Psalm 10-3:1-18, Matthew 8:5-13
September 5, 2010
This was an amazing day. Jesus had just finished his most famous address, the Sermon on the Mount, and many of the people who were there to hear it followed him when he left. And they were about to see some of his amazing new teachings put into action!
The first thing they saw along the way was a man with leprosy who approached Jesus. Now that was unusual because people did not approach lepers. They had a great fear of contracting the disease. And lepers were not permitted to approach other people! They were required by law to keep their distance, and they were required to shout “unclean” if anyone came near! So this man actually approaching Jesus would have been disturbing to this crowd, and I’m sure they watched whatever was about to happen from a little bit of a distance!
What happened was, that after a brief conversation, Jesus shocked the crowd even more! He reached out and touched the man. I believe that would have sent a gasp through the crowd. People did not approach lepers, and they certainly did not touch them. But Jesus did! And the man was healed! That was miraculous! Just imagine that the people were thinking and doing!
So, that was amazing enough. But I think what happened next was no less amazing! Jesus continued on his way, and he came to the town of Capernaum. Now historians believe that Jesus adopted Capernaum as his home town. It was located in Galilee, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. And it was also the home of Peter, James, John, Andrew, and probably the tax collector, Matthew.
Well, as Jesus arrived at Capernaum, he was approached by yet another unlikely person. This time it was a Roman Centurion. And if the people were disturbed that a leper had approached Jesus, this would have been even more disturbing. They hated the Romans. They hated that they were made to be part of the Roman Empire. They longed for their freedom, and they longed to have their own country again. And not only was this man a Roman Soldier, who was there to “keep the peace” which meant maintaining the subjugation of the people, but this man was also a Centurion. That meant he was the commander of a division of 100 soldiers. (Hence the “Cent” in “Cent-urion.”)
So, this had to be a tense moment. What would Jesus do? Would he listen to the man? Would he hear his request? How would he respond? Again, we know the story, so we read it in anticipation of the action we know is coming. They didn’t know what Jesus was going to do!
So imagine this scene with this Roman, with all his armor and weapons and medals and Roman insignia, approaching Jesus, in his sandals and his simple attire. This Roman was probably a large, strong man, because in those days, you didn’t get to be a military leader because you were tops in your class at some military academy. You became a leader because you were the best fighter! You became a leader because you were the strongest, most experienced soldier! (Pontius Pilate got his name because of his prowess on the battlefield. He was an expert with the “pilates,” which was a heavy spear.) And yet, as this scene unfolds, this soldier’s attitude is one of respect and even humility. He calls Jesus “Lord.” And when Jesus says he’ll go with him, he tells Jesus he is unworthy for him even to come under his roof. I think this must have been an astounding conversation for the people to hear!!
Now, I want to caution us again here. Sometimes we see the whole Roman thing a little too “simplistically.” We see Rome as the “evil empire.” We think “Romans, oppression against Israel. Bad.” But we can’t forget that Rome was a great civilization, and gave us many things! They gave us a system of law. They gave us amazing architecture. They gave us roads. They even gave us a kind of concrete that cures underwater! (That boggles my mind!!!) And in the Bible, we often find Roman soldiers who are sympathetic to the Israelites. We even find some who are described as being “godly and upright.” Jesus himself addressed them in his teachings, giving them exhortations as to how they are to be godly men, even in their profession as soldiers.
So try to put all that into this picture we’re dealing with today. Jesus is standing there with this large and powerful man, listening his anguish over his paralyzed servant, and agreeing to come with him and heal the man. And that’s where we find the power in this story. That’s when the Centurion says, “I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. But just say the word, and I know my servant will be healed.” He then explains his understanding of authority. He says that when he receives or gives orders, he knows they will be carried out. That was his world! And then he said that he knew, if Jesus simply “gave the order,” it would be done!
This was a fairly brief, simple conversation. But then we’re told that Jesus marveled at this man! He was amazed! And as I think about that, it seems to me that if Jesus marveled, if he was amazed, then we should be amazed, too!!
Here was a man who had “total trust in God.” And Jesus is impressed by his faith. He said to the crowds, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!” And he said, “many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” That had to be hard for the people to hear! He was talking about the non-Israelites! And you know what they thought about them – the Gentiles. Jesus even suggested that such people would be sitting with the patriarchs in the kingdom of heaven!! That had to be shocking to hear! You know, we read these stories and I think we miss the controversial nature of what’s happening! I know I do, until I really sit and think about it! Here was a Gentile – a Roman – a soldier – an officer, and Jesus was using this unlikely man as an example of great faith, and “total trust!”
When we read this story, are we not called to think about our own faith? Do we have this kind of “total trust in God?” Or are we like those Israelites who should have had the faith, but maybe all this was just too much for them? This was so outside of their realm, that they weren’t so sure what to think about this Jesus. Maybe he was going a little too far beyond their expectations, a little above their level of “comfort.” And Gee, and that sermon they heard was so good, too!!
Remember, that the great irony in the story of Jesus was that it was the very people who longed for a Messiah, who missed him when he came! Why? For many of them, he was a little too much! His teaching was too difficult for them. He didn’t conform to their expectations. And he didn’t act the way they wanted him to act! Especially toward Rome!
Do we trust in God who, at times, is beyond our expectations? Do we trust in God when we don’t understand – when we don’t see the “big picture?” And do we “practice that trust” like we talked about a few weeks ago?
You see, “Total trust” is more than just believing God can do something! Total trust is knowing that God knows what he’s doing – even if we don’t! It’s seeking to follow God’s will, even though in our own understanding it might not make any sense! The people then didn’t understand some things about Jesus’ message. They didn’t like some parts of it. And because of that, many of them would turn away from him. Because of that they rejected the Son of God! The irony of that is mind boggling! But remember, they didn’t have the complete story like we do! And even so, it’s tough for us to trust isn’t it?
Believe me, I’m not saying this is easy! It’s not easy for me. I’m the kind of person who likes to “understand things.” I like to know why someone is doing something or why I’m being called to do something, before I do it. Maybe you’re that way too. It’s hard when God says to us “Go.” and we say “Why?” and he says, “Trust me!” We might even find ourselves asking, “But God, do you know what you’re doing?” until we realize what a silly question that is! Or is it?? We sometimes wonder about that, don’t we?
If we do, we wouldn’t be alone. Those same patriarchs Jesus just mentioned had their own times of struggle with a God they didn’t understand. They too had to learn to trust God – totally! And so do we. And that doesn’t happen all by itself. Trusting God doesn’t happen “by default!” It’s part of that “learning to trust” process that we mentioned a few weeks ago. We “test” that trust and then we look to see God proving his trust to us. And even though we might have setbacks, like we said last week, we keep moving forward.
So, as you think about your faith, as you think about your own “total trust in God,” remember these stories of Jesus with the leper, and the Centurion. Remember how hard it was for the people to hear what he had to say. Remember that faith and trust is not easy! And may you continue to learn to trust in God more and more. And may he bless us all in that struggle and in that growth!
Eternal God, help us to learn to put our total trust in you. Help us to know that you have the big picture. Help us to know where you are leading us, and to follow where you lead, whether we understand it or not. Grant us the peace that passes human understanding that comes from knowing we are in your hands, no matter what the circumstances of this life. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.