Say the Word
Say the Word
Over the last three weeks we’ve been listening to Jesus as he teaches his disciples the nature of his kingdom. Jesus has made it known that he’s come to enrich the poor, to fill the hungry, and to bring laughter to those who mourn. Now, when he said those things, he wasn’t talking in materialistic terms—he hasn’t come to turn the poor into millionaires, despite what today’s “prosperity” preachers might say. This is the Old Testament prophetic language of salvation. It’s the language of Eden over against the language of exile. The Jews had lived for hundreds of years in exile. God’s presence had been gone since the Babylonians had destroyed the temple. Israel was ruled by foreigners. And so the Jews prayed for the Lord to visit them—for his presence to return and to save them. And this is exactly what Jesus has come to do: to visit and to save his people. But Jesus isn’t doing it the way people expected. Instead of driving out and defeating their enemies, the corrupt Herodians, the oppressive Romans, and all the other gentiles in their midst, Jesus has been suggesting that these outsiders aren’t, in fact, the real enemies. He hasn’t come to conquer the Romans. He’s come to save the Romans, right along with the Jews, and he’s going to do that by conquering the real enemies: sin and death.
In his teaching Jesus tells us that we’re all in the same boat. Sin and death are enemies of all humanity. In Jesus we have victory over both and that means that as Jesus’ kingdom people, our desire should be to carry the message of his saving grace to everyone. The people who hate us, who curse us, and who abuse us only do those things because they’re still subject to sin and death—to the real enemies—just as we once were. And so rather than needing our judgement and retaliation—they already stand under God’s judgement—they need our love. And this is why Jesus gives us such radical teaching. Jesus isn’t just about being nice. He tells us to love our enemies in the hope that through our love, they might come to know Jesus as the true Lord and that they might submit to his lordship as we have.
Loving our enemies is hard. Only Jesus can make it possible, and that’s why he stressed at the end of his sermon that only those who are truly obedient, only those who really do love their enemies, can call Jesus “Lord”. Lot’s of people might call him “Lord”, but talk is cheap. Real faith in Jesus and real submission to his lordship will manifest themselves in obedience to the impossible things he commands. It’s through our union with Jesus—through the faithful act of Baptism, as we’ll find out later—that he gives us his very self to renew our hearts and minds.
Today we’ll look at the first ten verses of Chapter 7. Jesus now puts his impossible command to the test. People heard him talking about loving enemies, but how far was he willing to go with that himself? He’s been strongly suggesting that his mission is as much to the gentiles as it is to the Jews, but is he for real? Think back to his teaching in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. People had heard about his miracles and they appealed to Jesus, as one of their own, to “hook them up”. They wanted him to be their personal miracle-worker. And in response Jesus rebuked them by telling the story of Naaman from 2 Kings 5. Naaman was the commander of the Syrian army. He was also a leper. He went to the prophet Elisha to be healed and Jesus pointed out to the people of Nazareth that Elisha only healed one leper. Israel was full of lepers, but the one Elisha healed was a gentile—an outsider. The people were angry with Jesus because they understood his point: he didn’t come to be a personal messiah for his friends and family; he didn’t even come specifically to be Israel’s messiah; his saving mission is to all of humanity.
Everything Jesus has been saying is put to the test in what comes next: loving enemies, reaching out to the gentiles, and even the whole idea of doing good while expecting nothing in return. Look at verses 1-5:
After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.”
First, Capernaum: This was a little fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. At most, a couple of hundred people lived there. Back in Chapter 4, when Jesus was teaching in Nazareth, the people referred to having heard about what he’d done here in Capernaum. Jesus may have been here before, it seems more likely that these are the events they were referring to. Jesus heals a gentile here at Capernaum and his family and friends got upset when, having done such a wonderful thing for an outsider, Jesus refused to stay and work miracles for his own family and friends.
Next, the centurion: He was a Roman army commander—something like a “captain” in today’s terms. In theory he was in charge of a hundred men (a “century”), but in actual practise it was probably more like sixty to eighty. He, himself, reported to and was under the authority of a commander, probably in Caesarea, about 90 kilometres away. We can assume that he was financially well off. An ordinarily soldier earned at least 75 denarii in a year, but a centurion earned anywhere from 3500 to 7500 denarii. Luke doesn’t tell us his nationality, but, like Naaman, he may very well have been Syrian. Actual Romans wouldn’t be in command positions in Galilee until a.d. 44.
Luke tells us that this man’s servant—his slave—was sick and near death. Slaves were valuable, but from what we’re told of this centurion it’s easy to gather that he was concerned about more than losing a valuable piece of property. The centurion was probably unmarried and away from home and this slave had become a close friend. He might have been in charge of the centurion’s home and his business. Slaves were often confidants. And so the centurion cared about him, not just as property, but as a friend and member of his household. And so when he heard about Jesus, his first thought was of his dying friend. Jesus could help. And so he sent for the village elders and asked them to take a message to Jesus.
