When In (or occupied by) Rome…


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, 2 Kings 19:1-20, 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, Matthew 8:1-17

The main conflict in the Gospels is between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish faith. In Acts and the epistles, conflict arises as Jewish and Gentile Christians struggle to become one church. On a larger scale, the backdrop of the entire New Testament is the occupying Roman empire. Christ’s teachings threatened upheaval not just to the Jewish religious leaders, but to the greater social and political order enforced from Rome.

In his lessons and parables Christ used imperial imagery such as kingdoms and victories in a way that turned conventional systems of power and justice upside down. By turning this language on its head in the service of God, he was telling people the existing social structure was not meant to last. Because Judaism was practiced at the pleasure of the emperor, and Jesus was the kind of rabble-rouser who drew the wrong kind of attention, many Jews wished to silence him and his original followers lived under this constant imperial threat. Modern readers of the gospel need to seriously consider how cozy we want to get with the empire – whatever form it takes – today. Then and now, seeking the approval and the favor of the worldly powers-that-be never makes them more just; rather it compromises our integrity and puts us at their mercy. It is when they convince us they are on our side that we are most susceptible to compromising ourselves to share their power.

However, true to his inclusive nature, Jesus did not draw firm lines between the Romans and the Jews when it came to mercy and faith. When a Roman centurion asked Jesus to come heal his beloved slave, Jesus declared it was the faith of the centurion – and not the slave – that dwarfed the faith he had found in Israel. This declaration made it clear that God’s grace was not confined by ethnic or cultural boundaries, and also that Jesus’ Jewish disciples should not become too complacent about their own spiritual situation.

The Roman Empire may be long gone, but imperialism in its many forms is alive and well. Our relationship to the world remains complicated. Are we sharing Christ’s message even when it makes us vulnerable outsiders, or are we selling out the rabble rouser to live comfortably under the empire he confronted?

Comfort: God’s kingdom continues to transform earthly realms.

Challenge: Meditate on what “imperialism” we must stand up to today.

Prayer:  Teach me, Lord, to be faithful to your kingdom above all others. Amen.

Discussion: What do you consider the value of separating church and state?

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