03Jul 01 July. Saturday, Week 12

Saint Oliver Plunkett, bishop and martyr

1st Reading: Genesis 18:1-15

Abraham’s three visitors, beside the oaks of Mamre

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh” for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-17

Jesus heals the centurion’s servant

When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also 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 slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him.

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”


Compassion as the primary virtue

Long before he fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant by his death on the cross, Jesus had been living out the prophetic words by his daily responses to people. It seems he could not pass by a sick person, without being moved to compassion. The one asking for help might be a foreigner, even one of the despised Roman occupation force, or a leper, a poor widow, a demented person roaming the countryside or a close friend like Peter’s mother-in-law. It made no difference, the nationality, the sex, the social level, the mental or moral condition. What mattered was human misery which became a burden on the heart of Jesus.

Jesus looked for trusting faith as the condition for a cure, an attitude missing among the people of his home town of Nazareth where he could work very few miracles (Mark 6:5). Through his miracles he came to be known most of all as a man of compassion, reaching out to suffering people. As we read in Isaiah, he was “accustomed to infirmity” because the sick gravitated towards him. Many passages from Isaiah 53 read like a commentary on the public ministry of Jesus.

This aligns him with a long biblical tradition, for God’s servants were noted for their attention towards strangers and sinners, towards the sick and defenseless. Today, we read how Abraham could not let travellers pass by his tent without bathing their feet and then treating them to a special banquet. They in turn could not pass by the lonely sterility of Abraham and Sarah’s marriage, and so they promised that the aged couple would be blessed with the child they longed for.

Reaching out for help

For most of the gospel story Jesus meets and talks with people of his own, the Jews. Today’s gospel has one of the relatively few examples where Jesus enters into conversation with a pagan. And this was no ordinary pagan; he was a Roman centurion, a man of authority, a commander in the occupying army. He came to Jesus admitting that he was a man used to giving orders, who knew the power of his own word, but he recognized that the word of this prophet from Nazareth had a kind of power that his own authority did not match. “Just give the word,” he said to Jesus, “and my servant will be cured.”

A version of what that centurion said to Jesus has made its way into our Eucharist, “only say the word and I shall be healed.” How strange that the words of a Roman centurion would come to form part of the church’s Eucharist. Yet, this Roman centurion was clearly a man of great faith in Jesus, as Jesus remarks in response, “nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this.” The gospel suggests that faith can be found in unexpected places, unexpected people. It is not always where we expect it to be, and it can be where we least expect it. The iconic faith of this pagan centurion invites us to entrust ourselves to the healing and life-giving power of the Lord’s word, as he did.

Saint Oliver Plunkett, bishop and martyr

Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681), of an Anglo-Irish family from Loughcrew, County Meath, studied at the Irish College in Rome during the height of the Penal Laws. He taught theology in Rome until returning to Ireland in 1670 as archbishop of Armagh. After the Popish Plot (1678), when Titus Oates and others plotted to kill Charles II of England, Plunkett was arrested in 1679 and imprisoned in London, where after a show-trial he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, 1 July 1681.