The Centurion: humility and worthiness…

Passage: Luke 7: 1-10
Service Type:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed…

In our gospel today, Jesus is almost a background character in the action… we have these striking characters of the Roman Centurion, the sick servant or slave, the Jewish elders, the Jewish crowd and the friends of the centurion but they are all circling around Jesus who doesn’t really say a lot or seem to do much in this story…which is rather the point

Jesus had encounters with, and healed, a number of non-Jewish people, many of them outside of Palestine like the Sidonian woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon, and the man who lived among the tombs in the gentile areas east of the Sea of Galilee. This man in our gospel today however was a centurion in the Roman legions who was part of the occupying force in Palestine at that time and the person he is concerned about is one of his slaves…. Slaves often held great responsibility and honour in the households where they served in the Roman Empire, and we see in Roman households, as well as in the Old Testament, slaves actually being adopted and inheriting the estates of their masters. Before the birth of Ishmael and Isaac, when Abraham didn’t have any children, he comments that his property will be inherited by one of his servants Eliezer. So the slave meant a lot to this centurion, enough to make him seek out Jesus, a man with no official status , but who was known to have ‘power to heal.’ In Matthew’s version of this story, the centurion is pleading with Jesus, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented” (meaning that he was probably in a lot of pain). He cared about this servant deeply…

Then we see the Jewish elders who are probably not religious leaders such as Pharisees, priests or Sadducees but esteemed leaders in the local Jewish community and synagogue who came and appealed to Jesus most earnestly. They hold this centurion stationed in their town in high esteem; ‘he is worthy to have you do this for him… he loves our people (meaning the Jewish people of course)… in fact he built our synagogue…’

And what stands out in this whole conversation is their absolute trust that Jesus can heal this man… ‘he is worthy to have you come and do this for him…!’ it is like they are asking for him to come and sing at the centurion’s birthday party or something – such is Jesus’ reputation, such is their belief in his ability to do this, that whether he can doesn’t seem to be an issue, it is whether he will… the comments of the elders would imply that they felt Jesus might refuse because the man was part of the Roman occupying forces…they feel that they need to convince Jesus, that they need to intercede for the centurion, and the centurion may well have asked them to do this…

While the belief of the elders in Jesus’ ability to heal takes our notice, it is the amazing statement by the centurion as Jesus is on his way to his house, for which this story is renown;

I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof… but only say the word and my servant will be healed’…(so the next time you say that before taking communion you will remember where it comes from!) for I also am a man set under authority…’ and he then talks about his political authority and his military authority – I give orders and they are obeyed… but he recognises in Jesus an authority far above his own – ‘I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word…’

We know that there were other Romans who were called ‘godly men’, Cornelius from the book of Acts being an example of that,…they were people who were attracted to the Jewish faith and were even proselytes, studying the Jewish scriptures and religion. We don’t know the spiritual journey that led the centurion to this declaration of faith but when Jesus heard it he was amazed at him and turned to the local crowd that inevitably followed him everywhere he went, and said; ‘not even in Israel (meaning not even among those of our own Jewish nation) have I found such faith…’ owch! That would not have gone down well!

The centurion’s declaration of faith in the authority of Jesus is extraordinary… maybe that revelation was clearer to him as an outsider looking in! In the book of Genesis it says: God said ‘let there be light and there was light’.

In arabic they say: Allah Qual ‘kun’ wa Kaan! It literally translates ‘God said ‘be’ and it was! The power of the Word of God… Just say the word, the centurion said, and it will happen as you sayjust say ‘be’ and it will be… where did that revelation come from? He is saying something extraordinary about who Jesus is, and perhaps he doesn’t even understand the import of what he is saying… but no wonder Jesus was amazed at this faith, at this revelation from God

Paul, in the reading today from Galatians, says ‘… the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ…’ The centurion was not taught his faith either, he too had a revelation of who Jesus is, but those Jewish elders and the community around him would have been laying a foundation for his journey of faith and we are all part of each other’s journey too. Our lived experience is not just what we are taught…

