Isaiah 58:1-9, Luke 7:1-10
March 11, 2012
This story for today is one of my favorite stories in the gospels. This is the amazing story of this Roman soldier has this encounter with Jesus. And again, we’re tweaking our imagery. And it’s not for some kind of “historical sensationalism.” We’re not just enhancing the images for the sake of enhancing Images. We’re not trying to make ourselves out to be better Bible scholars in some way. No, we’re doing so to make these stories come alive a little more and so become more real to us. And I hope that’s happening with you!
We pick up the story today in Luke 7. And at this point, Jesus has been traveling and preaching all around the region of Northern Israel. Now he’s making his way to Capernaum, which would become his adopted home town – his base of operation. And not long after he arrives we have the story of this Roman Centurion, a commander in the Roman army, who has a sick servant..
So what’s your picture here? I’ve got to let you into my mind. (I know that’s scary!) But I always see this Roman soldier as Ernest Borgnine! I don’t know why. I know that’s weird. But somewhere I think he might actually have played this role in some movie version of Jesus’ life. Maybe it was “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” or something like that. But that’s how I always picture this man! Ernest Borgnine! I hope your imagery is vivid and specific like that!
Well, however you picture this man, remember his role. He’s the commander of a large force. Some think “centurion” meant he commanded 100 men. Whatever the case, he’s part of the “occupation force” in Israel. And he’s almost certainly a Gentile. And we could talk a lot about that! But remember also that when the Romans conquered most of the known world, they brought about what was known as the “Pax Romano” – the “Roman Peace.” That meant there was stability. That meant there was security. There were a lot of good things about the Roman Empire. But there was also a certain measure of ruthlessness and brutality if the people “stepped out of line.” And it could be especially bad with a group of people who were difficult to govern – like these pesky Israelites. You might also imagine the kind of corruption that could take place whenever there was a large empire like Rome acting as an occupying force.
So, with all that in mind, think about how this man is pictured in Luke’s gospel. First of all, we’re told he has a very sick “slave” who was “dear to him.” Now you may remember me saying before that slavery in the Bible was not like the kind of slavery we’re used to hearing about in this country. (Though it was once used to justify it!) This was not “chattel slavery” where people were forcibly enslaved and bought and sold against their will. Slaves in those days were often people who couldn’t pay their debts, and who took their servitude on themselves. It was their only option. That’s an interesting thought when we think about the amount of debt people have incurred in our world! Maybe we’re getting back to that kind of servitude. (If you think about your bills at the end of the month, maybe we’re already there!)
So this centurion hears of Jesus. Luke tells us that “the report of him had spread throughout the whole region.” So he sends to Jesus the “elders of the Jews.” He wants them to ask Jesus for help. And it is they who then give us the description of this Centurion. And this is great! They say, “He is worthy.” “He loves our nation. And he built us our synagogue.” Isn’t it amazing how highly the people think of this man? And again, it’s an amazing contrast that this is being said about a Roman military leader! And a Gentile!!
This is quite a story. But I also want you to see how important this story is. Like other important stories, it’s recorded in three of the four Gospels. They thought it very significant for a Roman, the hated occupiers of Israel, and a Gentile, to be seen by the “Elders of the Jews” as a man worthy of having Jesus’ attention! Then to have Jesus affirm him saying, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!” That’s even “huger!” The impression here is that this is an “unlikely person” in whom to find faith. And it’s a story that breaks down our stereotypes of who is righteous, and who is important to God!
Both Matthew and Luke record the statement this man makes to Jesus. Actually Luke doesn’t even have this man speaking to Jesus. He sends word with friends. And this is the word he sends. “I am not worthy for you to come into my house. But I understand authority. I am under authority, and I command authority. I give orders and men obey. So all you have to do is give the order.” Isn’t that great? Jesus thought so! You know, people often “marveled” at Jesus. But I don’t know any other place in scripture where Jesus marveled at someone else! But we’re told he marveled at this man!
I’ve entitled this sermon “Unlikely Faith.” Here’s this Roman Centurion, not just a soldier, but a leader of soldiers! As I understand it, a person attained that status by being a good soldier in battle! So this man had to have been a strong, tough warrior! And then, from him, comes this compassion, this humility, and this unlikely faith. I’m sure the people then saw that contrast. And I’m sure the readers of the gospel, who were still under the thumb of Rome, were amazed by it, too!
So I ask, do we see the contrast? Do we “marvel?” I hope in the “tweaking” of our mental imagery we do. And I wonder who would be the “unlikely people of faith” for us? I think too often when we think of people of great faith, they’re pretty much “stereotypical.” They look and think and believe pretty much like us. But what if somebody “unusual,” somebody like a biker, or a homeless person, or someone else we wouldn’t expect, came forward and showed great faith? How would we feel? What if someone who was as unlikely to be a leader as Jesus was, came forward and started saying the kinds of things he said about himself? Would we follow?
If you think about it, this Christianity thing started with a whole crowd of unlikely people. (Just as did the Hebrew faith before it, by the way!) The leader was a “rabbi,” from the lowest echelon of society. He drew “huge multitudes” of people. He challenged the status quo. He hung out, not with the priests, rabbis and other leaders, but with the sinners and the outcasts. And he had as his “disciples” fishermen and tax collectors. It was all pretty unlikely, wasn’t it? If you think about it, this Centurion, calling on Jesus in the swirl of all that, is bolder than we think!!
Remember again that, two thousand years later, we are part of the “established version” of Christianity. We follow a faith that has been “institutionalized” or at least made to feel “normal” over many centuries. We see all the people in these stories as “Saints” and “Apostles.” I wonder who among us would have followed this “unlikely Messiah” and his “unlikely people,” had we been there then.
So, try to put yourself into this picture we’ve “tweaked.” I warn you, it’s not easy! The more we see these stories clearly, the more amazing they are, considering the people who are in them and the kinds of things they said and did. And consider what these images mean in our lives of faith. Are we like this soldier? Are we humble enough, and understanding enough, and bold enough, and faithful enough, to reach out to this Jesus and trust him with our lives?
Are we people of an unlikely faith? Or are we prepared to follow this Jesus? And are we courageous enough to strive to know what that means?
Eternal God, you sent your son into our world to try to help us to see your kingdom in our midst. That’s not easy to do, because your kingdom is often not what we expect it to be. Help us to understand better this Jesus who we follow. Help us to step outside our “comfort zone” and see how he called people outside of theirs. Help us to be his bold and faithful disciples, for we pray in his name, Amen.