Luke tells us that the elders approached Jesus and asked him to come and heal the dying man, but notice how they make their appeal. They stress that this Roman is worthy of Jesus—that he deserves to have Jesus do this favour for him. Why? Because even though he’s a foreigner and a gentile—an outsider and, therefore, unclean—he’s a good man. He loves the Jewish people and he even built the synagogue in their village. If you go to Capernaum today, there’s a newer Fourth Century synagogue built on the same location. It’s built out of white stone, but the foundation is black and that black stone is what’s left of the older synagogue built by this centurion. Why did he, a pagan gentile, build a synagogue for the Jews? There were many gentiles whom the Jews referred to as “God Fearers”. They had an appreciation for Israel’s faith and for the Lord, but they never went so far as to actually become Jews by being circumcised. There were also gentile converts—proselytes—who went all the way. The language Luke uses here doesn’t describe either of these types of people who were on the outskirts or fringes of the covenant people. The most likely explanation has to do with what we saw in looking at Jesus’ command to do good while expecting nothing in return. I said then that the whole Greco-Roman social and political system was built on the ideas of patronage and obligation. Everyone had a patron—a “boss”—from the lowest freeman to the wealthiest patrician. The patron-client relationship was built on mutual obligation. The client owed his service and his loyalty to his patron, but that also meant that the patron was obligated to provide and care for his clients. In this case, the centurion was the intermediary between the people of Capernaum and the great empire that ruled them. Jews weren’t fond of the Romans or their soldiers, but this man was tasked with keeping the peace. Smart men in that position built trust with the local people and that may very well be why he would pay for a synagogue with his own money. It gave him a good standing with the Jews and also obligated them to him. He’d done them a favour, now they owed him their loyalty and their good will.
And as the village elders bring his message to Jesus, this is what they appeal to. “Jesus,” they say, “You’ve got to come heal this man’s servant. You’ve got to because he’s worthy. He’s a good man. He loves our people and he built our synagogue. You owe him this.” Maybe they didn’t hear Jesus’ sermon, but whether they heard it or not, Jesus’ teaching about doing good while expecting nothing in return is completely foreign to their way of thinking. And, of course, Jesus doesn’t owe anyone anything. Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of grace. The appeal of the elders shows what’s wrong in Israel: if it had been a Jew dying, they simply would have told Jesus about him and asked him to heal him. But because this is a gentile who needs Jesus’ help, they automatically assume that Jesus has no interest in him, no obligation to him, and ordinarily would just ignore him. As a gentile he’s on the outside and he deserves everyone’s condemnation. This is why they make an appeal to Jesus about the worthiness of this particular man and make a special case of him.
Jesus doesn’t address them at this point. He hears that there’s a need and he goes. But look at what happens on the way.
And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying 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 say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too 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 servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Luke 7:6-8)
Probably to the shock of many of the people with Jesus, he followed the town elders to the centurion’s house. Yes, Jesus had been preaching for his people to love their enemies. Yes, he’d been suggesting that his mission was as much to the gentiles as it was to the Jews. But now the full reality of that sinks in. Jesus is serious about all of this love your enemies stuff. Jesus has come to restore Israel and in bringing that restoration he’s redrawn the boundaries. Old Israel defined herself with law—with torah. The new Israel is defined around the person of Jesus himself and that leaves the door wide open for everyone. As Jesus will declare in a few chapters, “People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).
But word gets back the centurion that Jesus is coming to his house and, hearing this, he sends his friends to meet Jesus. We find out that the town elders misrepresented the centurion’s request. The elders were operating out of a sense of obligation. The centurion had done something good for them, now they were roping Jesus into doing something good for the centurion on their behalf, which would then put the centurion in their debt. It’s the complete opposite of Jesus’ call to do good while expecting nothing in return. The village elders are doing all of this under the old system; Jesus, on the other hand, is all about grace.
The remarkable thing is that the centurion’s friends—who are also probably gentiles—reveal that the centurion understands Jesus and his mission better than the Jews did. The Jews came to Jesus telling him that he had to come because this man was worthy—he’d earned a right to Jesus’ services. Now as the centurion hears that Jesus is actually coming to his house, he sends his friends to tell Jesus not to come. “I’m not worthy,” he says. This man understood what it meant for Jesus to come to his house. He knew all the Jewish rules and understood what a big deal it was. First, Jews didn’t go into the homes of gentiles. To associate with gentiles left you ritually unclean. Hospitality included food and to eat the unclean food of a gentile was an even bigger problem than just coming into contact with a gentile. But even more serious, if the man’s slave were to die, Jesus risked coming into contact with a corpse—something else that rendered you unclean. The centurion naturally thought that Jesus’ mission was to his fellow Jews. He knew that Jesus was busy with that mission and he didn’t want to take away from it. He also didn’t want to cause Jesus the bother of becoming unclean through association with his gentile self or his servant. He’s grasped something of the grace behind Jesus’ mission, though, and so he clarifies through his friends: “You don’t need to come to my house Jesus. Please, I’m not worthy of that much trouble and inconvenience on your part. You don’t owe me anything. But,” he explains, “I know you can heal my servant without going to all that trouble and I’m asking you to be gracious.”
