We are continuing with our summer worship series, Face to Face: Divine Encounters. This week we are looking at an encounter between Jesus and a Gentile. This is not any Gentile, it is a Centurion, a member of the occupying Roman Army.
A Centurion was an officer that was in command of 100 men. This might be the level of a captain or a major in today’s army. This man is both a Roman, not necessarily from where we think of Italy today, but a Roman and an army officer. In both of these areas hierarchy and chain of command were very important parts of how they functioned. You can guess from a military perspective that this would be a man that was used to receiving and giving orders and expecting them to be carried out. But all of Roman society had a very rigid class structure that was a bit different. It was all built around a Patron and Client structure.
A “patron” would be someone of some kind of wealth and influence, and they would help “clients.” It might be helping the client acquire a piece of property, get on an influential board or committee that would allow them to get in on lucrative business deals. They might have sold or rented themselves out as a slave or indentured servant, and the patron might buy out their contract, redeem them as it were. Patrons were also expected to take care of the people in their circle or their household. In return for these favors, the clients were expected be loyal to and provide services for the patron. It might be that the patron might receive a percentage of a particular business deal. They might speak and put a good word in for their patron if it were necessary. It was very much a “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours,” kind of deal.
You will see all of this come into play in today’s Scripture passage.
Luke 7:1-10 NIV
7 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s [bond] servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the Centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
You can see all of these different aspects of military and Roman hierarchy and class structure at work here. It is so absolute that the Centurion doesn’t even to actually see Jesus. He trusts. He believes. He has representatives that come face to face with Jesus for him.
That tells us that this Centurion was a man of some wealth and influence. Capernaum was not a big place. It would not have been a prestigious posting, but here he was the big fish in a little pond. He was a patron. One of the things a patron would do is build things for the local community. It this case, he built a synagogue, thereby gaining Jewish elders as clients. A member of his staff is quite ill. As the patron, the commander, he has a responsibility to do what he can for this person. He might have been a personal servant, a slave in the household.
When we think of slaves in this context, we have to set aside our history of slavery in the United States. There could be slaves in just as dire of straights as they were here, but in Roman society there could be quite wealthy slaves who conducted their own business affairs in addition to their patron. They could be people who sold themselves temporarily to satisfy a debt or to raise money, but once that was worked off, they would be free. In Roman society, a wealthy slave for an influential person would have a higher social position than say a poor free day laborer with no connections.
Regardless of where this particular servant was in this class system, in this case the Centurion felt an obligation to take care of him. He hears that that Jesus the healer is nearby, and he dispatches his clients, the local Jewish elders to persuade Jesus to come and heal his servant. And, they are happy to do just that. They tell Jesus that despite being the local commander of the occupying army (their enemy), this Centurion loves the nation and has built a synagogue. Jesus agrees to help. Now, the Centurion sends a second delegation telling Jesus not to trouble himself to physically come to the house. Just say the word. I know you have the power to do this thing.
This is such great contrast to Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, just a few miles up the road. The Centurion recognizes Jesus as a special man full of power when his own people did not. That is something we see throughout the gospels, especially in Luke. We have the Syro-Phonecian woman who came on behalf of her daughter, the Samaritan leper (who thanks Jesus after his healing), the Samaritan woman at the well (who runs back to town to tell all the people that she may have met the Messiah).
The Centurion has this faith that his request will be heard. He doesn’t meet with Jesus directly. In that way, the request is like a prayer conveyed by others. That makes his “face to face” encounter more like ours. The implicit message to the Gentile believers in Luke’s day and to us now is to believe that when we turn to the Lord in need that our request will be heard.
Look at the boldness of the Centurion’s request. “Say the word, and my servant will be healed.” This demonstrates his faith in the power of Jesus. He is certain that Jesus has the power to say “yes,” and carry it out.
The sales profession can be very difficult. It can be full of rejection and disappointment. Paychecks can be inconsistent depending on how many sales were made in the pay period. It can make you feel desperate. We hear of the stereotypical used car dealer who will do or say anything to get the sale. They will lie. They will manipulate to sell you what? A car that will break down 50 feet after you drive it off the lot. They have just sold you what is called “a lemon.” They will be happy to fix it for you … for a nominal fee. That is why many states have lemon laws protecting consumers from unscrupulous practices. I learned that Oregon’s Lemon Law only applies to new cars, not used ones, but that’s another story.
