This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on May 29, 2016.
Jesus has just concluded his Sermon on the Plain. Whereas Matthew’s Jesus has preached a Sermon on the Mount, emphasizing Jesus’ authority from on high, Luke characteristically has Jesus preaching from a “level place,” among the people. Luke’s Jesus will show his authority by what he does in history working from below, so to speak.
Now we see that authority operating in a healing story in nearby Capernaum. This town is ground zero of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, the home of Simon Peter and a crossroads of trade on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is met by a delegation of Jewish town elders who intercede on behalf a Roman military leader. This man is a centurion, likely working under Herod Antipas and commanding troops responsible for tax collecting and keeping order. We are also told that he is a worthy man. He has had unusually good relations with the local Jews and generously paid for the building of their synagogue. This establishes his credentials with the Jewish leaders.
They report to Jesus about the centurion’s beloved slave, whom he esteems highly. The slave is sick, although we are not told about the nature of his infirmity. In a related account, Matthew reports from a common source that he is paralyzed. The slave is close to death.
The Jews consider this man worthy, partly because of his generosity toward them, partly because of his own character. Jesus went with them toward the man’s house, which would have been unclean by definition, since he was a Gentile. Jesus does not put holiness before compassion. But before he can reach the house, another delegation meets him and declares that the centurion does not consider himself worthy of Jesus coming to his house. This dichotomy between the Jews’ estimation of his worthiness and the centurion’s self-estimate of his unworthiness further amplifies the worthiness of the man. Humility is a mark of worthiness in Luke’s world.
The centurion believes that Jesus has authority by virtue of who he is under God. All Jesus needs to do is to speak the word and the slave will be healed. The man reports through his friends that he understands authority, not because of his superior position, but because he himself is one who operates under authority. He has the human power to speak and command that things be done, and he considers Jesus to possess that kind of authority under the God of Israel, whom he reveres.
We may assume that the centurion is a God-fearer—a Gentile, like the centurion Luke will tell us about in Acts 10 who reveres the God of Israel without becoming a Jewish proselyte. Jesus praises the man’s faith as being greater than what he has seen in Israel. This is not a judgment on the faith of fellow Jews; it simply lays the groundwork for Jesus’ universal mission that is a major theme of Luke’s gospel and his sequel, The Acts of the Apostles.
We are not told whether Jesus spoke any particular word, but by the time the centurion’s friends return to the man’s house they find that the slave has been healed.
The sermon may explore the movement between Jesus’ teaching ministry and healing work. Jesus is not merely a teacher whose wisdom is from God; he possesses the power of God to give life. Salvation is deliverance from all that would keep the world from experiencing the fullness of God’s created intention. It is the anticipated wholeness of the peaceable kingdom that Jesus as the messiah brings. Individual acts of healing anticipate the final restoration of all things in Christ.
But the attention given in the story to the faith of the Gentile outsider also anticipates the inclusion of the Gentiles among the people of Israel. Faith, not the observance of the Law of Moses, is the touchstone of inclusion for the people of God. The church’s mission is not confined to the preservation of the community that already believes. It includes the recognition that God is always seeking to save the lost, whoever they may be. And while the faith of the centurion may not be more in this account than the confidence of Jesus’ power to heal, it prepares us to see that faith is a gift of God that may be found anywhere and everywhere. Incomplete faith in the power of Jesus may lead to a more complete confession of Christ that comes about through intimate and constructive engagement with those who have otherwise been considered outsiders. In this story, both the Jewish elders and Jesus see in the centurion one in whom the work of God may be made manifest. The church may learn that the mission of God is God’s work first and last, and that we are participants in it.
Dr. George Mason
Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas
Tags: healing, faith, mission, outsiders, salvation