Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Praying Like a Pagan

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 6:39-7:10) transports me to the scenic and sprawling campus of First Baptist Church, Greenville, SC, where I spent this past weekend in the annual meeting of the Alliance of Baptists. Along with reports on missions and ministry partnerships, recognitions of endorsed chaplains and pastors, advocacy statements on drone strikes and the Cuba embargo and Palestinian-Jewish relations, and a celebratory “roasting” of a beloved staff member who is moving on, it was simply a time to be with “home folks,” aka kindred spirits and old friends. This, I think, is what brings folks to annual meetings such as these, the opportunity to connect and reconnect with the tribe. These reunions inevitably involve the sharing of war stories and battles scars from the fiery furnace of conflict that forged and continues to forge our particular identity in the larger world of Christendom and baptistdom. While there are some who pine away for the la la land of lovey dovey faith, where no such conflicts arise and no ministerial MASH units are needed, such a fantasy world has never existed. Definitions and boundaries of tribal religion, because faith involves what is most valued and vulnerable to people, has always been contentious. It’s good to read a bit of history every once in a while to be reminded just how pedestrian and pacific, relatively speaking, our baptist wars have been.

Jesus ministered just about the time the Roman empire was approaching its 100th anniversary of the conquest of Jerusalem. General Pompey did not march into a 63 BCE city solidified and unified in opposition to the Romans. No, he entered a not-so-civil war between two warring factions of Jewish faith, the Pharisees and Saduccees. It was actually a family affair, with two brothers heading up the respective opposition armies. Hyrcanus sided with the Pharisees; little brother Aristobulus led the Saduccees. It was a bloody knock down drag out ordeal, and when the Romans neared the epicenter of battle, both brothers sent tribute gifts to try and gain an alliance with the conquerors. Pompey got a lay of the land and eventually discerned that the elder, weaker brother, Hyrcanus, would be a more reliable ally to the occupying Roman forces. There was no truce, though; 25 years later, during the early days of Herod the Great, Aristobulus’ son Antigonus Matthathias sought revenge for his father’s defeat, and developed enough strategic alliances to forge a coup and overthrow Hyrcanus from the High Priest’s seat. According to Josephus, the young gun went mano a mano with Uncle Hyrcanus and bit the old man’s ears off, making him permamently ineligible to perform priestly functions. Ouch. As bad as things got in the heat of the baptist wars, I don’t think anyone ever pulled a Mike Tyson.

We can conclude from a cursory reading of New Testament texts that flames of theological and political conflict between Pharisees and Sadduccees were still smoldering a century later, along with power plays for Roman support in the sacred arguments. It was part of the mix when Jesus was traveling and teaching, touching the untouchables and treating the sick. This is the backdrop of the healing story in today’s text, where a Roman centurion beckons help for his dying slave. This particular pagan had ingratiated himself with some of the local elders; they appealed to Jesus to heal the slave, because the centurion had demonstrated that he was on their side. As the centurion meets Jesus, he gives what turns out to be one of the oddest confessions of faith ever recorded: I am a powerful man, he says to Jesus. I command soldiers to jump, and they ask how high. When Jesus heard this, he responded with one of the most outlandish non sequiturs in scripture: I have never heard such faith among the Israelites. And he healed the slave. What do we make of it? Given the location of this healing story in the text, tucked in among teachings about the essence of true faith, could it be that Jesus was simply using the pagan profession to prove the point of his parables? Among the keepers of the faith, the ever-arguing Pharisees and Sadduccees,  the tendency was always to point out the heretical speck in the other’s eye. The tendency was to build intricate theological houses of orthodoxy on shifting sands of cultural norms. Jesus was aiming square at the headstrong hypocrisies of such obstinate fundamentalist faith, whether it was found among Pharisees or Sadducees. For Jesus, being heart-strong with compassion was far more important than being headstrong with creeds. Bearing the fruit of faith, hope, and love, not thorny credal confessions, was the evidence Jesus looked for in discerning who was maintaining a covenant relationship with God. Compassion was the treasure; it was the solid rock foundation of life. And by lifting up the faith of this random Roman who wandered into his path, Jesus was taking advantage of an opportunity to take a dig at the pious culture warriors. Nowhere inside the boundaries of traditional piety do I see faith like this pagan’s, he said. I don’t think it was the centurion’s authoritative command of soldiers that moved Jesus. Looking into the centurion’s heart, and seeing some surprising compassion for a suffering slave, must have been what made the connection.

How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.

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