Luke 7:1-10 “Faith Across Culture”
Would you like to hear the funniest joke in the world? Okay, here it is: “Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator says ‘Calm down. I can help. First let’s make sure he’s dead.’ There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says ‘OK, now what?’”
This was deemed the funniest joke in the world by LaughLab, which has been collecting and ranking humor around the world since 2001. This joke got the highest score. Surprisingly the cultural group that found this joke the funniest by far were the Germans. I know! Who would have thought that Germans had a sense of humor, right?
Also it should be noted from the research that has been done that indeed people of all cultures seem to like to laugh about death the most. As humans we like to laugh in the face of death—apparently.
Carrying humor across cultures is very difficult actually. I recall that once I was at a party in Germany with an American who spoke no German.The Germans in the room were telling jokes and so asked me to translate for the non-German speaker. The first joke was told. I dutifully translated. Since I knew the joke, I was able to tell the punchline at the exact same moment as the joke teller. Everyone in the room burst into laughter except the American I had been translating for. The Germans in the room urged me to go ahead and tell the punchline so that the American could have a good laugh, too.
I had to reluctantly tell the room in German that I had in fact already told the punchline. The American then, realizing what was going on, chimed in “That joke was not funny. It was a sick and terrible joke. How could you laugh at that awful joke?!” And, I could assure this morning that if I told you the joke in English you would find it so offensive and dark that you would wonder what was wrong with me for telling it. Yet, the Germans thought it was very funny.
As hard as it is to make humor cross cultural lines, I would have to say that faith is equally as hard to transmit. When my wife and I were missionaries in Thailand we ran into myriad issues of telling of our faith to the Thai people. For instance, in the Thai understanding, all gods are evil. Creation is bad. Love is bad because it causes you to have strong emotions that keep you from reaching the perfect state of Nirvana. The world is controlled by Karma, not God’s grace, so one always gets what one had coming to him. Therefore, it is all but impossible for them to imagine that someone would die on their behalf. The evil of such an act would have to revisit them by Karma. There is no word or concept of singular Truth as we have it in the Bible in the Thai language either. The issues go on and on. One can take nothing for granted. Christian faith is absolutely a whole new way of thinking and seeing the world from what they think they already knew as Thai buddhists.
My favorite example of the difficulties of teaching Thai people about Jesus is in the fact that rarely if ever is the story of Jesus’ washing the disciples feet ever told in Christian churches in Thailand. I did mention to you all previously in a sermon how it was that the last time I preached in Thailand, my swan song, was the text from John 13. You see, the foot is considered to me the absolute dirtiest part of the body. The idea that Jesus would touch another’s foot is incomprhenisble to the Thais.
I got children from the school to volunteer to have me wash their feet in the church that day. The adults were aghast. The kids, however, understood the meaning of what Jesus did.
News flash! Jesus was an Asian. In fact, he was born in Bethlehem—and that makes him a Palestinian as to where the borders fall. His culture during his life was much closer to the Thai culture than to the modern American culture today. So, when we talk about taking a cross-cultural view of our faith, we have to understand that Jesus was not an American. And, if he were here in this country today, he might even be on a terrorist watch list because of his origin and overt political leanings.
In our scripture for today, we maybe do not catch the politcal significance of a Roman centurion wanting to connect with Jesus. So, the Roman is of course a European and Jesus is an Asian. This is the first East meets West moment with Jesus. This is much like my wife and me. You see, I grew up in East Los Angeles, and she comes from West Malaysia.
This last week I had a conversation with a man who was from Kekaha, tried to have a business on the Kapaa side of the island, but after about a year came back here to Waimea to continue his business because he did not like the culture on the Eastside of the island. Isn’t that something? We have an East/West divide on this little island that is only 25 miles across? So, now imagine the cultural and linguistic divide between Jesus and this Centurion!
This last Thursday the Kauai UCC pastors were to meet for breakfast at the BBQ Inn on Kress Street in Lihue. Guess what? They were closed for breakfast. Pastor Jeannie quickly got out her phone and found out that Mariachis’ Mexican Restaurant was now open for breakfast. We all headed down the street to have a Mexican breakfast. I kind of know the family that owns the place, and they know me. We always order in Spanish. So, naturally I spoke Spanish with the server. Well, after the meal the question was raised as to whether we would meet there again, and the response was from one of the pastors “I cannot understand what is being said here. I don’t like the atmosphere.” Of course, my heart was broken. We will not meet there again.
Think about the fact that this Centurion and Jesus do not even speak the same language. The Centurion would have spoken Latin. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic and Hebrew. And, Luke is writing this all down in Greek! Each one of these languages has its own culture attached to it. My point is this: Faith in Christ, as we see here, transcended all of these cultural and linguistic barriers.
There is one more barrier to faith that this story in Luke transcends. That is one of economic class. We maybe do not see this right off because we do not have centurions running around Kauai. What is a Centurion? What makes a centurion a centurion? They were (in the time of Christ) members of the upper class in Roman Society. They became centurions because they were able to support a hundred-man fighting force beneath them. After a certain time, the centurion could become a tribune, a prefect, and a senator of Rome. One centurion (Maximus Thrax) even ascended to be emporer.
This idea that the military leader was really appointed so that he could continue his political career back in Rome served an interesting function in keeping the peace. The centurion really did not want to fight if he could help it. He wanted to distinguish himself in political matters. Hence, we see this centurion deftly having his fighting men building a synagogue for the Jewish elders rather than taking them to the sword.
In our country going back to George Washington we have had a tradition of expecting that our Presidents and Senators would have served in the military with honor. How should we expect a Commander in Chief to understand that role if he or she has never been under command? The centurion makes that point to Jesus that he knows about power and authority; hence, he knows that Jesus is the real deal. Jesus has the power even over his life. The centurion is a God-fearing man as well. His faith in Christ transcends his econmic rank, his language, and his culture. Christ transcends.
Jesus turns and says this back in front of all the Jewish leaders and everyone there in Capernaum that day. “Look at how this centurion’s faith transcends!” “No where in Palestine/Isreal have I seen such faith!”
On this MLK weekend, let us not forget what our faith in Jesus has called our country to be! When we put Jesus above language, culture, race, economic status, or whatever other petty differences, then Jesus will heal us! Our faioth in Jesus Christ will transcend.