May 29, 2016
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.
For Memorial Day, Luke remembers a soldier. He was a centurion for the imperial army of Rome. He was stationed in Capernaum, the small fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. You might not think that is a plum assignment; it’s not the seaside city of Caesarea, nor is the political hot house of Jerusalem. But Capernaum had a history. It was on the general route stretching between the ancient powers of Babylon and Egypt. If one empire planned to march upon another, they would travel through Capernaum, the little fishing village where no much happened.
This particular centurion, who is unnamed, is remarkable for a number of reasons. It’s not merely because of his military record, which was probably significant. He is a military commander. “Centurion,” as in “century,” signifies a hundred. That is, he commanded a hundred soldiers. No one is given such a command through incompetence. No, this guy is a lean, mean fighting machine, the best in the Roman Empire. He has great responsibility and significant authority.
But here is the remarkable thing: he has friends. Specifically, this Roman fighting man has friends. I looked up the word in the Gospel of Luke to make sure. Yep, that’s what Luke says. The centurion has “philos,” friends, and he sends them to Jesus. It’s hard to imagine a military commander with friends – you don’t get an army promotion by having a lot of friends. But this man has people in town who like him.
Not only that, they are Jewish religious leaders, and their friendship is unusual. It was the Jewish Mishnah that said, “The dwelling places of Gentiles in Israel are unclean.” There was a firm racial boundary established between the people of Israel and the Roman soldiers that occupied their land. But they liked this guy. “He built our synagogue for us,” they said. What an incredible act of generosity!
So maybe that’s why they reach out on his behalf. One of his household servants is very sick, close to death. The centurion has heard about Jesus, how he has gone about healing the sick people in the region. He says, “I value this servant very highly. Could Jesus come to heal him?” This is his request. It’s not an order, it’s a request. And that, too, is remarkable. This is a man accustomed to giving orders.
When a seminary classmate said she was going to enlist in the military, a few of us wondered how it was going to turn out. Margaret has a pleasant personality, she’s very kind and compassionate, and she’s a little bit short. As I recall, when she preached her senior sermon in the chapel, she may have needed to stand on a box for people to see her. It was an impressive sermon, she is an impressive person.
After basic training, she was assigned to the Marine base at Quantico, and then Camp Lejeune. Margaret became the first female chaplain at the Naval Academy. In time, she became the chaplain of the entire Marine Corp, and then the chief chaplain of the United States Navy. These days, she is a Rear Admiral.
Some time ago I asked her, “What’s the best thing about your work?” She said, “When I tell somebody to do something, it happens.”
This centurion is accustomed to getting his way. He says “jump,” they ask, “How high?” This man has extraordinary authority. But he can’t make his favorite servant well. So he makes a request of Jesus, that unusual prophet who speaks in parables and heals the sick.
And his friends make the appeal. You have to do this, Jesus. He’s a really good guy. He loves our people. He loves his adopted homeland. And for goodness’ sake, he built our synagogue. He is worthy.
It’s that last word that sticks out – worthy. He is worthy. It’s the strangest description of a centurion in the whole Bible – the worthy centurion. If it’s not a contradiction in terms, it is certainly a paradox. And we know from the parables of Jesus, he liked a good paradox. He told stories about the unjust judge, the humble tax collector, the prodigal son, the dishonest manager, the rich man who went to hell, the grateful leper, the good Samaritan. Now, here is a worthy centurion!
This gets Jesus’ attention. The soldier has made his request, his friends say, “Jesus, you have to do this. He’s a really good man, a worthy man . . .” -- if only all of us might be worthy of the healing touch of Christ!
But then something happens. Did you hear what it is? As Jesus draws near, the centurion tries to slow him down. He sends even more friends (for a Roman soldier, this man has a lot of friends!). And the friends speak on his behalf and say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself. I wasn’t worthy to come to you, and I’m not worthy to have you come to me.”
