There is a theme that is woven through our scripture readings this morning: foreigners. Solomon is praying for foreigners, Paul is writing to a group of foreigners who are trying to become less foreign, Jesus is summoned by a foreigner who is a member of an occupying army. Throughout the Bible and throughout history, the status of foreigners is a big question. Are they enemies or can they be friends? Do they have access to God like we do - or not? Should we mix together with them – or should we keep separate?
In our first lesson, King Solomon is praying to God during the dedication of the first Temple. His major concern, his earnest desire, during this long prayer, only part of which was read this morning, is that God hear the people. He moves through a list of examples of people to whom, presumably, God would be less inclined to listen:
· Verse 31: “If someone sins against a neighbor…”
· Verse 33: “When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy…”
· Verse 35: “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you…”
· Verse 37: “If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust or caterpillar; if their enemy besieges them in any of their cities…”
· Verse 41: “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name….”
This list includes people who have explicitly sinned; it includes people who have probably sinned because they are receiving punishment; and it includes foreigners. Here we have a window into the mindset of Solomon and the people of his time. Sinners, those enduring hard times, and foreigners are all on the outs. The assumption is that God is willing to have a relationship with a certain kind of person – a person who does right and can prove it by the prosperity of his circumstances, and this person should be a citizen, an Israelite. These are the assumptions underlying Solomon’s prayer.
But then, with divine insight, he prays to God for the people who are not like that - who cannot stand before God and be heard. Solomon prays that God would listen to them. Solomon petitions God to, “Hear in heaven.” Even those who are foreigners.
In our second lesson, the issue of foreigners is a bit beneath the surface. The Galatians, to whom Paul was writing this letter, were not Jews, they were Gentiles - foreigners. But Paul had come to them and had preached to them the good news of Jesus Christ for sinners; and these Galatians had believed in Jesus. So far so good.
Unfortunately, some preachers had come to them after Paul left town and had told them that to be true Christians they would first have to become Jews. And to become a Jew, at least for a male, required circumcision. And here we see the issue: Can a foreigner be a true believer in Jesus Christ? These new preachers said, “No. First the foreigner must become a Jew and only then can they become a true believer in Jesus Christ.”
Because of this attitude, and the people’s submission to it, Galatians is the angriest letter that Paul wrote. He writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…” To believe that our nationality or people-group has anything to do with our standing before God is to believe a different gospel altogether. It doesn’t matter a bit and Paul doesn’t pull any punches when he describes the ones who are preaching what is wrong, he says, “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” Paul is determined to destroy this idea that the foreigner is separated from God. No, he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Our identity before God is not nationality. It is faith. It is faith in what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.
And so we come to the gospel lesson. Jesus is called on by a Roman soldier to come and heal his servant. Or rather, the Roman soldier speaks with some Jewish elders, who then speak to Jesus. And they make the case that, though the soldier is a Roman, Jesus should still help him. They say, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” The implication is that a normal foreigner would not deserve help, but that this fellow is a kind of honorary Jew. Jesus goes.
But then something curious happens. The foreigner sends word again and tells Jesus that he doesn’t need to come all the way to his house. “Heal him from a distance; that’s fine.” Jesus marvels, saying, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And he does what the foreigner asks. He heals his servant.
Now, does he do it because the foreigner was kind and generous to Jews? No, he does it because the man believes. The fact that he is a foreigner doesn’t matter one way or the other.
So here is the lesson for this morning. We don’t stand before God as Americans or Mexicans, or Tanzanians. We don’t stand before God as whites, or blacks, or Asians. We stand before God as those who believe or those who do not.
Our identity is that of a believer. We are people to whom God listens, though we are not worthy to stand before him. We are people who have received the gospel, though we were foreigners. We are people to whom Jesus comes and people whom he helps, because we trust him with our lives and with the lives of our loved ones.