Image: Roman Centurion.
Jesus liked saying things that made people think. He had an important message to give and he had learned the value of holding a crowd’s interest through story telling and the use of surprise. He liked to turn things upside down. If you wanted to save your life: you should lose it. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Take no thought for the morrow; let it look after itself… that sort of thing. Today he looked at the ground on which they were sitting. He had just said that the kingdom of heaven would be inherited by those who know their spiritual poverty, but what about the kingdoms of the earth?
Inheriting earth depended on whose kingdom you were in and what status you held in that kingdom. The best position to occupy was to be king in a world empire. It was nothing less than the survival of the strongest and smartest. The crowd knew that bullies inherited the earth. Men of might won the battles that gained new lands and protected the homeland. Strength and strategy decided who was victor and who was victim. Appointed by Caesar, Herod the Great had been king of the Jews until recently and then on his death his kingdom was divided between three sons. Herod Antipas had inherited Galilee.
If the people of K’far Nahum knew anything about who would inherit earthly kingdoms it was that those who conquered by the sword were those who inherited the land. The success of the Pharaohs, King David, Sennacharib of Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Darius of Persia, and later Alexander, and Caesar, was built on military strength. Then Jesus said: Blessed are the gentle for they shall inherit the earth.
What a load of nonsense! What the rebels of Galilee wanted was a Messiah who would get rid of the occupying yoke of Rome and set the Jews free again. What kind of a wuss would expect to lead people out of bondage by being gentle? I have the distinct feeling that the crowd listening to Jesus was no more ready to hear this message than people are today. Maybe some leaders well ahead of their time such as Mahatma Gandhi of India or Te Whiti of Parihaka could have understood what Jesus was on about.
And yet some of the greatest moral advances have come from the gentle insistence of fairness in redressing injustice. Think about the change of status of slaves, women, foreigners, sick people, in fact anyone who is different from what is considered to be the norm or ideal.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us of a centurion in K’far Nahum who entreated Jesus to heal his paralysed servant boy. The soldier demonstrated more faith in Jesus’ ability to help him than Jesus says he found anywhere else in Israel and consequently the boy was healed. Maybe that centurion was there in the crowd that day, and if his and Jesus’ eyes met, Jesus would have been reminded of the might of the Roman army, that hated occupying military force, and the soldier may have glimpsed the potential power of an enemy’s love. Given the right circumstance, he could well need to come to Jesus for help, and of course, later on, he did just that.
Song: The Good Earth
Tune: Aurelia, S.S.Wesley, WOV 385. Gently but with strength
In terms of earthly kingdoms, the Jews had lost their way,
At first they had King David, then others had their say,
Egyptians, Syrians, Persians, the Greeks and those from Rome
Had claimed their earth by force and birth and stole their very home.
The irony in Jesus’ words came with a true contrast,
Messiah for the Jewish race meant freedom from the past.
A gentle king was seen to be a pointless contradiction,
But history shows, if given time, that power is no fiction.
The world has never really learned the value of this vision;
The church herself is not immune from bitter-held division.
Disciples can be traitors; Arch-Bishops, Christ as fake;
Reformers can be tyrants; St Joan burnt at the stake.