A Meditation on Luke 7:1-10
Luke 7:1 After he [Jesus] had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
In this passage we are introduced to a Roman Centurion whose highly valued slave had come down with a deadly illness. The passage doesn't tell us whether it was the Swine Flu, a bacterial infection or a cancer that had invaded the servant’s body. The text only tells us that this valued slave had become mortally ill.
Its not hard to imagine the series of events that led up to this encounter with Jesus. We all know how this story begins because all of us at one time or another have suffered from a bad flu or virus and have been temporarily robbed of our ability to function in our daily vocations. The backstory here is simple. A few days or weeks prior to this encounter with Jesus this slave was going about his daily work and serving his master when he felt "that feeling" in his body that told him that something wasn't right. Maybe he ignored it for a few days hoping that it would go away and that things would get better.
Slaves had to work through their illnesses because slaves didn't get days off. Slaves didn't have simple nine to five jobs. Their work began at sun up and rarely ended when the sun set. The work was back breaking, dirty, difficult and monotonous. Slaves didn't have a union to protect them. Slaves weren't employees they were property.
As the disease ran its course, this slave's productivity slowed and finally stopped. Robbed of his ability to work, stand and eat and probably robbed of his consciousness, it was clear that Death was stalking this slave like a lion stalks its prey. Death had already cut this man from the herd and had taken its first bite. This slave was mortally wounded and the only thing left for Death to do was to choose the moment for the kill. There was nothing anyone could do to stop Death from taking its prize because no one had authority over Death.
Those who cared for this slave during his illness may have been secretly thinking that as terrible and terrifying as Death was, that rather than being a monster maybe Death was in reality a welcomed friend. Death after all, meant release and freedom from the cruel bonds of slavery, while recovery meant an undetermined number of future years of forced labor and the humiliation of being someone else's property. The only problem with this idea is that we have no idea where Death takes it victims. We'd like to imagine that death takes those whom it devours off to a place of bliss and happiness. But in the back of our minds we've all heard stories about eternal places of torment, a lake of fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth a horrible place where the worm does not die and the fire is never quenched.
But let us not think about such things right now. Let us instead look more closely at this beautiful Gospel story.
The evangelist has also revealed for us some important information about this slave's master. Dr. Luke tells us that that this Roman soldier, rather than being cruel and dictatorial instead acted in kindness and generosity toward the people of Capernaun. As a result, he had earned their respect and admiration.
This Roman Centurion wasn't your stereotypical cruel occupation style soldier. Rather than stealing from the people of Capernaum and setting up his own mafia-like protection racket (which is exactly what many Roman Soldiers did) he instead reached out in love and kindness to the towns folk of Capernaum even to the point of personal sacrifice. His generosity staggers the imagination. This Soldier, an agent of that hated, pagan and idolatrous Roman empire, personally bankrolled and built the synagogue in Capernaum. Just the thought of it makes you realize that this man was one of those rare human beings that made a difference in the world through reckless love and random acts of kindness.
By every standard of human goodness this Roman Soldier was not only a good man, he was a saint.
When the religious leaders of Capernaum heard that this Centurion's slave was mortally ill, they probably saw and felt the genuine fear and concern that this soldier had for his valued servant. This Centurion wasn't worried about losing his valued property and having to go through the inconvenience of purchasing and training another slave. No, he was genuinely concerned for this slave's well-being and he grieved over his powerlessness to save him.
Imagine how difficult that must have been for this Centurion. We learn from the text that he was a man with authority and power and that authority was granted to him from the world's most powerful empire. When he told people to jump they would dutifully ask "how high".
But this time he had no authority, he had no leverage, he had no power. Even worse, the pending death of his servant painfully reminded him that, like his slave, he would someday be on his death bed too.
Death is no respecter of persons. Death comes for slave and master alike and both are powerless in Death's grip. No human being that has ever lived has ever exercised authority over Death.
The scuttlebutt in Capernaum that day was that Jesus was nearby and that He might even come into town. Everyone had heard of Jesus. This man was a prophet like no other. God listened to Jesus and Jesus was mighty in word and deed. The Centurion thought that maybe Jesus would see his worthiness and would grant him a miracle by sparing the life of his beloved servant. The soldier thought that surely his kindness and personal sacrifice toward the people of Capernaum had earned him something from God. He imagined that he might actually have some authority that he could exercise in this situation. After all, he was a good man and had earned a reward or two from God. All he had to do was remind God of what he had earned and call it in. He had God over a barrel. God owed him. It was time to remind God of his debt and demand that he pay up.
