A Seat at the Table

A friend once asked a group at a preacher’s meeting, “What is the hardest material in the New Testament for you to work through?” Most, of course, said “Revelation.” I said “Romans” largely because I was preaching through Romans at the time. He said that for him, it was the gospels because it is so hard to keep them in their two contexts. Actually, the gospels have several contexts.

  • First, there was the life of and times Jesus as the story unfolds.

  • Second, there is the life and times of the church 30 years or so later when the gospels were being written.

  • Third, there is the life and times of the person who reads and applies the gospels.
We often what to skip the first two contexts and make an application to ourselves. We can miss the power of Jesus’ message if we fail to read it through the eyes of both the first hearers (Jesus’ audience) and the first readers ( the early church).

Take our reading for today from Matthew 8. After the Sermon on the Mount is completed, Jesus hits the ground running as His ministry ramps up into full gear. He goes all over the place healing the sick and showing the power of God. He cures lepers, casts our demons and dramatically shows His power over all manner of illness. And tucked in the middle of all this activity is the dramatic healing story of the servant of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13). The centurion asks for Jesus’ help and expresses faith that all Jesus must do is say the word and his servant will be healed. Jesus is astonished and says—
When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:10-12)

This story may have not had much impact on people in Jesus' day. It didn't seem to take place in the middle of a mob, and the centurion refused Jesus offer to go to his house—so it is likely that few even knew about the incident as it happened. But what was the impact on the first century readers of Matthew? These were Jewish Christians in churches struggling to know what to do with Gentile believers. Here Jesus himself not only accepted a Gentile’s faith; Jesus suggests that he hadn’t come across such great faith among the Jews. He then suggests that this will be something of a pattern for the gospel—people will come from distant places to become part of the kingdom of heaven while those who thought they had a free pass would not. What a powerful message that God accepts all people who believe on his Son. What a powerful message this must have been for the Jewish church wondering whether to accept the Gentile believers among them… assuming they heard it.

And what a powerful message for us. Jesus accepts all people who believe in Him, even those who appear to be “separate and apart” from other “acceptable” believers. Christians tend to spend far too much time deciding on who is in and who is out of the kingdom of God. Churches once even voted on whether or not to accept people seeking membership among them. Members of my faith tribe have in the past been way too comfortable deciding that they are the only true citizens of the kingdom of God. Just like the Jews of Jesus’ day thought they were the only feasters at the table. Jesus wants us to know that only God makes that guest list and that all kinds of people from all kinds of places are getting their invitation. And the ones who THINK they are the most secure in their position are the very ones who will be left out! This Roman centurion put his faith in Jesus, and that’s that gets you a seat at the table.