Now, what’s all this about? There is some debate among the scholars. Some of them say he’s being modest. Perhaps he has second thoughts about having a preacher in his house. Do you really want a holy man to come that close?
Others point out the awkward differences between them. The centurion must live in a big house. He has servants, and as a Roman soldier, he could take any house he wanted. And here’s Jesus, the itinerant preacher with no permanent place of his own (9:57-58).
Still others remind us of the racial differences between them. Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean. They inhabit different planets. If Jesus came under his roof, that would signal they are neighbors, that they have more in common than what separates them on the surface. How extremely awkward for a rich Roman soldier to beg the mercy of a poor Jewish carpenter, and then to have that be the story that gets written down forever in the Bible!
Yet when all the mixed feelings are sorted out, the soldier’s misgivings are easy to explain. He is accustomed to getting his way. He understands the nature of authority. If the person in charge says, “do that,” it gets done. This centurion can direct and control a hundred soldiers, but he cannot control a life-threatening illness that might take the life of somebody in his own household. So he hands over the matter to the One who does have the authority. Somehow he can perceive that, even though the two of them never meet.
“Just say the word,” the centurion declares to Jesus, “and I know my servant will be healed.”
When a story like this is told in the Gospel of Matthew (8:5-13), the centurion comes out of his house and appeals directly to Jesus. In most every other way, the story is identical. But Luke says he does his talking through his friends. The appeal is second-hand, probably out of respect. When the friends try to convince Jesus to heal the man’s servant, they squeeze it to say, “He’s worthy.” Yet the man says, “I am not worthy.” There is some distance maintained between the one who makes the request and the One who has the authority to grant it.
Yet here’s the thing: Jesus heals the man’s servant, regardless of whether or not he is worthy. That’s the essence of grace. If God-in-Christ had to wait until all of us were “worthy,” none of us would ever be healed of any illness, none of us would ever be forgiven, none of us would ever be given a second chance, much less a first chance. Because it is never about how “worthy” or “unworthy” we are; it’s only about how good is the God that Jesus embodies.
Christ doesn’t wait for the centurion to shape up before he does something kind for him. Please take note of that. But also take note that the centurion asks for help. He may be in charge of a hundred soldiers, but he is not in charge of the universe. He is skilled in commanding a battalion, but he has no command over the illness of somebody he loves. So he hands over the matter to Jesus and says, “Just speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Just speak the word. There are a lot of situations where we want him to speak. Every person who gets written down on our prayer cards is a person who needs a word of healing. Every person who gets put down or pushed aside is a person who needs a word from Jesus. The girl with the screaming headache, the man with the spot on his lung, the senior who gets confused, the parents still waiting for their kid to come home – at some time or another, all of us need a word from Jesus.
For 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 take charge, for somebody with the authority to make us well.
In a way, then, this is a story about prayer, because prayer is the practice of handing over control. We ask the God that we meet in Jesus to speak the healing word, to accomplish what we cannot do. We call on him from a distance. Sometimes we even rely on our friends to relay the message.
Sometimes we even downplay the request, so that we won’t be disappointed. “Don’t trouble yourself, Lord.” I call it “putting cushions on the floor,” because if you put a cushion on the floor, you won’t fall quite so far.
But here’s the final detail I want you to notice. For Jesus, reaching toward us in grace is really no trouble at all. It is the essence of his mission to the world to give the joy, the peace, the healing, and the love of God. He might not always “fix” us or do what we command, but he is present with us always and this is our healing. He does discriminate between Jew and Gentile, worthy or unworthy.
In fact, did you notice how the story ends? He heals that servant without even saying the word. The friends go back to the centurion and the servant is already healed.
I tell you, this is the grace of God. It is not restricted to something that happened a long time ago. There is grace all around us, given freely from the generous heart of God. And the Lord of life is going to do what he can to make all things well, both for those who believe themselves worthy, but especially for those who don’t.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Jesus in Context, Bock and Herrick.