May 29, 2016
Luke mentions authority more than any of the other gospel writers. Usually, Luke is referring to Jesus and the way he teaches with authority, or heals with authority, amazing the people who gather around him. Sometimes it’s the Jewish leaders who question Jesus about his authority to do these things.
But in today’s story, Luke tells us about someone else who holds authority, and this person is an outsider, a Roman centurion. He’s a mid-level military leader who knows his own place in the chain of command. A Roman centurion is about the last person you might expect to come to Jesus, asking for help, and yet, that’s exactly what happens.
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set 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 this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. – Luke 7:1-10
Jesus has just finished preaching his Sermon On The Plain. Similar to the Sermon On The Mount that we find in Matthew’s gospel, it includes a version of the Beatitudes. But there’s a twist. Luke doesn’t just list all the ways we are blessed, he also spells out a list of woes that people will experience if they do not repent and believe the gospel. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, …. but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:20b, 24)
As he finishes this sermon, Jesus heads into Capernaum, his base of operations. And as he comes into town, he meets a group of Jewish leaders who have a special request. They want to ask a favor for a friend, but the friend isn’t a Jew. In fact, he’s a Roman centurion, in charge of the soldiers stationed in northern Galilee.
We don’t know much about this centurion – in fact, we never even learn his name – but it is clear that the leaders know him well and get along with him. He has been a benefactor to the town, building a new synagogue for them and worshiping as a God-fearer, a Gentile who believes in the one true God, but has not undergone the rite of circumcision to become a Jew.
This centurion is what you might call a “friendly enemy.” He represents the oppressor, but he also respects Jewish customs and practices. In some ways, he reminds us of Naaman in the Old Testament. Both of these men are Gentile military commanders with connections to Jewish communities. Both seek healing from a prophet. Neither of them actually comes into direct contact with the prophet, but healing happens in both cases.
But there are some major differences between the story of Naaman and this centurion. For one thing, Naaman is offended when Elisha the prophet doesn’t come out to meet him personally. But the centurion sends his friends to stop Jesus from entering his house, claiming “I am not worthy.” Naaman doesn’t like the instructions he is given, but follows them to save face in front of his servants. This centurion recognizes that Jesus has the authority to “say the word,” even from a distance, and it seems he is willing to do whatever Jesus asks in order for his servant to be healed.
At any rate, the Jewish leaders he sends to Jesus as intermediaries apparently like this guy. They tell Jesus he is worthy. He’s been good to the community, and they would like Jesus to help them return the favor.
Jesus doesn’t say a word. He just starts walking toward the centurion’s home. And this presents a problem for the centurion. He respects the Jewish laws about ritual purity, and he also understands protocol for honoring guests in the home. He knows that if Jesus comes into his house, the centurion will be expected to offer Jesus hospitality, some water to wash his feet, something to eat and drink, a place to sit.
But since the centurion is a Gentile, each of these measures of hospitality would also make Jesus ritually unclean if he accepts them. Jews could not enter a Gentile home and remain pure. They could not eat food or drink from cups that had not been purified. And the prospect that Jesus might encounter a dead body would certainly have made him unclean.
The centurion realized that it would be rude to let Jesus come into his home to heal his servant without offering him rest and refreshment, but it would be much worse to put Jesus in the embarrassing position of needing to refuse the centurion’s hospitality. The best thing to do, then, was prevent Jesus from coming into his house at all. The best hospitality would be no hospitality! That would be the kindest, most thoughtful and caring approach to this dilemma.
So the centurion sends out a second contingent to prevent the approaching crowd from coming any closer. He sends his friends, and they speak to Jesus as if in the centurion’s own voice. Though the Jewish leaders had claimed that the centurion was worthy of Jesus’ attention, the centurion himself says, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but just say the word, and I know my servant will be healed.” The centurion fully believed that Jesus could heal someone without being physically present, without touching them. A word was all that was needed.
