A sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, May 29, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
The Gospel lesson today is about the healing of the slave of a Centurion in Capernaum. It shows the power of Jesus—he performs a healing from a distance. But that, for me, isn’t the most interesting part of this story. The most interesting part is the story of Jesus reaching beyond his native community—the Jews—and what that meant for him, the gentiles and the Jews.
There is something we should think about as a prelude to this lesson. This is Chapter 7 of the Gospel of Luke. In Chapter 6, Jesus has just preached what we generally think of as the Sermon on the Mount. He has told his listeners things like: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God;” Or, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you;” or “Do not, judge, and you will not be judged.” The kind of thing that we all nod our head and say, yes, yes, of course!—and then avoid doing in our daily lives. And don’t think that the Jews in Jesus’ day were any different in that regard! Jesus has told them that people who don’t act on his words are like a man who builds his lakeside house on a foundation of sand. Can you imagine how that went over with the wealthy and powerful?
Also in Luke, Chapter 6, Jesus has been criticized by Jewish leaders for allowing his followers to heal on the Sabbath. So when he enters Capernaum, a Jewish town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, there’s already a tension between him and his own community. Capernaum was the town where Peter lived, and maybe Jesus and some of the other Apostles as well. And probably some of those powerful people Jesus was talking about with the lake-side houses.
That’s the backdrop for our lesson today. The reason I’m reviewing this is because I want to highlight the tensions that are likely to have been in place—both in the Jewish community between the leaders and Jesus—and between the Jews and their Roman overseers.
Which brings us to the centurion who is the focus of our lesson.
A centurion was a professional soldier in the Roman army. The title literally means a commander of one hundred—though it refers to the type of command he had, not the exact number of soldiers. This was the equivalent of a company commander in our modern military—in those days of the Roman occupation of Palestine he would have been in charge of the local military garrison. He would have been very important in that town, no matter who he was.
The centurion had a slave whom he valued highly who was very ill. It’s likely that this was a slave with particular skills, like writing down the centurion’s speeches and orders, or accounting, or supervising the household staff. Frequently the children of a household were educated by a slave, this could have been the tutor and supervisor of the centurion’s children. It’s possible, that in a long relationship, the centurion had come to value the slave as a person of worth—perhaps, even, as a trusted friend.
The passage says that the centurion sent Jewish elders to Jesus with a message, asking him to come and heal his slave. That would be the way the Roman commander of an occupied territory would act: he would work through the local leaders. And maybe the local leaders also had an agenda. Maybe they were still trying to catch Jesus out in violating laws and standards. Perhaps they were trying to set him up. Or they may have been fearful, afraid that an otherwise fairly friendly benefactor might turn on them. Or maybe they truly liked and had a bond of affection with the centurion who took an interest in their community and wanted to help him in his hour of need.
Then there comes the key part of the story: The centurion sends some friends with a message for Jesus. This is because Jesus didn’t have email. When it says friends, it really is referring to associates who would be in the household of an influential man—if a message was to be carried, they would be the ones to do it. But this email to Jesus is extremely humble and respectful for someone who is the representative of the military might of the Roman Empire: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, because I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…” But what does this mean? Didn’t he want to see Jesus? Was this some kind of polite blow-off? Was the centurion testing Jesus, to see if he could do something more impressive than just heal someone by being with them and laying his hands upon them? Or maybe, it just struck the centurion as unseemly to have so much attention paid to a slave?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they come up for me whenever I look at this story. There’s another possibility, which I have not seen discussed. This centurion was not Jewish, he was definitely a gentile, even if he was impressed by the life of the Jewish community and believed in their God. Was he aware of the conflicts between this healer and some of the devout religious leaders? He was probably aware that Jews were prohibited from accepting hospitality from gentiles in many cases. Would having Jesus enter his house expose Jesus to further criticism? “Lord…I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…” We don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but the centurion’s message said, “…speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
Jesus had spoken the words in public, the healing words of his sermon: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven, give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Jesus was preaching the kingdom of God and healing among the children of Israel, and now he says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when the messengers got back to the centurion’s house they found the slave in good health.
The tensions that occur when we try not just to listen, but to act on Jesus’ words—in our own communities, and in reaching out to others—is what living the Christian life is about. The centurion knew that—though he was a man of action, commanding many troops—this was a new way to act that leads to eternal life.
Now, let us act upon Jesus’ commands and go forth and serve the Lord.