In Jesus’ time as now, there were those who believed and those who didn’t. Oddly enough, those who failed to believe in Jesus were people like the scribes and Pharisees. These were the people who studied Scripture and who a compelling faith. You would think they would have been first to recognize the Messiah in their midst. But the scribes and Pharisees couldn’t see the forest for the trees. They were smart and well-educated, but were wedded to what they already knew. They weren’t open to learning from the young rabbi named Jesus.
In the previous chapter, Jesus’ disciples, passing through a grain field, plucked grain, rubbed it in their hands to separate the grain from the chaff, and ate the grain. That was too much for the Pharisees. They asked, “Why do you do that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbath day?” Jesus answered by reminding them that David, their most revered king, had eaten the holy bread and had fed it to his soldiers.
Then Jesus went to a synagogue to teach. One of the men in the congregation had a withered hand. To have a withered hand would be challenging today, and I am claiming it was probably more challenging at the time of Jesus. This man had a withered right hand.
The scribes and Pharisees knew this man was in the congregation, and they watched Jesus to see if he might violate Sabbath law by healing on the Sabbath. Jesus told the man with the withered hand to stand. Then Jesus asked the scribes and Pharisees, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good, or to do harm? To save a life, or to kill?” Then he told the man to stretch out his hand, and Jesus restored his hand and changed his life.
But the scribes and Pharisees didn’t praise the Lord. They were enraged, and began to plot against Jesus.
Then Luke tells a beautiful story of faith that contrasts remarkably with the unbelief of the scribes and Pharisees. A Roman centurion had a slave who was sick and at the point of death.
A centurion was a Roman soldier who was charged with a command of 100 men. In today’s terms this would be a commissioned officer leading an infantry company. This would be someone with the rank of Captain or better in the Army. This would be a man who was responsible for decisions that would impact the lives of his company. He would be a man with a demonstrated capacity for leadership. He would have been promoted to this position and not born to it.
Infantry companies can be tough places, and this Memorial Day weekend we remember the men and women who served our country and paid for our freedom with their lives. It is often dangerous. I can believe this centurion was a tough man.
This particular centurion was also a tender man. Some people associate tenderness with weakness, but that’s not necessarily the case. One of those things you hear about effective leaders is that if you take care of your people, they will take care of you. People respect caring and competence. When their leader is caring and competent, they will follow him or her anywhere.
This centurion was like that. He was caring and competent. We know he was competent, because they wouldn’t have given him a command otherwise.
We know that he was caring because he cared about his servant who was ill. He cared enough to contact Jewish elders to ask them to act as intermediaries with Jesus. We also know that he was caring because of the testimony of those Jewish elders. They told Jesus, “He is worthy.” They said, “He loves us.” They said, “He built our synagogue for us.”
“He’s worthy.” That’s a high praise from Jewish elders speaking of a Gentile. Bear in mind the centurion was in the army of the occupation. He was a Gentile sent by Rome to keep the Jews in line.
“He loves us.” That’s high praise too. Not everyone loves the Jews. Not every officer in an occupying army cares for the locals. These elders would know who hates them. I doubt that many Roman soldiers cared anything about the Jews. They were just doing their jobs.
Then they said, “He built our synagogue for us.” No one knows exactly what that meant. I suspect it meant that the Jews had started work on their synagogue, and this centurion said to his soldiers, “Let’s give them a hand,” and they did.
Occupying troops are often involved in humanitarian work. It helps their image and it provides a connection. A caring and competent commander like this centurion would look for opportunities to help and engage the locals in a positive way.
So the Jewish elders explained to Jesus what a good man this centurion was, and then begged him to go with them to the centurion’s house to heal his slave.
Then they got a surprise. The centurion sent friends to tell Jesus that he wasn’t worthy for Jesus to come under his roof. He had said:
“Say the word, and my servant will be healed.
For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers.
I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes;
and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes;
and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
It is a variation of these words that we say at the Invitation after I hold up the Sacrament and say “The Gifts of God for the People of God…” We are the servants of the Lord who need to be healed. We respond “but speak the Word only and my soul shall be healed.”
When the centurion said this, he was explaining that he understood authority and had exercised authority, so he was able to recognize the power of Jesus’ authority. So the centurion could say, “Say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
He had faith and understood that Jesus could just say the word, and his servant would be healed. It was pretty hard to surprise Jesus, but this centurion surprised him. Jesus said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.”
That’s a remarkable statement. The people of God, God’s chosen people did not have this faith. God had been shepherding the Jews for centuries, and Jesus was saying that he hadn’t encountered faith in Israel that could come close to matching the great faith of the centurion.
So the Jewish elders returned to the centurion’s home, and found that the servant had been healed.
What does this story mean for us? Does it mean that, if we have enough faith, we can have whatever we want? Surely not. If that were true, faithful Christians would all be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Not all all faithful Christians are healthy. Not all faithful Christians are wealthy. Sometimes even the best of us have moments that are not wise.
I believe that Jesus will always bless us when we believe. He blesses us in ways we do not ask, and sometimes those blessings are in disguise. When we have the faith of the centurion, we understand that God intends good things for us. He has work for us to do. He will give us what we need to accomplish that work.
Here is the tough part. When I make my plans and give God His marching orders, sometimes he has other things in mind for me.
My prayer has to be that God’s will be done. I have to have faith in Him to provide and exercise my gifts as best I can with His help. “God gives the growth.”
There are many ways we should be more like the centurion. We need to be faithful and have an appreciation for God’s authority. When we are in need of healing, we need to trust that God will take care of us.
I will hope you think of the centurion when you say today at the Invitation, “But speak the Word only and my soul shall be healed.”
I have said these words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon preached by Fr. Tom at St. Thomas Episcopal – Plymouth
May 29, 2016; The Second Week after Pentecost