The Lord Bestows Grace Impartially.
The Third Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who invites all sinners to partake of the eternal glories of heaven by His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Whose fault was the government shutdown, which just ended on Friday? I can tell you. But you already know the answer. The interesting thing is, your answer may not match the answer of the people around you. Your answer probably has something to do with the direction you lean on the political spectrum. You, like most Americans, are partial to one political party more than the others. You are more likely to give the adherents of one party a pass, while criticizing the other side.
There is nothing wrong with having such opinions. This is part of what it means to be a citizen of this country. The fact is, we show partiality about a lot of things. We are partial toward the sort of vehicle we drive or the kind of farm equipment we operate. We are partial toward certain types of food or certain brands of clothing. We are partial toward particular sports teams or certain hobbies and activities.
But as much leeway as we have to be unique and express our opinions, not all partiality is harmless. Parents know how important it is to try to be consistent with their kids and not play favorites. If they don’t, their children will become either resentful or spoiled. Partiality can lead us to sin in other areas too. We can be partial to the wrong group of people who exert a bad influence on us. We can be partial to the wrong kinds of ideas which lead us to hate people who are different than us, or to regard others as less than us simply because of how they look, how they talk, or where they come from.
In today’s text, we find Jesus interacting with people who were viewed unfavorably, or who were at least regarded as inferior to the general populace. The first was a leprous man. Since the time his skin disease was discovered, he was forced to leave his home and family and live by himself or with other lepers. As Old Testament law dictated, he had to announce his approach by shouting, “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev. 13:45). It was a wretched, lonely life.
But word about Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and afflicted was spreading. “[G]reat crowds followed Him.” The leprous man took the chance of coming near Jesus. “Lord, if You will,” he said, “You can make me clean.” Now Jesus did not owe him anything. And this man had nothing to offer Jesus to make a healing worth His while. But he did have faith. He believed that Jesus was not simply a man and not just a gifted teacher. He believed that Jesus wielded the power of God, and that He could bring healing if He wanted to.
And Jesus reached out and touched the man and said, “I will; be clean.” It is an important detail that Jesus touched him. Most would not have considered doing this. What if the leprosy latched on to them? We have great admiration for the doctors, nurses, and clergymen throughout history who have been willing to minister to those with infectious diseases. While many run away from threats, God has given some the courage to run toward danger out of love for neighbor.
The other significant factor of Jesus touching the man is that for this action Jesus should have been considered unclean according to Old Testament law (Lev. 5:3). But by His divine power, the whole situation went in reverse. Jesus, who was clean, did not become unclean; rather the man, who was unclean, became clean! Then Jesus told him to show himself to the priest and to offer the gift commanded by Moses, which included a few lambs and a portion of grain (Lev. 14). We assume by this instruction that the man cleansed of his leprosy was a Jew, one who was acquainted with the Scriptures.
So Jesus brought healing to this leprous man and made it possible for him to return to his home and family. No longer would he be an outcast and considered unclean. He was once again welcomed into the community because of the Lord’s grace toward him.
Shortly after this, Jesus was approached by a Gentile, a non-Jew. The Jews interacted with the Gentiles as little as possible. They were taught to regard them as “unclean.” This particular Gentile was also a centurion, a military commander of the Roman army, which watched over all the activities of the Jews. But contrary to expectation, this Roman centurion was kind to the Jews. He came to Jesus requesting help for his young servant who had been paralyzed. The elders of the Jews even spoke to Jesus on behalf of the centurion. They said, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Luk. 7:4-5).
But the centurion humbly declared, “Lord, I am not worthy”—“I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Jesus marveled at his words and said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And He healed the man’s servant at that moment.
So we see Jesus bestowing His grace upon both a Jew and a Gentile. Their culture and their backgrounds were quite different, but He helped them just the same. How Jesus acted toward these humble men is consistent with what the Bible says again and again: “God shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:11, Luk. 20:21, Act. 10:34, Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9).
This passage is at the same time a warning and a comfort for us. Another way to say “God shows no partiality,” is to say that God is no respecter of persons, that He shows no favoritism. The son or daughter of a business owner can sometimes get away with questionable practices or a bad work ethic. But that is not how it is with God’s children. He is partial toward us in the sense that He loves us and wants us to receive His blessings. But He is impartial when it comes to His justice.
His children, claimed as His own through Holy Baptism, do not operate by a softer set of standards. He does not look the other way when they do wrong. If anything, God’s children by faith should be even more attuned to and concerned about His righteous Commandments. We know what our sins required. We know that Jesus was punished on the cross in our place. We know He suffered the eternal torments of hell for us. Should we then go out and live our lives as though Jesus has done nothing for us? James writes that “you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jam. 4:15-17).
One thing we know we ought to do is treat everyone around us the same. We should “love our neighbors as ourselves.” These neighbors are the people we pass in the hallways at school, the people we interact with at work, and the people in our communities. Some of these neighbors are harder to love than others, and it is easy for us to favor one over another. Of course we do have the right to choose who our close friends will be. But we do not have God’s blessing to hate specific neighbors or deal spitefully with them.
We can think of many times we have failed at this. We have gossiped about and ganged up on a classmate or co-worker. We have looked down at people whose background and behavior are not like ours. We have thought ourselves to be something and others around us to be nothing. If we persist in these sins and feed our self-righteousness and our self-worship, we will be condemned for these sins. “God shows no partiality.”
But when we like the leprous man and centurion come before Jesus with humble hearts of faith, confessing our wrongs and trusting in His grace, He will show favor toward us as He does toward all penitent sinners. This is how God’s impartiality is such a comfort to us. He does not keep track of how often we have sinned against Him. He does not compare our life with the lives of others. He does not count any of our sins as too great to be forgiven. He does not lose patience or turn His back on us.
When we kneel before Him covered in our sins, burdened by the memory of our wrongs, and pray, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean”—we don’t have to wonder at His response. He says, “I will; be clean.” He already died for these sins. His blood cleanses our impure hearts. He will not ignore a humble cry for forgiveness, no matter who prays it or what that person has done. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,” said the psalmist; “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:17).
Whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, a male or a female, a child or a grown-up; whether you are wealthy or poor, respected or despised; whether you are on the left wing, the right wing, or somewhere in the middle—“God shows no partiality.” He loves each one of you just the same. He sent His Son to die for your sins and rise again for your justification. He sends the Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith. And He wants each and every one of you to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” The Lord Bestows Grace Impartially, and He bestows it upon you.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is a portion of a Byzantine mosaic in Sicily)