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The Wounds of Love - Matthew 8:5-13

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by Rev. John Chakos

One of the most meaningful prayers prior to receiving Holy Communion reads as follows: "You have smitten me with yearning, O Christ, and by your divine love you have changed me." To be smitten by Christ is the most profound of all mystical experiences. Jesus Himself, as it were, wounds our hearts with His love. From that moment we can never again be the same. One desire is only to be with Him, to serve Him and to make Him known to others.

Matthew's story of a Roman centurion (Math. 8:5-13) presents us with a moving testimony of the heroic lengths to which love will go. He was a man who willingly crossed the lines of a rigid caste system to seek healing for his paralyzed slave. As if that were not enough, he crossed the imposing religious divide that separates Jew from Gentile. Finally, he crossed the greatest barrier of all and manifested a faith that knew no spatial limitation when it came to healing. He knew that Jesus only had to say the word and his servant would be healed. And by this he proved that his was a caliber of faith that had never been seen in all of Israel. This is what can happen to us when we are smitten by Christ. We will cross every barrier and confront every obstacle for the sake of His love.

One such barrier that the Centurion nimbly vaulted over was his ego. In the Gospel passage we read that he was a man used to issuing commands. But because of his humility he dared not ask the Lord to come under the roof of his house.

He also knew that it was not lawful for a Jew to enter the house of a Gentile, since the dwelling places of Gentiles are viewed as unclean in Jewish law. The fact that he humbled himself before Jesus is in itself amazing, since most Gentiles harbored a deep hatred for Jesus, who were considered to be haters of all humanity. In Alexandria the story went that Jews had taken a deliberate oath never to show kindness to any Gentile, and it was said that the Jewish ceremonies involved the yearly sacrifice of a Gentile. This would make them nothing less than satanists by today's standards. But to the Centurion none of these deep prejudices mattered. Humility impelled him to breach the social etiquette of his station. The love he felt emanating from Christ made every obstacle appear petty.

This humility was also in evidence in the way the centurion treated his slave. His was not the double standard of many who say they love the Lord but despise a brother or sister. In the Centurion we find that perfect blend of love of God and neighbor. He loved his slave, thus proving himself to be an unusual man.

In antiquity a slave was an object. To quote Aristotle: "a master and slave have nothing in common; a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave." Varro, the Roman writer on agriculture , has a passage which divided the instruments of agriculture into three classes- the articulate comprising the slave, the inarticulate late comprising the cattle, and the mute comprising vehicles. The only difference between a slave and a beast or a wagon was that the slave could talk. Any and all ill-treatment was completely justified by the law. In the words of Petrus Chrysologus, "Whatever a master does to a slave, undeservedly, in anger, willingly, unwillingly, in forgetfulness, after careful thought, knowingly, unknowingly is judgment, justice and law."

In an age such as ours when much attention is given to human rights, we can see that in the ancient world the slave was not only devoid of all rights, but his very humanity was denied.

Besides profound humility and love of neighbor, there was a third ingredient in the mix of the centurion's incredible personhood faith. What was so amazing about the centurion's faith that even Jesus marveled at it? He believed that all Jesus had to do was "say the word" and his servant would be healed, even without visiting him.

This kind of wonder-working faith is needed by all of us, not just faith in the existence of God. Many people believe in the existence of a deity, or even in the dogma of their faith, but how many believe~in the possibility of miracles. "Only say the word, and my servant will be healed," the centurion declared. It's this kind of faith that inspired the following hymn of our Church: "Who is so great a god as our God. You are the God who performs wonders."

That the centurion was smitten by Christ and transformed by His love cannot be denied. It brings to mind the prophecy of Jesus about those who would one day sit at table with Him in the kingdom: "I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness" (Math. 8:12).

Let me conclude with one such contemporary account from the mission field about Joseph, a Masai warrior, who was smitten by Christ like the centurion. His face bears the ritual scars every young man receives after killing his first lion with only a spear and a shield. One day, as he was waking along a hot, dusty African road, he met a missionary who shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with him. So taken was Joseph by this disclosure that the first thing that he wanted to do was to return to his own village and share that same Good News with the members of his local tribe. He began going door-to-door, telling everyone he met about the Cross of Jesus and the salvation it offered, expecting to see their faces light up the way his had. To his amazement the villagers not only didn't care, they became violent. The men of the village seized him and held him to the ground while the women beat him with strands of barbed wire. He was dragged from the village and left to die alone in the bush.

Joseph somehow managed to crawl to a water hole, and there, after days of passing in and out of consciousness, found the strength to get up. He wondered about the hostile reception he had received from people he had known all his life. Impelled by the wound of love, he decided he must have omitted something or told the story of Jesus incorrectly. After rehearsing the message he had first heard, he decided to go back and share his faith once more.

Joseph limped into the circle of huts and began again to proclaim Jesus. "He died for you, so that you might find forgiveness and come to know the living God," he pleaded. Again he was grabbed by the men of the village and held while the women beat him, re-opening fresh wounds that had just begun to heal. Once more they dragged him unconscious from the village and left him to die.

To have lived through the first beating was truly remarkable. To survive a second was nothing short of miraculous. Again, days later, Joseph awoke in the wilderness, bruised, scarred- and determined to go back. He returned to the small village and this time, they attacked him before he had a chance to speak. As they whipped him for the third and probably last time, he again witnessed to them about Jesus Christ. Before he passed out, the last thing he saw was that the women who were beating him were now trying to save his life and nurse him back to health. The entire village had come to Christ.

Joseph is no longer known by the ritual scars carved in his face. He is recognized by the wounds he suffered for the sake of Christ. These wounds are not only on his skin, but also in his heart. They are the very wounds of love that Jesus Himself endured for our salvation. He will suffer in every one of us again and again until every precious soul is redeemed.

Today, Christ wants to wound each one of us so that we, too, will never cease loving and serving Him. Let us open ourselves up to this wondrous action of grace, this mystical stabbing of our hearts. Let us gladly endure the scars that the piercing love of Christ inflicts. Let us faithfully persist in our resolve to carry out every commandment of Jesus, even to the point of death. Then Jesus will say to us, as He did to the centurion, "...not even in Israel have I found such faith" (Math. 8:10).