Archive | September, 2007

Only Say the Word- Luke 7:1-17

5 Sep

The Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel ends with Jesus sternly admonishing His disciples to not only call Him “Lord, Lord” (Luke 6:46), but to act according to His teaching. Failure to live the Christian message despite having heard it, Jesus states clearly, will result in “ruin”. (Luke 6:49)

…A sudden change of focus occurs between St. Luke’s controversy narratives (cf. Luke 5:12 to 6:11) and the Sermon on the Plain. (cf. Luke 6:17-49) Similarly, Luke shifts from the Sermon on the Level Place into the stories of Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant and of the raising of the widow’s son at Nain. The change in setting here is most obvious; Jesus learns of the illness of the centurion’s slave when He arrives at Capernaum. This Galilean city is mentioned twice previously in Luke’s Gospel. In the first instance, Jesus speaks of it as He senses the lack of faith of His fellow Nazarenes in God’s promise of a Messiah:

“He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’’” (Luke 4:23)

Remarkably, St. Luke records this reference to Capernaum by Our Lord before writing about Jesus’ first visit there, which occurs in Luke 4:31. While the Gospel of Luke was not designed to be simply a chronological account, and therefore Jesus may have journeyed to Capernaum before traveling to Nazareth, the Gospel writer did wish “to set down an orderly account” of the life of Christ. (Luke 1:1) However, the order intended by St. Luke is conveyed more in his Gospel’s message than in individual instances. Thus, the mention of Capernaum prior to any description of Jesus going there happens for a reason. Possibly, Luke was attempting to teach early Christians the virtue of faith in that which had not yet occurred, just as Jesus renewed in the synagogue at Nazareth the prophet Isaiah’s proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favour” that was just beginning to be fulfilled in and by Himself. (Isaiah 61:2, cf. Luke 4:19) Our Messiah made salvation available to the righteous, while extending the same opportunity to those who would rebel against His message.

Throughout the Gospels, Capernaum is symbolic of such rebellion and infidelity. Other than Nazareth (cf. John 1:46), few cities in Jesus’ time had a worse reputation than that of Capernaum. This centre of wickedness drew a harsh reprimand from Jesus, in an incident that is recorded on both Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels. (cf. Luke 10:15 and Matthew 11:23) The depravity of Capernaum, among the other places listed, is compared with that of Sodom, of Tyre, and of Sidon. Jesus, though, had not performed powerful deeds of those cities. Thus, Capernaum’s punishment for its failure to repent would be worse than the reprisal against cities that not been given an equal chance to see the power of God at work.

The Gospels of Sts. Luke and Mark both register one such deed by Christ at Capernaum- the healing of the man with an evil spirit. (cf. Luke 4:31 and Mark 1:21) Both Gospels chronicle this event early in Jesus’ ministry, and in both cases Jesus performs this exorcism upon His first documented visit to Capernaum. Then, of course, the narrative of the healing of the centurion’s servant at Capernaum, or a similar story, is found in three of the Gospels: in Matthew (8:5-13), in Luke (7:1-10), and in John (4:46-54). Unlike the Synoptic Gospel accounts, though, John describes the man whose son, as opposed to his servant, is ill as “a royal official”. (John 4:46) That official asks Jesus directly to heal his son, who is said to be “at the point of death”. (John 4:47) In Luke’s Gospel, delegations are sent to Jesus to tell Him about the centurion’s ailing servant, whereas Matthew writes of a direct conversation between Jesus and the centurion. Despite these differences between the Gospels, the message about maintaining faith in that which is yet unseen remains intact, and the situation of this story at Capernaum by all three Gospel writers is a constant.

Even though Jesus focused many great deeds on cities like Capernaum, as many of the people living in these places seemed incorrigible. Therefore, Jesus necessarily became angry with them. For example, St. John writes of Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables and freeing the animals in the temple. (cf. John 2:13-25) I remember my father’s citation of this story when I, as a child, inquired as to when, if ever, anger was appropriate. Dad responded that he could recall only a few times, the cleansing of the temple among them, where Jesus had become furious. In fact, the Psalmist characterizes God as “slow to anger” (Psalm 86:15), while the book of Sirach describes “anger and wrath” as “abominations”. (Sirach 27:30)

The latter passage reminds me of a homily delivered by my current spiritual director some time ago. He referred to that verse from Sirach by asking, “What is an abomination?” Just then, a cellular telephone rang out in the chapel. The priest’s expression suddenly became stern, and then he said with his usual wry sense of humour that drew laughs from the congregation, “THAT is an abomination!” Cellular phones aside, anger becomes sinful if one is unwilling to forgive the object of his or her wrath. Grudges impair one’s judgment and one’s ability to love and to be compassionate toward one’s neighbour. Thus, Jesus’ anger is always tempered by pastoral sensitivity toward His people. The same is true in places like Capernaum, where Our Lord shared some of His most important teachings.

