Mt. Lebanon UMC
May 29, 2016
Luke 7:1-10 (CEB)
7 After Jesus finished presenting all his words among the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion had a servant who was very important to him, but the servant was ill and about to die. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. 5 “He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.”
6 Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. 8 I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
9 When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said,“I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” 10 When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.
This is one of my favorite stories from the Gospels, and when I saw it in the Lectionary for this week I was delighted, and I thought I knew the story well. But whenever I go to look something like this up for a sermon I learn something new.
For example, a week ago I would have told you that a centurion was an officer in the Roman army who was in charge of 100 men. The word “centurion” comes from the same root as “century,” or “bicentennial,” or “percent.” It means 100.
However, I learned that by the time of Jesus, the Romans had changed their structure a little bit, and by that time a “centurion” was actually in charge of about 80 soldiers. The Romans didn’t bother changing the name, though; they were still called “centurions.” It’s like when you say you’re going to “dial” a phone number even though your phone doesn’t have a dial. Force of habit.
But actually, it’s possible that the centurion we’re talking about here wasn’t really with the Roman army at all – at least, not the real Roman army. According to the Wesley Study Bible, historians tell us that the Romans had no troops stationed in the region of Galilee, which they considered a remote and unimportant backwater. So this particular centurion, and whoever was under his command, may have been local forces, not actually a part of the official Roman army but rather mercenaries whom the Romans had hired to keep the peace – sort of a Roman cross between the National Guard and the French Foreign Legion.
But the qualities that made a good centurion were the same no matter what the nationality. Luke, who wrote both this gospel and the book of Acts, mentions centurions numerous times, and according to the commentator William Barclay it’s always in a positive context. It was a centurion at Jesus’ crucifixion who said “Surely this was the son of God.” There were several times in the book of Acts when we hear about centurions protecting Paul or ensuring that Paul is treated fairly while he is a Roman prisoner.
Perhaps it was the case that a centurion was a man who had proven himself worthy and earned some level of trust and responsibility – but who hadn’t yet risen high enough on the organizational chart to be truly corrupted by power.
Whatever his citizenship, we know that the centurion in today’s scripture was a gentile – and yet, he was a gentile who was friendly with, and supportive of, the local Jewish population. In Luke’s account, the Jewish elders from that community come to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. They tell Jesus that the centurion loves their people and that he actually donated the money to build the local synagogue.
The great center of worship for Jews was the temple in Jerusalem. But synagogues were, and are, neighborhood or community meeting places which are the Jewish equivalent of a local church.
Although the Romans had their own gods, and their own belief system, they did not necessarily force the countries they conquered to worship their gods. If there was a pre-existing religion, and if it wasn’t fanatical, the Romans tended to encourage that it continue, believing religion to be a civilizing, or at least pacifying, influence. The Roman emperors would rather have the people in a temple or a synagogue than in someone’s back room plotting rebellion. In fact, according to William Barclay, Caesar Augustus encouraged the building of synagogues in Judaea for that very reason.
But we don’t get the sense that this centurion’s support of the local synagogue in Capernaum was calculated. We get the sense that he had developed a warm and friendly relationship with the Jews of that area, which is all the more amazing because the laws of Moses limited the extent to which he, as a gentile, could interact with those Jews.
It is possible for a Gentile to convert to Judaism, but that’s not what had happened here. The centurion remained a Gentile. That meant that in certain ways, he and the people he was helping had to remain at arm’s length. But he was friendly enough to Judaism to give enough money to build the local Jewish community a meeting place.
It’s easy to be generous to your own. It’s harder to be generous to those outside your circle, and even harder to be generous to people who are, by their own laws, prevented from showing you a full measure of generosity.
This centurion was a remarkable man. But the Bible is filled with stories of unexpected people as examples of faith.
This centurion had a slave who was ill. Now, just as this centurion’s attitude toward the Jews was quite unusual, his attitude towards his slave was also quite unusual. Roman slaves had no rights. One writer even recommended to his fellow Romans that they go through their slaves every year or two and the ones who were no longer productive should be abandoned to die. But this centurion apparently had a different attitude towards this slave, and the slave’s illness grieved the centurion.
And so, the elders came to Jesus and they asked Jesus to intervene. They tell Jesus what a good man the centurion is, and it comes out as if they’re apologizing for the fact that he’s a gentile. We know there was no love lost between the Jews and the Romans, or the Jews and the gentiles in general.
“Well, we know he’s a gentile,” they tell Jesus, “but he’s not one of the bad ones. He’s one of the good ones. It’s okay if you help him.”
It’s funny, because that sounds kind of prejudiced. Anyone who has a really bad prejudice will try to defend themselves by pointing to their one black friend or their one Hispanic friend. “See? I can’t be prejudiced! I have a black friend!”
At any rate, the elders bring the message to Jesus, and Jesus – in his compassion – goes with the elders to the centurion’s home.
But then the centurion hears that Jesus is coming, and sends word – “No,” he says, “I’m not worthy to have you in my home.” And, in fact, Peter – after Jesus’ resurrection, when he visited the centurion Cornelius and began the process of sharing the gospel with the Gentiles – acknowledged that, under the rules and customs of the time, it was considered wrong for Jews to visit Gentiles or associate to closely with them, such as visiting them in their homes. The centurion in this passage knew that as well, and he didn’t want to put Jesus in a position of breaking the Jewish law.
But the next part of his message is what’s really extraordinary.
