Church Stories (or, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ Two-Woman Show)

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For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the Gospel of Luke and its relationship to the Gospel of Mark. We’ve noted that the author or authors of both Matthew and Luke’s gospels use the Gospel of Mark as a narrative template, so there is a sizable amount of material the three have in common. This shared material is called the triple tradition. As we are following the Narrative Lectionary, we have had several recent opportunities to look at how the author of Luke uses, edits, and presents the triple tradition in order to say something important about Jesus.

This week is different; the healing of the centurion’s slave is not found in the Gospel of Mark. It is, however, found in the Gospel of Matthew. This allows us to discuss another of the central theories in biblical studies: the two-source theory. Now, I don’t want to turn devolve into a lecture, so we’ll keep it as straight-forward as possible. Scholars long had been trying to figure out the literary relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, called synoptic from the Greek, “with the same eye.” This is known as the Synoptic Problem. The theory of Markan Priority holds that the Gospel of Mark was written first. The authors of Matthew and Luke use Mark as their narrative framework, accounting for source number #1. Matthew and Luke have a sizable amount of material which is exactly or nearly exactly alike, but is not found in Mark. Scholars believe Mt and Lk could not have arrived at that material independently of one another, so they must have had a common written source. Scholars have constructed that source through meticulous study and debate, and have named it Q, short for Quelle, the German word for source.

Biblical scholars are ingenious in some regards, and really disappointing in others. Really? “Source”? That’s the best we can do? Why not, “super secret awesome Jesus stuff?”

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So, today’s passage comes from the Quelle source, numero dos in the two-source theory. Q is not a narrative gospel like the canonical gospels. It is a discourse gospel, like the Sayings Gospel of Thomas: a collection of sayings that contain the teachings of Jesus, and a few teachings about Jesus, but there is no mention of a sacrificial death or blood atonement. What is important is what Jesus says and does. Collections like these sometimes are called gnomologia traditions, literally “words of wisdom.”

Bear with me for just a few more points; I promise you that this information will come in handy as we discern together what it might be that God is wishing us to see. Early Christianity was not uniform, but the elements of worship were developing. We have always been a people who gather around the Word. But the Protestant model does not do a good job in approximating our ancient counterparts. There is too much personality of the preacher in Protestant homiletics. For better or worse, I’m present in each and every sermon. Two thousand years ago, presenters of the word were storytellers. They did not have a single Bible to which they could turn; they assembled stories from other story tellers, from texts they had read (if they could read; perhaps a majority could not), and they would go from community to community. They were apostles, which literally means “ones sent out.” And at each place the storytelling apostles arrived, they would discern the needs of the community and would tell stories aimed at using cultural and context clues familiar to audience so they could better see Jesus.

While there are many different theories about biblical storytelling–and perhaps the greatest scholar in the field of performance criticism is Dr. Thomas Boomershine, who teaches at United Theological Seminary where I study–a prevalent theory holds that the tellers arranged stories into “types.” Miracle stories. Conflict stories. Healing stories. Parables. These narrative types have been identified and discussed by biblical scholars within other sub-disciplines, most often called criticisms. All of this to say, what we encounter today is a familiar story type with some unfamiliar contours.

Let’s start with the cast of characters. A Roman centurion is not anyone you would expect to be caring about a slave. Also unusual would be a Roman centurion, which is the equivalent of a sergeant-major, providing personal money to construct a synagogue. The Romans had a complicated relationship with religion. William Barclay notes: “As Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said in a famous sentence, ‘The various modes of religion which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.’ But this centurion was no administrative cynic; he was a sincerely religious man.” So religious, in fact, that he dispatches Jewish messengers to assure Jesus, a Jew, that he need not risk becoming ritually unclean by entering into a Gentile home, a violation of Jewish law. The conversation happens by proxy, not because Jesus believes the Jewish law should be binding, but because a Roman centurion, whose entire education would have been based around enforcing the supremacy of Rome and the degradation of the occupied, has such great respect and belief in Jesus he uses his power to show humility.

Without question we should be uncomfortable about how tacitly Scriptures approve of slavery, but that is a conversation for another day; what is remarkable about today’s pericope is the context of the proxied conversation. The centurion communicates the content of his faith basically like this: I give commands and they are followed; I command my slave, and it is done. How much power must Christ have, then, to act in the world?

Jesus’ response is telling: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

There are many ways we could interpret this story; many ways that it has been used across history. We don’t have time for them all, so let us develop more fully just one. For a Roman centurion to become the paradigm of faith toward the Jewish God and a Jewish Messiah would have been shocking, for audiences both Gentile and Jew. But this  relationship is not one-sided: the Jewish officials of the town show a genuine love and support for the centurion, and there is no indication of power abuse. Both sides have moved beyond the stereotypes and pain, and have been united in a love for God. This is huge. This is like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis doing a two-woman show. This is Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr going to Bill Goodman’s Gun and Knife Show together. This is the Hatfields and the McCoys getting a time share.

The point of the story, dear beloved, is not that the slave is healed. Not the literal point, anyway. The healing is the finger pointing toward the moon, with the moon being the power of faith. It is the power of faith to bring together people who have been taught to hate one another. To bring together people who have reason to hate one another because they have experienced violence and prejudice. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which the centurion built the synagogue (was it with Roman money and under Roman orders?), but the fact is the local Jewish community feels enough regard for him to acts as emissaries, not on his behalf but on the behalf of his slave.

Remember when we talked about story types? Well one of the story types concerns the formation of community; the fancy terms is ecclesiology. Who and what are we to be when we gather around God in Christ? This pericope is a perfect example: a Roman in a position of power, along with Jewish leaders willing to see God work in others, come to Jesus because they believe he can transform a slave. Think about that: Gentiles and Jews pooling their time, talent, and treasure in order to connect a slave to Jesus. The Apostle Paul uses slavery imagery throughout his epistles, so it is clear that this language is foundational to our faith story. But here the imagery is potent: Jewish and Roman powers demur to Jesus, who responds to such faith by transforming a beloved slave?

Isn’t that pretty much the whole purpose of the Church?

In fact, I think the story about Jesus raising the widow’s son makes essentially the same point. Widows were incredibly vulnerable members of society, largely because of patriarchal structures. Losing her only son meant she had lost any status or protection she once had; this funeral might as well have been her own. She is in a procession of death, but Jesus, with his disciples, come as a procession of life. He is moved by compassion—the same things that causes God to respond to the Hebrews in Egypt: their cries of affliction move God’s compassion and pity—and he raises the boy. Jesus restores his life, and in turn her social standing.

We can absolutely take these stories literally, but that’s not the direction offered this morning. Let us think about how God is calling us to come together; how God is reminding us that the rules and regulations that keep us from seeing another person’s humanity can get in the way of transformation. Of resurrection. Let us hear the ancient story teller in our sanctuary selecting what to say, only to alight upon these two narratives. These two tales that remind us that whether we are powerful or on the margins of society, God sees us. God works in us. God calls us together in defiance of what keeps us apart and says, “Do not weep. I say to you, rise.”

“Do not weep. I say to you, rise.” So let the people of the Church say…

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