And this is where we see the faith of the centurion. He understands Jesus better than anyone else we’ve seen so far in the story. “Don’t come to my house, Jesus. Just say the word. I know you have authority and I know how it works, because I’ve got my own kind of authority. I’m a military commander. I work for Caesar and when I give orders to my men, I speak with Caesar’s authority and they obey. I don’t even have to visit each of them at home for them to obey my orders. I just send my messenger out with their orders and they obey, because they know my authority comes from the top.”
This gentile centurion understands Jesus. First, he knows that he can’t approach Jesus from the standpoint of obligation or patronage. He knows that Jesus doesn’t minister on those grounds. Jesus ministers on the terms of grace. And the centurion seems to understand this because he also understands that Jesus has come as a representative of Israel’s God, in much the same way that he himself is there in Capernaum as Caesar’s representative. Over and over he’d heard the Jews in the little synagogue he’d built for them praying the great prayer of Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” And now he’d heard the stories of Jesus and his power. Jesus had come from Israel’s God and truly had authority and power like no one the centurion had ever seen. He may well be the first of the gentiles to recognise that Israel’s God truly was one and as a result, Lord not only of the Jews, but of all of Creation and of all peoples. And so he appealed to Jesus, not only as the representative of Israel’s God, but in the hopes that Israel’s God was his God too and that through Jesus, the One True God might accept him and his request for grace.
Jesus hears all this in the words of the centurion’s friends. And now in verses 9 and 10, Luke pulls the camera back and we get a bigger picture. We might have been thinking that Jesus was here in Capernaum on his own or with a couple of his disciples, but now Luke tells us that a crowd of his disciples is with him and that makes what Jesus says in the next verses all the more dramatic. Look at how Jesus responds:
When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
Israel was supposed to be the people of faith, but as it turns out a Roman centurion has to show them what real faith looks like. The people of Nazareth wanted Jesus as their personal miracle-workers because he owed it to them. In contrast, this man knew that even after having built a synagogue for the Jews of his town, he was still unworthy of anything Jesus could do for him. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees who questioned Jesus’ authority, this man understood that in Jesus the One True God and his kingdom were breaking into the world. He understood that Israel’s God was the Lord of Creation and that he was alive and active in and through Jesus.
Luke ends the story by telling us that when the man’s friends returned to his house they found the servant well. The centurion was right to put his faith in Jesus, because Jesus really does have the power to heal. And, more importantly in this instance, he has the authority and power to heal from a distance. But here the distance isn’t so much about the metres or kilometres that Jesus was distant from the centurion’s house, but about the distance established by the social and ethnic and religious barriers that separated the centurion from Israel. As a Roman he was the enemy. He was unclean. The synagogue he’d built in Capernaum stood as a testimony to the part he played in Caesar’s system of patronage and obligation. He was an outsider. And yet we see that even outsiders are capable of faith—and even a faith more profound than that of the insiders. And because of his faith, Jesus was willing to graciously heal. This is what the kingdom of God is about: Calling to all those who are outside of God’s salvation and welcoming them in through faith in Jesus the Messiah. That’s the key point to the story as Luke tells it
But as we close, consider two other points this gentile centurion raises for us. First, what’s at the centre of your faith? All too much of the time we trust in things like money, our jobs, or the people around us for security and when it comes to salvation from God’s judgement, we’re very prone to trusting in how well we measure up to our lists of dos and don’ts. The centurion reminds us that our faith needs to be placed in Jesus himself and that our faith trusts only in his grace. He owes us nothing. We can make no claim on him. But in his grace he offers everything if we will only come humbly like the centurion, recognising that we’re not worthy to have him come under our roofs. Second, our faith should be certain. The centurion knew the great authority of Caesar. If anyone in the world could make things happen, Caesar could. And for that reason, when the centurion commanded, his men obeyed. And he knew that if Caesar, whose earthly authority is only granted within God’s supreme sovereignty, could act with such authority, Jesus could act with even greater authority. His faith was sure because he knew who Jesus was and that the almighty God of the universe stood behind him. Brothers and sisters, in what do we trust? Do we come to Jesus thinking he owes us healing and redemption because we’ve been good, because we’ve met a certain list of requirements, or do we come as sinners, trusting only in his gracious mercy and knowing that he loves his enemies? And is our faith as sure as the centurion’s? Do we have a sense of just who Jesus is and who it is who stands behind him? Friends, a sure faith arises from the knowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, not just of our lives or our church, but Lord of all Creation.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for the gift of faith. Strengthen our faith as we reflect on the grace you show us in Jesus, who gave himself for our sakes, even though we were his enemies. Teach us to place our faith aright in his grace, not in any sense of obligation. And make it strong as we reflect on the fact that he is your Son, the Lord of Creation, and that everything is exists by him, in the power of your divine Word. We ask this through him. Amen.