The Centurion quickly concocted a plan and a strategy for winning this battle against Death. It was a simple and flawless plan and all he had to do was exercise his authority over God through Jesus. He sent a messenger to the religious leaders and summoned them to his home. When they arrived he reminded the synagogue leaders of his kindness and generosity to them and then sent them to Jesus to convince Jesus of his worthiness to receive a miracle. Like dutiful messengers the religious leaders obeyed the Centurion and went to Jesus and delivered the Centurion's message.
The message was simple.
This Centurion was a good man because of his deeds and therefore he has earned a miracle from God. The Centurion was worthy. Therefore, come at once to his home and pay up. Give this Centurion the reward he has earned for his good works.
The religious leaders delivered this message and shockingly Jesus like a dutiful slave, like one who came to serve rather than be served, obeyed the Centurion’s summon.
The plan had worked. Jesus was coming to his home. He was worthy. God did owe him one and God was paying up.
But wait...something about the Centurion’s plan wasn’t right. Something was “off” and he knew it.
The Centurion paused and reflected on the situation and the more he thought about it the more he realized that his self-righteous algebra wasn't adding up. It turns out that he had grossly miscalculated his worthiness.
Upon further reflection he realized that his kindness to the people of Capernaum could not out weigh and overcome his sinfulness and wickedness. While stationed in Capernaum he had heard the Torah and the learned the ten commandments from the synagogue leaders. He knew that he did not love God with all of his heart, he knew that he was an idolator, a liar, a blasphemer, a thief and a coveter. He had taken men’s lives and lusted after the girls in the village. Compared to other Roman soldiers he might have seemed like a “good man” but when he compared his life to the mosaic law that was taught in the synagogue that he had built it was painfully clear that he was a miserable and wretched sinner.
His hastily concocted plan to convince Jesus that he was ‘worthy’ to receive a miracle was preposterous! The Centurion also knew that the good works that he had performed were not motivated by pure selflessness and love for God. In fact, some of his good deeds were motivated by political expediency and the belief that happy Roman subjects won’t slit your throat in the middle of the night. Building a synagogue was a small price to pay for peace of mind. Some of his other good works were done in order to silence his conscience. None of them were motivated from a pure heart. Knowing this fact made his good works seem dirty and polluted. All of his good deeds were like filthy stinking menstrual rags.
What was he thinking by telling Jesus that he was worthy to receive this miracle?! He wasn’t worthy! He was a sinner! His plan had to be stopped and it had to be stopped before Jesus arrived!
The Centurion’s eyes welled with tears as the sorrow for his sins washed over him. But he had no time to weep. He had to act quickly! He found some friends, not servants but friends, and hastily begged his friends to find Jesus and stop him from coming to his home.
“When you find Jesus tell him ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof’”, the Centurion pleaded with his friends. “Please tell Jesus that “Because of my unworthiness, I dare not presume to enter your Holy presence. But please be merciful for the sake of my servant, please just speak the word and he will be healed. I have no authority over Death but I believe that you do. As a man under authority with soldiers under me: I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
“Now run! Stop Jesus and please tell Him these words”, the Centurion pleaded with his friends.
The Centurion’s friends, ran with haste and found Jesus just as he was turning the corner. The friends delivered the Centurion’s confession of his sinfulness and unworthiness and they also delivered the Centurion’s prayer of petition for his mortally ill servant.
And good Dr. Luke tells us that Jesus Christ marveled at what He heard.
Jesus did not marvel at the Centurion’s paltry good works and so-called worthiness. No, Jesus marveled at the Centurion’s faith. The Centurion had repented of his sins and confessed his unworthiness to the only one who could forgive sins and Jesus the Centurion’s merciful and forgiving savior also answered his humble prayer on behalf of his servant and spoke the word and the servant was healed.
"For he who exalts himself with be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
On that day Death was robbed of its prey and had to slink away hungry. Someone more powerful than Death had arrived and His Name is Jesus.
Jesus had authority over Death and He exercised that authority with a simple word. Death would eventually meet Jesus face to face on a Roman Cross outside the city gates of Jerusalem. But Death would lose that battle also and as a result of Jesus’ victory, Death has lost the war and Jesus proclaims that He is the resurrection and the life. Whoever has the same faith as this Roman Centurion, even though he dies, yet shall he live.
That day in Capernaum the Centurion understood what it was like to have his sins forgiven and He, like the Apostle Paul could say that he considered all of his good works to be like rubbish and count them for loss in order that he might gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.