“Just say the word and my servant will be healed,” says the centurion. “I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
There’s an old story – and I apologize to those of you who have heard it before – about a town where there was a bad flood. One man was sitting on his porch, his entire house surrounded by the flood waters. An inflatable raft came by, and a man from the sheriff’s department said to him, “Get in the boat, and I’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
The flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to move up to the second floor of the house. He had the window open, and a powerboat came by with someone from the Civil Defense. “Get in the boat,” they said, “and we’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
Well, the flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to climb up onto the roof of the house. A National Guard helicopter came flying overhead and dropped a rope ladder. “GRAB HOLD OF THE LADDER,” said a guardsman holding a bullhorn.
“NO THANKS,” the man yelled back. “THE LORD WILL TAKE CARE OF ME.”
Finally, however, the flood waters rose too high and the man drowned. He found himself at the Pearly Gates, and was escorted inside, where he insisted on speaking to the Almighty.
“Why didn’t you take care of me?” the man demanded to know.
“I sent two boats and a helicopter,” God responded. “What more do you want?”
That’s us sometimes – we ask God for help, but we get a little too specific about what form that help should take. Maybe we ask for a new washing machine when God’s will is actually to make our old machine last a little bit longer – or maybe God has plans for us to encounter someone at the Laundromat. We get fixated on asking God to help us in some specific and dramatic way, and we miss the beauty and richness of all the other ways God might be looking after us.
But the centurion was not trying to limit God – just the opposite. The centurion was showing that he understood that God works in many different ways. When he heard Jesus was coming to visit him, he was alarmed – because he knew it was against the religious laws for an observant Jew to enter his home. So he sent word to Jesus – “Don’t come. I know you don’t have to come. I have men under my command, and I tell them to go somewhere or to bring me something, and they do it. I know you can heal my servant from anywhere.”
In the account of this same story in Matthew’s gospel, the centurion even rushes to meet Jesus himself to say this in person. That contradicts Luke, who quotes the centurion as saying he’s not worthy to approach Jesus in person.
The centurion knows what it’s like to have a little bit of power. And he has the imagination, and the faith, to understand that Jesus has divine power. And just as the centurion can send people to do things or get things, the centurion knew that Jesus could heal his servant from afar.
Jesus responded to this with amazement. I read from the Common English Bible earlier, and I want to repeat verse 9: “When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, ‘I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.’”
Jesus was impressed with the centurion! What a remarkable thing! This centurion had a better concept of who Jesus was, and of what Jesus was capable, than the Jews who had come to recommend him. He had a level of faith that Jesus hadn’t found anywhere in Israel.
In the fourth chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus is in Cana, but a royal official from Capernaum comes to see him. The royal official has a son who was sick. The official, like the Jewish elders who approached Jesus on the centurion’s behalf, assumes that Jesus needs to be present to heal his son. But Jesus, as the centurion understood, isn’t limited by time or place. Jesus speaks the word, and sends the royal official home.
When the official gets home, an overnight trip, he discovers that his son is healed – and when they tell him what time the boy started getting better, it was at one in the afternoon on the previous day – exactly the time that Jesus had pronounced him healed.
So Jesus can heal from anywhere, and this is true in the case of the centurion’s servant, who was found in good health by the Jewish elders when they got back to town.
The centurion’s faith is held up as a model for our own. The centurion had complete trust that God, in the person of Jesus, could and would do what was right. But the centurion, rather than insisting that God act in one certain way, put his request in the context of God’s kingdom as a whole. The centurion didn’t want Jesus to come to his home because he was concerned about the impact on Jesus and his ministry.
That concern might have been misplaced – Jesus was on his way to the centurion’s home, and apparently had no hesitation about going there, just as Jesus freely associated with whoever needed him and whoever turned to him, regardless of how those associations looked to the religious leaders of that day. But the important thing is that the centurion was concerned for something larger than his own household.
God encourages us, throughout the Bible, to bring our cares and concerns and requests to the holy throne. We don’t always receive what we ask for. Sometimes we ask for things that would be harmful to ourselves or others. It’s like the Garth Brooks song – some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. Sometimes we make requests that aren’t really that important in the larger scheme of things. Sometimes we don’t know why God doesn’t grant our requests.
Those of you who are parents or grandparents may have a better sense of this. When your child, or your grandchild, comes to you and asks for an ice cream cone, you know that ice cream cone isn’t of any great importance in the long run. You know that you’re providing for that child in a hundred other ways that are much more important – seeing to their health and their education and their safety.
Sometimes, you have to say “no” and the child doesn’t understand why. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want them to ask. The fact that they ask you for things is a sign of their trust, a sign that they know you love them and that you want the best for them. It’s part of the conversation of growing up.
And as they grow up, as they begin to mature and better understand the world and their place in it, what they ask you for will change.
God wants us to ask for things, for ourselves and in intercessory prayer for others. God already knows what we need, but God still wants us to make the request because that conversation helps us. It helps us realize what our own priorities are. It helps us realize our dependence upon God. And as we grow in our faith, our prayers will change over time – they’ll become less selfish and more about what’s best for others. The centurion wasn’t requesting healing for himself – he was requesting that his servant be healed. Although, actually, even that’s not true – it wasn’t the centurion who made the initial request, it was the centurion’s friends, the Jewish leaders.
Prayer is a conversation with God. It needs to be a two-way conversation, in which we listen for God’s voice in our hearts. God wants us to be in that conversation, and even if we start that conversation asking for the wrong things, at least it’s a start.
And this story is also a great example of the importance of intercessory prayer. Everyone here is concerned with someone else’s welfare – except the servant, and we don’t meet the servant, so he’s not really a character in the story.
Let us all aspire to be more like the centurion, someone who trusts completely in Jesus, who believes in Jesus’ kingdom, and who has the compassion to pray for others. Maybe someday, we’ll get to hear Jesus say that he was impressed by our faith as well.