Second Sunday after Pentecost
One of the stories my parents like to tell on me involves a trip to the local convenience store when I was about six years old. It seems that my parents wanted to give me a treat, so they took me to the aisle where the candy bars were on display and told me I could pick one out. Instead of making a beeline toward the M&M’s or the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, grabbing one, and calling it a day, I simply stood there, looking at the vast array of sugary snacks, unable to make anything even approaching a selection. In fact, the sheer number of options overwhelmed me, paralyzing my decision-making capabilities until finally, I broke down in tears and my dad had to pick out a candy bar and hand it to me.
Obviously, this story says something about my neuroses, my indecisiveness, and my inclination to overthink things even as a first-grader–tendencies that I have struggled with in predictable ways as I’ve come to terms with adulthood. But as I reflect on this snapshot from my early years, it also strikes me that it says something about the culture in which I grew up. The dilemma that brought me to tears as a young child is the very definition of a so-called “first world problem.” Such a struggle is only imaginable in a context in which real issues, necessary matters, are taken for granted. While I was wrestling with the question of whether I wanted a Butterfinger or a Hershey’s Bar, there were kids my age in famine-stricken Ethiopia, behind the Iron Curtain, or even in parts of my home state of Kentucky, struggling with real problems, for whom my candy-aisle dilemma would have been an impossible luxury.
Many of the decisions that cause us anxiety, from the large (where to attend college; which career path best suits us) to the small (what to watch on Netflix; where to grab a bite to eat) are the products of the kind of comfortable life that a privileged socioeconomic status affords, reflecting an overabundance of options. When our perceived place in the world is secure, there will be more areas in our lives in which we even have decisions to make, and we will expend more time and energy agonizing over our choices. On the other hand, a crisis can serve to clarify the choices we make. The urgency that comes with a bare-bones existence, a situation in which one has to decide between life or death, between fight or flight, can drive to the forefront what is truly important, so that the luxury of indecisive waffling becomes unthinkable.
The lectionary texts for this week highlight the ways that an inability or unwillingness to make the most important decisions and stand by them can be destructive. Sometimes, in the midst of our wavering indecisiveness, we need the voice of a truthful witness to make us aware of the urgency of our situation and the pressing nature of the decisions before us. Sometimes, we need to be shocked out of our complacency and reminded that the crisis is real. The community that Elijah assembled on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18 was a community in the midst of a crisis. A three-year drought, sent by the hand of God, had rendered their land barren and desolate. This drought, proclaimed by the prophet Elijah, was punishment for the people’s apostasy, as they followed their rulers, Ahab and Jezebel, with their army of false priests and prophets, down the path of Baal worship. The descendants of Abraham, called to faithfulness before the God of their fathers and mothers, had embraced a context in which they could dabble in the worship of other, potentially more exciting deities, bowing before gods who promised not only fertility but also intrigue. Such options provided the illusion that Israel was just like everyone else, that they could blend in with the cultures around them, and so they bought in to the deception that they could call themselves Israel while refusing to be Israel, that they could profess a love for YHWH while still enjoying the benefits that the gods of the Sidonians provided. In their attempts to have it all, they avoided facing the crisis that was consuming them.
Prompted by the Spirit of the Lord, Elijah decides to bring this crisis to light. Standing before the assembly on Mount Carmel, he poses an important question: ““How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The question, and the challenge that comes with it, are meant to knock the people off the fence, to jolt them out of their waffling apostasy, to bring to light the crisis that they refuse to acknowledge. But like all true prophets, Elijah doesn’t just let his words hang in the desert air; he backs them up with action—a contest meant to demonstrate, once and for all, what kind of God the people of Israel have been avoiding. The showdown with the prophets of Baal is designed to explode the illusion of a spiritual marketplace in which the people are free to choose whatever option most excites them, or most titillates them, or lends the most cachet to their religious routines. The crisis is real, Elijah says: you can continue to follow the impotent gods and goddesses of Sidon, the divine beings Jezebel and Ahab have peddled to you, or you can return to the God of creation, a God of fire and storm, a God who can send a torrent of flame down from the skies, who can stop up the heavens or send a deluge in response to the faithfulness of God’s servants. Stop wavering. Grow up. At a time like this, when your very identity as the children of the covenant hangs in the balance, indecisiveness is not a luxury you can afford.
Almost a millennium later, another community of God’s people were similarly in need of a wake-up call, and another prophetic witness came forward to deliver it. The Apostle Paul, writing to the churches of Galatia, is addressing a community that he cares about, a community for whom his heart breaks. Despite the fact that he had labored to proclaim the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to them, they are abandoning that message for “a different gospel.” Like the Israelites under Ahab and Jezebel, the Galatian Christians are turning their backs on the story to which they had been called, the story that Paul had preached and embodied, and have embraced another way. Perhaps this new gospel offered security; maybe it provided the illusion of control; maybe it allowed them to hold on to their pride rather than confessing their brokenness before God, thus ensuring elite status for those who had checked off the right boxes of jumped through the appropriate hoops.
Whatever its appeal, in Paul’s estimation this new gospel stood in opposition to the message of the cross, and therefore represented the kind of apostasy that had no place among the people of God. And if the Galatians, at home in the religious marketplace of the Roman Empire, thought it was a good idea to hedge their bets, to cover their bases, or to keep their options open, Paul wanted to remind them of the dangers of that way of thinking. For Paul, a crisis was at hand. The last days were near. This was no time to bounce back and forth between different versions of the good news of God’s kingdom. This was no time to worry about pleasing people. Instead, Paul uses vivid language—the kind of language one might imagine issuing from the mouth of Elijah—to declare the accursed nature of those who would tempt the Galatians toward a soft apostasy. For Paul, the gospel was a serious matter. It was time for those who had heard the good news to embrace a new way of life, rather than keeping one foot planted in the old way.
The gospel text presents us with a different kind of person. Jesus’ interlocutor here is not a prophet straggling in from the wilderness, or an apostle writing a concerned letter, but a Roman Centurion. He is a powerful man, rendered vulnerable by the sickness of a valued slave. When he hears about the ministry of Jesus, he sends some Jewish elders to plead with this miracle-working rabbi from Nazareth for the life of his servant. Like the Israelites in 1 Kings and the Galatians, he is fully aware of the vast array of religious and spiritual options available to him. Unlike these groups, however, he isn’t messing around. He understands the crisis facing him. He is well acquainted with the nature of authority. And he doesn’t give the impression of someone who is simply shopping around for a cure. He realizes that there is something different about Jesus—a power over things like sickness and death that mirrors the authority he holds over the soldiers under his command. And once he realizes this, he doesn’t waver or prevaricate. He puts himself on the line by sending to Jesus for help.
When Jesus remarks, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he is revealing that this foreigner understands what the people of God so often do not. A crisis is at hand. The kingdom of God is near. The time for wavering and waffling has past. Now is the time for those who believe to decide. Now is the time for those confronted with the good news to take hold of what God has promised—a new life under his authority, a transformed existence that abandons all other options in favor of the hard way of faith. If the powers and principalities and false gods of this world are truly worth our allegiance, then follow them. But if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is God, then what choice do we really have?