On the road to Capernaum, the Apostles were beset by the widely-known ills of their destination, particularly by that of self-righteousness. The twelve, according to St. Mark, fought amongst themselves to decide who was the greatest. Jesus called them together and taught them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Then Jesus placed a child amid the Apostles in order to reinforce His lesson: “Whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes not Me but the One who sent Me.” (Mark 9:37)

St. John records yet another of Jesus’ teachings in the same city, one which even His closest followers find difficult. The Lord, emphasizing the gift of His entirety to us, said, “I am the living bread that comes down from Heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh…Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:51, 53) This incident, along with nearly all of John 6, takes place in or near Capernaum. After the feeding of the five thousand beside the Sea of Tiberias (cf. v.1-15), Jesus took solitary refuge on a mountain while His disciples traveled across the sea. St. John describes the disciples as “terrified” (v.19) when a storm arose over the water. Furthermore, darkness had fallen by the time Jesus appeared, walking on water toward the disciples and saying, “It is I, do not be afraid.” (v. 21, cf. v.17) However, despite the eventuality of God’s abundant consolation, we almost invariably experience episodes of fear and possibly of a deeper inward darkness of the soul. Like the crowds on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, we find ourselves in search of Jesus, often when He is closest to us, standing “on the other side of the sea”. (John 6:24-25)

The centurion in Luke’s Gospel represents one who searches for Jesus in faith and in humility. His example is worth emulating. As I noted previously, the centurion didn’t meet Jesus directly in the Gospel of Luke. Instead, he sent two delegations, one comprised of Jewish elders and the other presumably made up of Gentiles, to alert Jesus to the plight of his slave. (cf. Luke 7:3, 6) Although he was employed by the occupying Romans and although he didn’t share the religion of the majority of Israelites, the centurion was respected by persons of many backgrounds. The Jewish elders first told Jesus of the centurion’s love for them that was shown by his building of their synagogue. (cf. Luke 7:5) Afterward, the centurion, speaking through his friends, admitted that he commanded both slaves and fellow soldiers, who obeyed him well:

“I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it.” (Luke 7:8 )

As much as the centurion had authority, though, he was also “a man set under authority”. (Luke 7:8 ) Likewise, Jesus Christ, despite having ultimate authority over His Creation, places Himself at our command. Accordingly, the centurion’s friends approached Him with reverence. Though the centurion recognized his own power over his soldiers and slaves, he relayed these words to the Son of God:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” (Luke 7:7)

Upon hearing the centurion’s plea, Jesus healed the slave, who was found to be healthy by those who returned to the centurion’s house. (cf. Luke 7:10) Jesus responded to the words of the centurion in amazement, according to the Gospel: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9)

Just as Jesus humbled Himself to come to the centurion’s assistance, He “emptied Himself” for us. (Philippians 2:7) Our Saviour gave Himself up to death on a Cross, and He offers His complete being to us in the perpetual gift of the Eucharist. During the Mass, when the priest lifts the host before us, we therefore echo the words of the centurion, praying for the remission of our own sins as well as for the forgiveness of the transgressions of our brothers and sisters: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

On the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary this year, August 14, I visited a prominent site about an hour’s drive from Edmonton called Skaro. I was accompanied by Mom and by my Godmother. Many Polish and Ukrainian immigrants to central Alberta established farms and small communities like Skaro, so the annual pilgrimage there is an important cultural event. Vespers (Evening Prayer) in Polish was followed by Mass in English. During Mass, the priest repeated the centurion’s humble pronouncement with conviction that I found reminiscent of the fervor of St. John Chrysostom (c.347-407), the “golden-tongued” Bishop and Doctor of the Church. (cf. Fr. John Laux, Church History, 1989)

“Domine, non sum dignus…” My father reminded me when I was preparing for my First Communion to mean these words deeply as I repeated them. We are truly never worthy to receive Christ, yet during Mass Christ responds to our plea for healing as He did to the centurion. He makes Himself even more vulnerable than a newborn child, giving Himself to us in the form of bread and wine.

God indeed troubles Himself in such a way to come to us, so that we might then be like Christ to the world. As we celebrate the Eucharist, our invocation of the Word is not in vain, as it is from those who cry, “Lord, Lord”, but do not follow Jesus’ teaching. We await the greater wonder of our rising to eternal life. Jesus foreshadowed His power to conquer death when He raised the widow’s son at Nain. Jesus’ first words to the widow whose only son had died were: “Do not weep”. (Luke 7:13) In the same verse, St. Luke notes the Lord’s compassion toward the widow. One who bears the image of Christ- an alter-Christus- can be characterized by empathy toward the suffering. Compassion is one of the foremost marks of a true prophet.

In the story of the raising of the widow’s son, Luke reveals a valuable commentary on prophecy. The Gospel writer refers throughout this narrative to the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha, who both raised young men back to life. In Elijah’s case, the man who was raised was also the son of a widow (cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24), whereas the man raised by Elisha was the only child of a wealthy Shunammite woman and of her elderly husband. (cf. 2 Kings 4:8-37) Upon summoning the men from the dead, both Elijah and Elisha are greatly praised by the mothers whose sons had come to life again. The same is true of Jesus, who is lauded by the crowd: “‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on His people!’” (Luke 7:16) Of course, “word about Him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country” (Luke 7:17), but prophecy entails something more than simply being reputed among the masses.

Jesus is both a prophet and more than a prophet, and He calls us also to be prophets, and yet something more than prophets. He places Himself in our hands, just as He gave the woman’s son to her at Nain after raising him from the grave. We go forth from the Eucharist having received Jesus fully, though we count ourselves among the unworthy.

“Behold, this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…” Eternal Word, you call to us as you spoke to the widow’s son at Nain: “I say to you, rise!” (Luke 7:14) Only say the word, then, and we shall be healed. Lord, forgive us our sins and save us from death so that on the Last Day we may we rise with You to the everlasting joy of Heaven. Amen.