Our gospel lesson from this past Sunday has us looking at the story of the Centurion and his faith. Many might say this is a healing story and while a healing miracle is performed the real emphasis of the story is on the faith of the Centurion. This unnamed Centurion demonstrates a faith that astonishes Jesus, even more surprising is that Jesus never meets the Centurion or the slave who is healed.
However, perhaps what we should focus most of our attention on is the issue of worthiness. Two definitions of worthiness are provided in this gospel story and comparing them will help us in our walk of faith.
Text: Luke 7: 1-10
I imagine that many of you like me have arrived at a meeting or a dinner date only to discover that you were either the only one there or were at the wrong meeting. I was chatting with my dad the other day and he shared a story about how one of the elders in his congregation arrived for church, only to find the doors locked and no cars in the parking lot.
Confused as to why he couldn’t get in the church and why no one else was there he drove around the corner to where the secretary lived. He knocked on the door and demanded to know why the church was locked and where everyone was.
The secretary, a member of the Anglican Church across the street, was greatly amused. You see she was just about to head out, only not to church. She was going grocery shopping as it was Saturday morning. It seems this elder had gotten confused about the day of the week and had arrived early for church.
I know that in my time I’ve arrived for a meeting that wasn’t happening and I’ve attended meetings that I wasn’t supposed to be at. In short, I’ve been an uninvited guest.
The role of the uninvited guest is what happens to the Centurion in our gospel story this morning. The Centurion, who is not given a name, is not supposed to be there. When we look at the history of the region, with Roman occupation, a Centurion should not be taking center stage. There are all sorts of social and economic arguments that can be made. The slave of the Centurion is perhaps who we think that Jesus should encounter, not the Centurion himself.
He is a representative of Rome, he upholds the Pax Romana through violent means. The Centurion is not who we or the original readers of the gospel would assume is the center of this story. Many would argue that this story is a healing miracle performed by Jesus. Yes, there is a healing which is performed and it is miraculous. However, this story is more about faith and trust than it is about healing. It is also a not so subtle reminder of who is invited and why they are invited to the table.
It is interesting to note that the Centurion requested that the Jewish elders go to Jesus and persuade him to come. The Centurion does not go himself, but as he is perhaps used to doing he orders someone else. Here the Jewish elders make some interesting assumptions about why Jesus should heal the Centurion’s slave.
They tell Jesus that the Centurion is ‘worthy’ of this request. That the Centurion has done many things on behalf of the city; that the Centurion is a benefactor and philanthropist. That the Centurion loves the people.
Jesus is intrigued and so he goes with them. However, they are not far into their journey when some friends of the Centurion find them. They tell Jesus that the Centurion says that Jesus should not come because he is not worthy. Instead he says to Jesus, simply say the word and I know that my servant will be healed.
What is interesting to note is that both the elders and the Centurion use the word worthy. However, they use it in different contexts and with vastly different meaning. In fact in the Greek it is two difference words that are being used. The first instance, used by the elders, conveys a sense of worth and esteem. Worth in this instance has been earned.
Was the Centurion worthy because he donated a lot of money into the local economy? Faithfulness isn’t part of being a group, it does not rely on your social or economic status. Jesus demonstrated that the Jewish elders were asking the wrong questions about righteousness. Yes, the Centurion’s wish for healing was granted, but not for the reasons the Jewish Elders believed it should be.
In the second instance of the word worthy, used by the Centurion, is a sense that the Centurion is of insufficient rank to be present with Jesus. The words of the Centurion ring with a sense of absolute humility. The Jewish elders think that the Centurion is entitled to have his request met, the Centurion himself does not feel this way. The Centurion demonstrates that before God, and he does use the word Lord in addressing Jesus, he is to humble himself. The Centurion is not boastful or proud, but humble before the Lord.
This juxtaposition of power and privilege serves as a reminder to us. How we present ourselves as Christians matters and we express ourselves and how we interact with others matters. What the Centurion reminds us is that it is someone who is on the outside who has a greater understanding of how things should work compared to those on the inside.
Throughout the gospels Jesus is reminding us that God’s word is available to everyone. Jesus has encounters with many people and those encounters confound those who try to put Jesus and God in a box. The Good Samaritan, the Women at the Well and the Centurion in our gospel lesson today remind us that the gospel is for everyone. Jesus uses outsiders to inform our understanding of the faith and in doing so humbles us.
In preparing for today many commentators made note of the fact that Jesus does nothing to address to the social ill which is predominant in our scripture passage this morning. That the Centurion has a slave. To us, today, this is very distasteful. Though slavery in the Roman world was different than the chattel slavery of the 18th and 19th century it is still difficult for us to accept when we read scripture.
We need to address and contend with the fact that Jesus does not free the slave. What should be noted though is the care which the Centurion professes for the slave. The Centurion advocates for someone who has little or no voice in society. The Centurion asks that Jesus come and heal him.
Jesus demonstrates good will toward the slave by healing him, one of the lowest of the low. He also expresses goodwill to the Centurion by granting the request, one of the highest of the high. Jesus does not show deference based on social standing.
Friends, we should also note that the individual who received the healing is a person that Jesus did not meet. The slave is healed, the most powerless and the individual who held the lowest social status. God’s healing grace extends beyond the boundaries and barriers that we create for it. And I do think that we like to create boundaries for what we think that God is capable of. Rather than trusting and walking in faith we decide what God is capable of doing and what God is not capable of doing. It is not our place to do that, it is our place to walk humbly with God and do the work of the Kingdom.
Finally, we notice the corporate versus personal nature of faith that is demonstrated in Luke’s gospel. Often we view faith as a personal journey rather than a public matter. We understand the value of helping, but maybe we don’t want to get involved. A lived faith recognizes that it is part of the world and that it shares in the world. The willingness of the Centurion to publicly state his faith and advocate on behalf of another demonstrates that our faith is most clear when it exists in the public sphere.
There are times in each of our lives when we need the larger community of faith to speak with and for us. There are times when our own voice is insufficient. There are times when the voice of one outside our circle informs our discussion.
I found the following quote this week from Rev. Ken Collins, “Pick up a pencil. Notice that your fingers can’t pick up the pencil unless the thumb opposes them. The fingers outvote the thumb four to one, but the majority can’t accomplish much of anything without the minority’s opposition. So I feel that the Holy Spirit may inspire the members of the body of Christ to disagree with each other from time to time, because minority opinions usually serve some higher purpose. Therefore, I am respectful of people who disagree with me; the Holy Spirit might have sent them to correct and reprove me.” (Source)
We need to listen to and hear dissenting voices. We need to be open to the Holy Spirits guidance and teaching from sources we might not normally look. Our gospel lesson this morning reminds us that Jesus chose someone who wasn’t invited to the party to provide teaching about how God’s love and grace are to be shared. Amen.