This week, millions of people around the globe are contending with COVID. Some are in hospitals on vents, and others are at home; some are desperately trying to recover, and others have mild symptoms. To the tremendous sorrow of friends and family, some of the sick will die, as millions of people around the globe have already. We see the dreadful patterns in who lives and who dies – the people lost to COVID in the United States are more likely to be poor, to be Native, Black or Brown, and to be older. Often they worked in places where they couldn’t escape other people – health care workers, bus drivers and grocery store employees.
This pair of stories raises the same question we’ve been pondering all through 2020. Who gets the gift of healing, and who does not?
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
Read the scripture here.
Like a PR advance team, the centurion sends people ahead of him to make his case to Jesus. First the Jewish elders come, and then his friends – perhaps others soldiers? Neighbors? We never hear exactly who they are. The Jewish elders call him worthy, and the friends tell Jesus that the soldier knows he’s not worthy. Is he hedging his bets? Jesus lauds his faith, and the people return to his home find the slave healed. In this half of the story, we never hear from the centurion himself, although he feels very present through his advocates. And we never hear Jesus speak the words of healing – we only learn about the impact. Jesus and the centurion both understand power, and the soldier’s faith impresses Jesus.
But faith can’t be the criterion for healing. And it can’t be because he asks, or has people ask for him. In the second story, the widow doesn’t ask for anything. Jesus is moved by her plight, and raises her son from death to life. The widow doesn’t speak, and her son is the one who begins to talk, evidence of the miracle, as soon as he returns to life. We don’t learn anything about her faith, or even whether she’s a good mother or not. This gift comes without all of the carefully planned requests and the character references that the centurion supplies.
So, how do people get Jesus’ attention, so they can be healed? And, how does it happen in our world?
In our world, systemic injustice, poverty, underlying health conditions and age have a lot to do with who heals from COVID, and who does not. Still, even with everything we know, we face a mystery in who lives and who dies. These stories from Luke show us the same mystery. We don’t see all of other grieving widows who don’t happen to run into Jesus, and still have to bury their sons. We don’t hear what happens to all of the other sick people in Capernaum. Even for us, with all of our medical advances, illness and healing and death still hold deep mystery.
The sermon might look at the incredible gift of healing. For us, it comes routinely through medicine and physicians, and we sometimes understand it only as a physical change. Our minds and bodies are intertwined, and any true healing touches both. Some people still experience healing in ways we can’t explain. The sermon might explore the mysteries of healing, which is more than simply curing illness, and involves a whole re-orientation of life.
Or, the sermon might examine who we find worthy of God’s gifts, and who seems undeserving to us.
Or, the sermon might look at when faith involves doing the unexpected. In his commentary, Brian Stoffregen observes, “Why does Jesus’ stop? “He had compassion for her” (v. 13, NRSV). “His heart went out to her” (v. 13, NIV). It is a wonderful Greek word, partly because it is nearly unpronounceable: splagchnizomai. Literally it refers to having feelings in the bowels (or other inward parts). We tend to make the heart the seat of emotions, e.g., “his heart went out to her,” but they centered them in the bowels. We do that to some extent, too, e.g., butterflies in one’s stomach, or “gut” feelings. This verb is used two other times in Luke. The next occurrence is the feeling the (Good) Samaritan has for the beat-up man on the side of the road (10:33). Then it is used of the feeling of the father when he sees his prodigal son return home (15:20). In both cases, those with those feelings acted contrary to expectations. The Samaritan helps the injured Jew. The father goes running (an improper act for a man) to his now-found son. Jesus delays the rest [for his] tired, worn-out entourage to help this widow — something she didn’t even ask for.”
Where are your thoughts taking you this Sunday? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Senior Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, where the members come from over 30 countries. She’s trying not to obsessively calculate when her loved ones might get the vaccine. The image above is via Pexels.
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