My devotions this morning focused on Matthew 8:5-13, the story of Jesus healing an army officer's servant. I love when I read a passage of Scripture that I have read many times and I'm greeted with a new understanding -- an epiphany! This is a story I know well, but it has never presented itself to me as a story of contextualization before.
What is interesting is that it is not a case of Jesus contextualizing his message, but of the officer localizing Jesus in his world. So often we focus our energy on how we "do" contextualization, how we translate God's love and mercy (I use that word a lot myself) or how we become relevant, and don't leave room in our thinking for the ways people in their own world can see Christ in their midst.
It's clear that's what happened to the officer, because he isn't standing by the gate making idle chat with one of many passing travelers. He seeks Jesus out and addresses him as "Lord," implying that he recognizes Jesus' authority. His statement about his servant's pain is clearly a request, since there's no real reason for him to bring that up in casual conversation. Jesus recognizes his seriousness and his faith and agrees to go heal the servant.
Here's where it gets interesting. Clearly this officer has seen something in Jesus, or been told something about him, that he recognizes as authority worth submitting to. Soldiers are trained, of course, to obey the constituted authorities over them in service of their mission. But they are not likely to submit to just any authority. Occupying forces learn to be wary of the populations they are imposing themselves on, as US forces are in Iraq, uncertain who is an insurgant and who is just trying to get on with their everyday life. There are certain trust relationships assumed with political and tribal leadership, but for this soldier to risk trust in an unconstituted authority, the "leader" and teacher of a religious minority, he must have sensed in Jesus a larger authority.
There is nothing said of how the officer came to know this. Perhaps he witnessed one of Jesus' healing, or been told about his teaching with authority. But he immediately places Jesus and his authority in his world. The officer knows these relationships well. Disobeying a direct order from his superiors would have dire consequences for him, and he would no doubt impose serious punishment on one of the soldiers under his command for the same infraction. In his world obeying orders is a matter of life and death. And he senses that Jesus is the real deal, that he is in command of forces of health and life. So he both recognizes his place ("I'm not good enough for you to come into my house") in the chain of command and submits not only his servant but himself to Jesus' order. He could have just commandeered Jesus and taken him to lay hands on the servant; he had that authority. But he saw beyond the benefit he could get from Jesus' gift of healing and glimpsed who Jesus was, his goodness and his true authority.
Jesus is quick to use this display of faith as a teching moment. "This," he says, "is faith: knowing who I am and living as if that is true." The officer didn't need guarantees or convincing, he didn't need a display of power to see if his faith was warranted, he simply recognized who Jesus was and oriented his life around that fact. And Jesus is very clear here that that is the kind of faith that is required, not having the right genes, the right outward actions or the right beliefs. "The ones who should have been in the kingdom will be thrown out into the dark."
The crowd must've been amazed. The Pharisees preached an extreme "attractional" model: Get it together and be like us to be right with God. Jesus seems to be saying here that it's not about becoming a Pharisee or even a Jew -- "Many will come from everywhere to enjoy the feast in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Rather, he praises the officer, an outsider who recognizes who Jesus is and, because his world is exposed to the living God, is forever changed by the contact. There's a stunning reciprocity in the contextualization that goes on here; the officer locates Jesus in his context and then, in this case, expands that context to include Jesus along side, even above, the authorities that can punish or execute him.
The question for the day is: How are we -- as individuals and as church -- presenting who Jesus is? Many people hear judgment and exclusion from Christians, a call to change first and then we'll talk. How do we present a merciful and inclusive God whom people can imagine and desire in their own lives, and whose goodness can help them to enlarge and reshape those lives?