Due to stereotypes like the one I described, many resist that profession. For the record, I have interacted with many ethical above board car salespeople. The bottom line is that sales of all kinds are difficult. You have to hear a lot of “no’s” and face a lot of rejection. Your goal is a “yes.”
When I was in sales [raise eyebrows provocatively and smile], I was taught that it was important to find out who was the person who could say “yes” that had the power to say “yes.” Usually, the person who answers the phones only has the power to say “no,” and is often instructed to do so. Find the person who can say “yes.”
The Centurion knew that in Jesus, he found the person who could say “yes.” He effectively prays to Jesus through the Jewish elders. We should learn to be so bold in our everyday prayers. The truth is that we are very bold in the Lord’s prayer. It’s very demanding. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done … Give us this day … Forgive us … Lead us not … Deliver us.” These are not tentative requests. They are bold demands. When you say the prayer, do you say it like you mean it, or are you merely reciting the words? Pray it like you believe it! God is listening.
Of course, just because God has the power and the ability to say yes, that doesn’t mean that he will. True faith is the ability to continue to trust God even when the answer is no or not yet. God is not in the wish fulfillment business. Can we show faith and trust God as Catherine DeBoie is through her ordeal with shingles? Her faith and trust is a large part of what is helping her to get through it and endure it.
You might not think Catherine and the Centurion as having anything in common, but they do in their faith in the power of Jesus. They do in their trust in the authority of Jesus.
I have a question for you to think about. I won’t be asking you to raise your hand. Do you consider yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a follower of The Way, or however you prefer to describe it? [pause] And think about this for a moment. What does that mean to you? [pause] Does it mean that you come and sit with other people in a room on Sunday mornings and feel that your obligation to God is over for the week?
Or, do you accept Jesus as Lord over your life, your whole life, all the time, in all places? Do you come here and play church, sing some songs, say some prayers, fall asleep during the sermon, visit with your friends after, and then go back to your regular life the rest of the week, or Do. You. Live. It?
If what you do in a practical, real-life, sense seems more like the former than the latter … even if you don’t mean it to… I ask you to consider how accepting Jesus as the Lord of your whole life … not just the part that you compartmentalize for Sunday mornings … how giving Jesus authority over your whole life would change how you live day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.
This is not simply doing a morning or evening devotion or even three. This is asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” or “What would Jesus want me to do, ” with every–thing that happens in your day, every day. You start thinking about this consciously every day for a few weeks, and then it will become part of your normal decision making process without even consciously thinking about it.
Maybe, I shouldn’t flip off this car that I passed on the highway that was going so slow. Maybe, I won’t even pass him. Well, he is going 15 mph in a 55 zone, and it is safe, so I’ll pass. But I won’t lay on the horn as I go by or make any rude hand gestures. I won’t cut right in front of him to show my displeasure. Instead, I will peacefully continue on my journey and wish him well.
The Centurion knew what it was to live under authority. He acknowledged that Jesus had that authority. These days in the United States, we don’t like the idea of people having authority over us. We resist authority. Didn’t Christ come to set us free? Yes, free from slavery to sin and death, not to live in a state of chaos or anarchy. (Truly that is a whole different kind of tyranny if you look at the war lords in Libya or the Somali pirates). With Christ we are free to live under the compassion of God’s merciful divine authority. As we talked about a few weeks ago, with Jesus we have the three C’s: No condemnation (That is the freedom we live under.); No compromise (Jesus has expectations of how we are to live our lives, and Jesus talks about it all the time in the Gospels.); and Compassion (The knowledge that Jesus loves us and wants what’s best for us, even when we mess up. The knowledge that Jesus hurts when we hurt and walks through life’s difficulties with us.)
But we only get the benefit of that when we turn our whole life over to Jesus and submit … oh, we don’t like that word submit either … and submit to his authority, his teachings as the guide from the master, our Patron, how to be the most authentically human the way that God intended it. When we can trust God to turn our lives over to him completely, we will know that we have had a Divine Encounter. Praise God!