Grace Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2016, Epiphany 3A
Undoing the Empire
Empire is bad for your health.
Odd statement, perhaps, but one that historians have increasingly come to accept (albeit stated in different ways), particularly in regard to perhaps the most famous empire in history, the one seated in Rome – not coincidentally, the one in which we find Jesus inaugurating his public ministry in today’s reading from Matthew.
For one thing, outside of the privileged class of society, one had little other way to make or keep a living besides grueling physical labor, without even the most rudimentary labor-saving devices we know today. Furthermore, due to the inefficiencies of distributing such basic needs as food and medical care in such a far-flung empire, maintaining the health and strength required to do such physical labor was extremely difficult. Poverty was endemic; sanitation and hygiene, even in Rome itself, were poorly understood and not well executed; water quality and availability was poor; social stresses were frequent and high. Such conditions also made raising children extremely difficult, and many did not survive infancy or childhood. The extraction of heavy taxes for imperial purposes – somehow always levied on those who already didn’t have enough – only made matters worse.
The rich had it better, to be sure, but decadence has its own health risks, including obesity and other diseases. Soldiers were probably the most well-cared-for in Roman society, aside from, of course, the whole thing about fighting wars. In short, as suggested above, the Roman Empire, like other empires, was bad for your health.
Maybe this helps us understand why the accounts of Jesus’s acts and miracles of healing in the gospels, Matthew included, are often characterized by descriptions of great crowds coming to see Jesus and be healed, particularly from far-flung geographical locations across this particular corner of Roman territory. The list of regions or territories from which people come to Jesus seeking healing is impressive, second only to the varieties of diseases and pains they brought, all of which – “every disease and every sickness among the people” – Jesus healed.
It’s a disruptive way to announce your presence, in the face of an empire that responded to sickness and disease with whatever the Latin equivalent of “tough, get over it” or “that’s just the way it is” would be. It’s a challenge, not only to the power of Rome, but also to any basic claim of goodness it might have held over the poorest of the poor. It exposes the emptiness of human power and might.
This last chunk of today’s reading seems almost a throwaway, squeezed in as it is between Jesus taking up John the Baptizer’s message (“repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”), the calling of Jesus’s first disciples and the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Up to this point Matthew has been up to something that is a major theme that you can find all through this gospel. You might notice how Matthew includes in verse 14 the phrase “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled…” It’s even possible that might have sounded vaguely familiar to you; if so, good – you’ve been paying attention. So far in this gospel we’ve encountered some variant of that description in 1:22 (about the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream about Mary’s unexpected pregnancy), 2:5 (the scribes confirming to King Herod the Messiah being born in Bethlehem), 2:15 (about the family returning from Egypt after Herod’s death), 2:17 (about the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem), and 2:23 (about the family settling in Nazareth). You can also see Jesus making a somewhat similar statement in 3:15, exhorting John to baptize him “, 2:15 (about the family returning from Egypt after Herod’s death), 2:17 (about the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem), and 2:23 (about the family settling in Nazareth). You can also see Jesus making a somewhat similar statement in 3:15, exhorting John to baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness.”
Here the “fulfillment claim” is applied to the territory in which Jesus ministered. Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the many sons of Jacob, whose names were in turn given to the distinct regions of the Promised Land in which their descendants had settled. Situated as they were in the northern reaches of the land, those two ancestral lands had been among the first to suffer when the Kingdom of Israel experienced conquest and captivity in the decades after King David. In effect, there really hadn’t been a distinct territory of Zebulun or Naphtali in centuries. Matthew is summoning up the people’s most ancient history, using this citation from Isaiah 9:1-2, both to acknowledge the darkness that was and still is prevalent in the land, and to highlight that no less than “the Light of the world” is now come to them.
Next of course comes the calling of Jesus’s first disciples, the two sets of brothers would ultimately make up the “big four” in terms of how much notice they get in the gospels (aside from Thomas, famous mostly in the gospel of John, and the betrayer Judas). First Andrew and Simon (the name “Peter” comes later), and then James and John are called from their fishing boats, and their response is instant; “immediately,” Matthew says, they left their boats (and their father, in the case of James and John) and followed Jesus. It’s hard for us to comprehend, so easily and so quickly abandoning everything they know; if you were to film a movie scene of this there would not be nearly enough drama or tension to make the scene work at all. They just…leave.
And the first thing they see, as Matthew tells it, is Jesus going about Galilee teaching, preaching, and (especially) healing. His fame spread well beyond what might be called Jewish territory, into Syria and across the Jordan. We have no evidence that anyone was being turned away for being of the wrong religion; all who come – all who come – are healed, of whatever debilitating or embarrassing or wasting disease they suffered.
Jesus isn’t performing these miracles for the top 1% of Roman society. These are the outcasts. These are the poorest, the most neglected or forgotten or abused peoples caught in one of the most neglected or forgotten abused corners of the Roman Empire. As noted at the beginning of the sermon, empire is bad for your health, but Jesus is announcing his presence to the people by undoing the damage caused by an empire that vacillated between neglectful and abusive of those caught up in its borders.
Empire is bad for your physical health, to be sure. It’s also bad for your mental and emotional health. Empire doesn’t tell you the truth; it tells you what it wants you to believe and what you darn well better believe if you don’t want to get hurt. Empire glorifies its Caesar, no matter how decidedly un-glorious he (and it was always he, remember) might be, how corrupt or venal or cruel or incompetent. The Caesar turns up on coins, on frescoes on walls, in statues or busts, and even in shrines of worship. And if you don’t to get hurt, you’d better pay homage to that Caesar, no matter what your personal beliefs might be. You’d better be sure you honor and revere Rome First, you might say.
To a people who had been relentlessly hammered down by the heavy hand of empire, ignored when not being exploited, Jesus interrupts like a blinding flash of lightning. Quite likely the people had no clue what was going on; they only knew that their body was no longer broken, no longer withering, no longer diseased or wracked with pain.
This is the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; undoing the pain and suffering in which the people had lived, and nicely exposing the weakness of empire in the bargain. But physical healing wasn’t going to be enough. The lies of empire, the glorification of corrupt human authority and unrelenting propaganda had also been doing their damage for ages, and Jesus will undo that harm as well, starting in chapter five (right after today’s reading, the one we’ll read next week) with a few statements about who is truly blessed in God’s sight.
Matthew’s gospel needs to be heard always in this light – undoing and healing the damage imposed upon “the least of these,” whether by empire or other forms of human corruption. In such a context even acts of healing are acts of insurrection – a rejection of status quo, a rejection of “deal with it,” a rejection of anything that decides that any person or any group or anyone exists only to be subjected to or abused by anyone else. And if we truly want to claim to be followers of Christ, participants the kingdom of Heaven, then we’re part of that rebellion, that resistance to empire, no longer tolerating or acquiescing in the oppression of women or people of color or any people that empire tells it’s OK to abuse or suppress.
There’s no middle ground; there’s no accommodation; there is the way of Christ or the way of empire, the way of human corruption, the way of greed and dishonesty and oppression. And that is the choice Jesus puts before us – dare I say demands of us? – every day. Even today.
For a Jesus who undoes oppression, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#620 Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven
#841 God Is My Strong Salvation
#721 Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore
#720 Jesus Calls Us
Credit: agnusday.org; those of you with long memories, enjoy.