When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
Matthew 8:5-7 (NIV)
I’ve been preparing a message I’m going to be giving among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers this Sunday. A year or two ago I happened to do a little personal study on the subject of fundamentalism. I was prompted to do some research because I noticed certain parallels of thought and behavior among a particular civic group that reminded me of things I saw in some of the Christian fundamentalist groups I experienced earlier in my spiritual journey.
My research came up with six elements that mark fundamentalist groups, elements that I would argue create a toxic cocktail no matter where they are found. All major religions have fundamentalist sects that bear these elements. As I studied and meditated on them, I came to realize that the elements of toxic fundamentalism can really be found in almost any human system including political, institutional, corporate, or even in families. As I was studying the assigned text for this Sunday’s message, I realized that Jesus’ religious critics displayed all six elements within the stories.
One of the elements of fundamentalist systems is that they maintain strict “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions. You must toe the line in thought, words, and behavior to be considered “in” with us, but the slightest misstep or evidence that you’ve run afoul of the rules or belief system and you are “out.”
The Hebrew religious system from which Jesus came was a fundamentalist form of Judaism. They had strict “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions. The religious power brokers wouldn’t associate with fellow Hebrews who were on the “outs” because they didn’t toe the line. And the Roman occupying force in Judea was really on the outs with the good religious authorities as well as almost all Hebrews who considered them the enemy.
In today’s chapter, Jesus has just finished his message on the hill, in which He told His listeners to love the enemy. He returns toward their base of operation and he is met by a Roman Centurion (enemy, occupier, a persecutor of His people, religiously dirty “gentile,” and pagan!). The Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus immediately asks if He should come to the Centurion’s house.
Entering the house of a Roman was strictly against fundamentalist rules. The Romans were the “outs” of all “outs.” Years later, in Acts 10, Peter will face the same fundamentalist religious dilemma of being invited to a Centurion’s home. Jesus doesn’t even hesitate: “Would you like me to come with you?”
In the quiet this morning, I was struck by Jesus’ words to His followers after healing the servant remotely and sending the Centurion on his way:
“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus points out that people will be surprised who they see at heaven’s feast. Some of those who were on the “outs” on earth will be present while some of the “ins” on earth will not.
So who do I consider on the “outs” with me and my belief system? Who would I refrain from accepting an invitation to their home? Who is so worthless in my eyes and I don’t even want to be near them? I think the roots of fundamentalisms are found in my own sinful nature. Jesus not only came to forgive me of my sin but also to call me to live contrary to it. Which means tearing down my own personal “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.