Sunday, March 6, 2011
Soldiers, a sailor, and why I hid from the policeman on the corner
Most of you who read this blog are old enough to know who Ernest Borgnine is. Today, at 94, he is the oldest living actor to have received the Academy award for Best Actor (Marty 1955). To say that Mr. Borgnine is 'salty' would be an understatement. All one has to do is search the internet and read a few of his quotes. One of my favorites is this: "Everything I do has a moral to it. Yes, I've been in films that have had shootings. I made The Wild Bunch...but there was a moral behind it. The moral was that, by golly, bad guys got it. That was it. Yeah." I have always had a special place in my heart for Mr. Borgnine because he reminds me, physically, and in many other ways, of my Dad. My father was a 'man's man' as they used to put it. Like Mr. Borgnine (Navy), my Dad (Army) spent many years in the service, and he had that quiet kind of strength that comes from having seen a lot of death and destruction - in fact, having seen the worst of your fellow man in many ways and coming out of it with your faith intact.
So why am I talking about Ernest Borgnine on a Christian blog? If you are old enough to remember Mr. Borgnine, then you probably also remember the Biblical TV event of the 1970s - the first airing of Jesus of Nazareth. The nearly 8 hour film made by Franco Zeffereli was controversial when it aired, but to me it is still one of the most beautiful depictions of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. In it, Mr. Borgnine portrays one of my favorite characters of the Bible - the Roman Centurion who comes to Jesus to ask that his servant be healed. The story is told in Matthew 8: 5-13 and Luke 7: 1-10
When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 'Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly'. And he said to him, 'I will come and heal him.' But the centurion replied, 'Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it.' When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, 'Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline 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. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' And to the centurion Jesus said, 'Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.' And the servant was healed at that very moment.
One of the most marvelous things about the Bible is the richness of one single passage such as this. From it sermons have been drawn addressing faith, believing without seeing, seeing without believing, and many other topics. The other night when I watched Jesus of Nazareth and saw this scene enacted, another thought presented itself to me concerning the character of the God of the Old and New Testaments and our perception of Him.
God is hard for us to imagine at times. At least I know that, as a child, I had no clear picture. Even the concept of God as 'king' is pretty far removed from our 21st century mind. But we have all met military men. I don't know about you, but when I turn a corner and see a sergeant - whether military or in the police force - I instantly wonder what I have done wrong. The man has made no move, he hasn't said or done anything and yet, still, I feel convicted that I have committed some wrong - simply by his presence. And what does that presence represent? Unswerving, unbending, implacable justice. I think, in a way, this is a picture of God as seen by many through the eyes of the Old Testament. One has only to read a bit of Ezekiel or Jeremiah to become convinced that God is justice and demands complete, perfect and unerring obedience.
Our next thought after that is often 'and I can never measure up.'
In Bible times the Roman Centurion represented much the same thing. The Centurion was a senior officer in charge of anywhere from 83 to 100 men, and was to be 'strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers'. Not only that but he represented the might and power of Rome. I would imagine the words 'feared' and 'respected' only begin to cover people's reaction when this man appeared on the street. Somehow, I don't think the adjective 'approachable' was used very often. For many, living in New Testament times, I believe this is still their image of God. If we don't fall into the heresy of making God all-loving and all-forgiving, then we tend to think of Him as a stern taskmaster who can never be pleased. A 'Pharaoh God' as someone once put it, who expects his followers to make bricks without straw.
But is this a correct picture of God? No. Let's look at the story told in Matthew and Luke again. The appearance of a Centurion and his men in the streets of a 1st century town would have evoked fear and maybe even terror. His word would have been law and, believe me, there were no appeals in those days. But was the Centurion really like this? If you examine the passage the words that come to mind to describe this particular Centurion are 'humble, loving, giving, kind' and 'faithful'. In the same way the God of the Old Testament, whom many see as harsh and unforgiving, is more than anything else loving, giving, and kind. And He humbled himself as we cannot conceive by coming to Earth as a man and sacrificing Himself to meet His own implacable, unbending justice in a way He knew we never could.
That, indeed, is love.
The next time I see a sergeant a I round a corner, I imagine I will still flinch and feel the need to hide, but when I do, I will think of that Roman Centurion and remember the words Christ spoke to Him upon parting: 'Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.'
Now that's a man I'd like to know.