The key here is the centurion’s understanding of authority. He knows how to give orders and he knows how to take orders. He understands the chain of command.
Some might think he is ordering Jesus to perform a healing miracle. This is not the case. He simply explains to Jesus why he believes Jesus can help his servant. And part of his understanding of authority includes a clear understanding of what it mean s to serve another, to offer hospitality that is true hospitality, to show a deeper level of caring than the world generally shows. And this centurion cares.
The centurion cares about his servant enough to seek help from this itinerant healer.
The centurion cares enough about his relationship with the community under his jurisdiction to respect and observe their religious laws about contact with Gentiles. He also cares enough to use a mediator to reach Jesus, sparing Jesus the possible embarrassment of turning him down in front of the community for which he is responsible, and acknowledging the chain of command and social protocols in place.
The centurion cares enough about maintaining good relations for the long term, and recognizes that if Jesus comes under his roof, the centurion is obligated to offer him hospitality that Jesus would not be in a position to accept without becoming unclean himself.
Yet, the centurion recognizes that Jesus carries authority to heal, and he appeals to this authority through the proper channels, the Jewish leaders, and then his own friends, people who know him personally and well. He wants to be sure his message to Jesus gets through.
And it does. We’ve heard the religious leaders and the centurion’s friends speak, but Jesus only gets one line in this story. Jesus is amazed. “I haven’t seen faith like this in all of Israel,” Jesus tells the crowd.
New Testament Professor Jeannine Brown writes, “Somehow, it seems fitting in this surprising story that Jesus himself is surprised and amazed at the trust this centurion demonstrates (7:9). He is surprised to find faith in a centurion that surpasses what he has seen in anyone from Israel. And we can learn something from Jesus’ own surprise at the specter of an enemy soldier proving to be a model of faith for the people of God. Maybe we should not be surprised by the unlikely places that faith shows up in our own world. It could even show up in those we think are our enemies.” After all, even though this centurion “has proven to be a friend to the Jewish people by building their synagogue,” he “still represents Roman (enemy) occupation.”
Think about it for a moment: who is the least likely person you would expect to show grace to you? Who is the least likely person who could expect grace from you? How might God be using outsiders, even non-believers, to do his work and will in the world?
David Lose writes, “I wonder how many other people who are not followers of Jesus God is using right now? I wonder how many people of other faiths we might be amazed about if we stopped to notice the good they are doing? I wonder how many people of different faith or no faith we might see differently – as God’s beloved children – if we kept this story in mind?
Here’s the thing: God loves everyone. God works through everyone. God has hopes and dreams for everyone. And we may be surprised who God chooses, who God works through, and who God commends.”
So it boils down to this. How could you amaze Jesus this week?
The centurion refuses hospitality to Jesus by stopping him from coming into a Gentile home, where Jesus would become unclean. That seems a little awkward! But what if Jesus is pointing out to us that sometimes, being truly hospitable means looking past the accepted behavior in society, to meet a deeper need?
What authority does Jesus give us to act in his name?
Matthew 28:18 -19 reads, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you. And look, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” That’s some pretty good authority.
Later in Luke’s gospel we read, “A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves'” (Luke 22:24-26).
Where do you fall in the chain of command? How will you use your authority? Will you insist on showing only the hospitality you are already comfortable with, or will you accept the possibility that sometimes, hospitality means doing things that don’t fit with society’s standards of good behavior. Sometimes, you may have to deny someone hospitality in order to offer them true hospitality in Jesus’ name. Sometimes, you might have to think more deeply about the true need, in order to offer true hospitality.
We can get stuck in the pattern of offering only transactional ministry to people who are hungry for something more than a meal served or a gas voucher. Those are transactions – we give, they receive – but they aren’t really opportunities for transformation to happen. Jesus calls us into transformational ministry, where others are changed and healed by the way we love them, even as we are changed and healed in the act of loving as God loves – unconditionally.
Jesus sends us out to love God and love our neighbor.
So let’s do it.
Let’s go be amazing.