What are we to make of this gospel reading? At first sight, it seems rather provocative. It reads as though Jesus is saying, “well, so much for religious people. You go through all this religious observance affecting every intimate detail of your social, personal, sexual, culinary, business lives, and yet you can’t hold a candle to this idol-worshipping pagan”. A real downer for those of us who are willing nowadays to be reckoned on the Census or in our social lives as “religious” – and especially tough for those of us who have some kind of professional status as religious people.
Well, I suppose that story does stand as a warning to us religious people, a warning not to lose the focus of our religious practice and belief which is properly our growing relationship with God in the person of Jesus, and our living fully the life of God’s Kingdom.
But, besides the timely warning, there is a more fundamental and positive point. It is this: Jesus is telling us that God is at work in God’s world, and we can see God at work in the lives of people who may not share our religious experience and our religious outlook. It would be rather like a French Christian in the 1940s seeing in the act of an occupying German officer such a love and a religious insight as to dazzle the imagination. That such an officer would care in the first place about a slave – replaceable for less than a day’s wage, or even for free. You simply wouldn’t expect it. No, occupying soldiery are not love-objects for anyone. And yet….. and yet, Jesus saw it and was amazed. He could not hold back from saying so. Here is the kind of religious faith you just don’t expect to find – and in a non-believer.
The gospel message for us, I submit, is clear. Open your eyes to see God at work – and in the lives of people for whom you might have little time or respect. You may be as amazed as Jesus was.