even sinfulness is not God’s boundary, since we are all sinners. Denial of compassion and grace for one another, especially in the name of God, is the boundary which Jesus sets.

          Ironically, it is in the breaking down of boundaries that our brokenness can be healed. Jesus called a tax collector, ordinary fishermen, a zealot and others to be his earliest disciples. Jesus healed the leper, and the servant of a centurion – among others. Jesus dismissed the woman caught in adultery with the command not to sin again. Jesus forgave sinners and restored them to community. Jesus declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and then declared that this reading was fulfilled in our hearing.

          Jesus throws out his arms and turns to look at us. ‘Will I go, will I cure?’ We can hear him saying, ‘I have come; I have cured. I will come again and I will cure.” But we must also hear Jesus saying, “Have you heard? Will you follow? Will you be my Body?”

“Will you break down the barriers which create enmity, hate, and despair? Will you open your blind eyes, or the eyes of your neighbors, to the disparities, to the injustices in the world, where you live? Will you see each person as worthy of your concern, worthy of dignity? Will you open the table of acceptance and love which the grace of God has opened to you? What will you do to follow me?” Jesus says, ‘Open yourselves to being healed, and I will come. I will heal your brokenness.’

Let us draw near to God, to the Christ who welcomes all. Let us entrust our brokenness to the Lord, and work with Christ to heal the brokenness of our culture, of our world. Christ’s arms are open wide, beckoning all to come, to be embraced by the living God, to be healed of our divisions. Thanks be to God! Amen

Resources:  Bible

                    Holy Vessels program, Marcia McFee - Sermon Fodder

                    Wilson, Walter T., Healing in the Gospel of Matthew (2014,                                          Fortress Press)


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