June 2, 2013
William G. Carter
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.
BC: We have an occasional custom of asking a graduating senior to help with the sermon on this day. I had one in mind. I asked and she consented, so I would like to invite her forward at this time. And then, we sat down together to read the scripture text.
MC: I wasn’t impressed. Who picks these passages, anyway?
BC: Most of the time, it’s a committee …
MC: Of course, it’s a committee. A camel is a horse designed by a committee.
BC: Well, the texts are picked by an ecumenical committee.
MC: Does that make it better?
BC: To tell you the truth, neither of us thought much of the text. It’s the story of a rich Roman citizen who wants Jesus to do something for him.
MC: It sounds like he wants to get his way because he is rich. A lot of rich people are used to getting their way.
BC: And this guy is a centurion.
MC: That’s a soldier, right?
BC: It is the commander of a battalion of soldiers. A hundred soldiers are commanded by a centurion. He had great responsibility and significant authority. He was paid a lot better than the average soldier.
MC: But it’s surprising to hear people say, “He is a nice guy.” Not the usual picture we have of a Roman centurion!
BC: And it’s equally surprising that the people who say so are Jewish leaders. Israel maintained a racial boundary between themselves and the Romans. As the Jewish Mishnah said, “The dwelling places of Gentiles in Israel are unclean.”
MC: Still, these Jewish leaders were willing to go on behalf of that Roman centurion. There is something about him that they respected: he had concern for a slave, and he was highly regarded by the whole Jewish town of Capernaum.
BC: And don’t overlook: not only was he rich, he was generous.
MC: Did you see the article? J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter books, is no longer a billionaire. She gave away too much money to charity last year, mostly to charities for single mothers and their families. In fact, she gave $160 million dollars to charity. Now she is merely a millionaire.
BC: I looked up the story in Forbes magazine after you told me about this. She said, “You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.” I think there should be a special place in heaven for people who are so generous.
MC: Well, maybe this Roman centurion thought there should be a special place for him. He was very generous. The local Jewish leaders said he financed the building of their synagogue.
BC: I have been to that synagogue. They have excavated the foundation stones in Capernaum . . .
MC: Are we going to hear another Pastor Travel Story?
BC: Oh no, no travel stories until September. J But I did learn that Capernaum, way up north, had a track record for diverse people getting along. The town was along the trade route, along the ancient route from Babylon to Egypt. It would not have been unheard of for a Roman soldier to show kindness to Jewish townspeople.
MC: This soldier was pretty remarkable. He was seriously concerned for one of his slaves. He valued him and didn’t want the servant to die. So he called on Jesus for health care. He’s a really good guy. The Jewish leaders that he sends to Jesus say as much. “He is worthy of having you do this for him,” they say. “He loves our people. He built our synagogue for us.”
BC: As Luke tells this story, he puts it just right. The local people say about the Centurion, “he is worthy.” But he communicates to Jesus, he says, “I’m not worthy.”
MC: Is he faking it? Is this false modesty?
BC: We can’t say, and he’s not around to ask. And it does blow the stereotype of a Roman soldier out of the water. Those guys had a reputation for being brutes.
MC: Well, he knows that he is not in charge of everything. He has authority over a hundred soldiers, but he cannot command an illness to flee his servant. So he hands over the matter to Jesus, and says, “Just speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”
BC: Just speak the word . . . There are a lot of situations where we want him to speak the word. Every person who gets written down on our prayer cards is a person who needs a word of healing.
MC: Every person who gets put down or pushed aside is a person who needs a word from Jesus.
BC: The girl with the screaming headache, the woman with the spot on the Cat scan, the man with the confused mind, the parents still waiting for their kid to come home – at some time or another, all of us need a word from Jesus. Just speak the word, and we shall be healed.
MC: There is so much in our lives that is out of control. We try not to let it show, but we hunger for somebody to be in control, for somebody to take charge, for somebody with authority to make us well.
BC: So this tame little story that we originally didn’t like is really a much bigger story about prayer.
MC: How so?
BC: Prayer is the practice of handing over control. We ask the God that we meet in Jesus to speak the healing word, to do what we cannot do. We call on him from a distance, even relying on our friends if necessary to relay the message.
MC: What strikes me is that both Jesus and the centurion “phone it in”. The centurion sends Jewish leaders to notify Jesus of the need. When he hears Jesus is coming to his house, he sends more friends to say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself.” There is no evidence that he ever actually meets Jesus face-to-face.
BC: Likewise, Jesus does not need to be in the man’s house to perform the healing. He doesn’t need to be physically present. He doesn’t need to take the slave by the hand and say, “Be well!”
MC: The centurion seems to know this. Maybe that’s why he calls Jesus “Lord.” “Lord” means “master.” What’s the Greek word, O scholar father?
BC: The word is “kurios”. It signifies “the one in charge.” It points to the One who has authority, the One who can make the decisions.
MC: A Roman soldier is going to know about giving orders. This soldier orders the Jewish leaders to go see Jesus. Then he orders some friends to say, “Don’t trouble yourself.”
BC: Sounds like he can’t make up his mind.
MC: Actually I think he sounds humble. Appropriately humble. He wants Jesus to be Jesus: to be the Lord who has authority and power to heal.
BC: So there is the message for all of us: to hand over to the Lord what we can’t handle, to trust that he will do what needs to be done.
MC: Even if we are as powerful as a Centurion, we trust God’s power is greater than our own.
BC: Even if we are as weak as his favorite servant, we can be healed by a Lord that we may never see.
MC: Just say the word, Lord. Just say the word and we shall be healed.
BC: Today, this is the Word of the Lord for us.
MC: Thanks be to God.
With thanks to Meg Carter, who wrote and delivered this sermon with me
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Jesus in Context, Bock and Herrick.