King Abdulla II of Jordan became king of Jordan in 1999. His father was King Hussein, one of the most loved and revered leaders in the Middle East for almost 50 years. My favourite story of him is from1997, when a Jordanian soldier randomly attacked a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting an area between Jordan and Israel. He killed seven girls and wounded six before his rifle jammed and he was wrestled to the ground by other Jordanian soldiers. There had never been any love lost between King Hussein and Israel especially after Jerusalem and the West Bank were lost to Israel in the 6-day war and no one would have been surprised if he had tried to justify what had happened, as you see so often, by saying that it is Israel’s behaviour to start with that causes such acts of terror and what about the Palestinian children that have been killed?…. He didn’t do that… During the period of national mourning declared in Israel after the attack, King Hussein visited the families of each of the seven girls who had been killed, in their homes. He knelt in the doorway of each home and begged forgiveness on behalf of himself and the Jordanian people saying to each one: ''Your daughter is like my daughter. Your loss is my loss.'' – does it make him weak? Some Arab people thought so… but I think most would say that such humility showed his true greatness and worth as a leader..

The Jordanians have a saying about King Hussein; ‘mish b’tuul’ – not by height! He was 5’3” and they are saying that greatness is not measured by height….

There is a contrast in our gospel today between what the elders say about the centurion and what he says about himself:

The elders say; ‘he is worthy that you should do this for him’. This centurion is a commander in the Roman occupying forces and he then says publically, in front of the Jewish crowds; ‘I am not worthy that you should enter in to my house’, and he is declaring this to a local Jewish preacher who has no status or authority from a political or military point of view…. Extraordinary

Recognising who Jesus is leads us to humility and revelation…to a revelation of who we are before him, and also an understanding that we can trust him, that even though we are not worthy we respond to his love for us…

What I love about Jesus is that he is never predictable, he doesn’t follow a formula when healing people… sometimes he touches them like the man with leprosy, sometimes he doesn’t, sometimes he asks them a question like ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ or does something more complex like mud and spit and washing… and here Jesus is not anywhere near the person who is healed….what is significant is that he doesn’t seemingly follow a plan, he seems to act on the spur of the moment according to the person who comes to him, according to what is going on in their lives, according to their needs, and that may be more than just what they have obviously come to him for… because most things in our lives are interconnected with other parts of our lives and interconnected with those around us… Jesus it seems to me is always in the moment, listening intently to the person whose life he is about to touch…meeting them right where he knows they need healing and grace the most…

He loves people first, and they respond to that love and then change their lives. Jesus was criticised constantly for spending time with the group usually referred to collectively as ‘the tax collectors and the sinners’… in other words everyone who was outside the societal boundaries of respectability. The religious leaders, and the society in general, didn’t have anything to do with these people, it was believed that God didn’t want anything to do with these people either, so one just kept them at a distance and condemned them from afar…

Jesus however went in to their homes and ate and drank with them, he listened to them, encouraged them that they were worth saving and worth loving… and they responded - Zaccheus, so eager to see Jesus he climbed up a tree; “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

We recognise God’s greatness and our own unworthiness when we meet Jesus… but his love draws us…we are overwhelmed by the amazing depth of his love for us and we respond to that love.

Our beautiful sentence today is from Isaiah 57:15; Thus says the one whose name is Holy: “I dwell in a high and holy place, but I also live with those who are broken and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, to restore the courage of the broken.”

Be’, God says to you, and you will become!

You will be healed so that you may become that which God has ordained you to be…to live the life that he has for you… and to know the love he has for you…

True humility is being secure in God’s love for you, secure in your worth in the heart of the Father.

Mish b’tuul… greatness is not measured by height or strength or power but, as Jesus taught us many times, by humility and love.

A humility and love that leads us to say, in the spirit of the centurion; I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed… Amen

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