Matthew 8 – Heathens at the Table

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Today’s PassageMatthew 8

Y’know, I’ve had something on my mind lately: sometimes I’m wrong about stuff. My background’s in English, and I know just enough theology, philosophy, and history to be dangerous. In all these fields, time and time again I’ve thought one thing was true, only to read or hear the actual fact of the matter and find my perspective overturned. I’ve never liked Socrates’ adage “I only know that I know nothing,” in part because it violates the Law of Non-Contradiction, and if there’s anything I know, it’s that. But even then, some days I find myself doubting that A is not non-A, whether that’s because of the weakness of my own mind or the viability of the notion that something could really, truly be what it isn’t, which would of course undermine all possibility of rationality and logic. But all of that is a roundabout way of saying that as we open up Matthew 8 today, I’m going to talk about first-century Judaism and the Roman Empire, so watch out.

In this chapter, Jesus performs several miracles of healing and even an exorcism, and one of the individuals healed is a centurion’s servant. Jesus is about to go to the man’s house to heal him, but the centurion insists, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (8). He’s a centurion, he tells Jesus, and he understands that a person with authority can command others to take care of their business; as one with such power, Jesus can get the man’s servant healed without going to the house, even without lifting a finger of his own. Jesus commends the centurion for his faith, healing the servant through miraculous action at a distance, and before the crowds following him, he suggests that Israel could learn from his example–and that if they don’t, it won’t go well for them.

In their historical context, Jesus’ statements about the centurion are nothing short of radical. In the ancient world, for as long as they’d been recording their history, what made a Jew a Jew was God’s commitment to them and their commitment to God. They rejected the gods of the ancient Near East, the gods of Egypt, the immorality of the pagan nations surrounding them–at least when they were at their best. They frequently fell short of God’s calling, but at least God’s Torah gave them a clear picture of the ideal to strive for. And under David and Solomon’s reign, during the Golden Age of Israel, the nation expanded and prospered to an unprecedented degree. God was blessing his people and granting them triumph over those who opposed them.

But jump to Judea in the early first century AD, under Roman occupation, and the situation is 100% upside-down. Rome, with its emperor-worship, its Greek-gods-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off pantheon, and its pervasive, brutally efficient military that shut down any Jewish movements to claim any rights beyond what Rome allowed them to have, was the pagan oppressor, and the people of Israel were the light of God shining in the godless darkness. It’s in that context that Jesus turns to those watching him talk to the centurion and applauds the faith of this Roman career soldier:

Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (10-12)

You catch that? He implied that not only will this–pardon my French–Gentile have a place at the table in the age to come, but that some Jews will find themselves shut out of God’s eternal kingdom. Matthew doesn’t note the crowd’s reaction, but I’m sure more than one “son of the kingdom” was appalled and outraged at Jesus’ praise for the centurion.

That’s the thing about Christianity: properly practiced, it doesn’t play the elitism game. Your pedigree doesn’t get you in the door. Your wealth, your national identity, even your religious piety won’t cut it, and no one is denied an invitation for their ethnicity or background or culture. And if you hate a given group, say, the Romans, and refuse to associate with such godless scum? You’re not gonna enjoy the kingdom of heaven much, because guess what: it’s gonna have Romans. And if that’s you, hating the Romans, you might as well go chill in the outer darkness with your fellow haters who are weeping and gnashing their teeth.


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