Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 29, 2016
Luke 7:1-10 Commentary
The deeper you get into this brief story, the better the anonymous (and never-seen) centurion looks. First we hear this Roman higher-up has a sick servant, and just this far into the story you could read that as meaning that this man has a piece of property who is not performing well. To certain upper echelon types, this could be the equivalent of a backed-up drain or a sick ox. But then we find out that this centurion likes this servant—whether it’s because they have some kind of relationship that goes beyond master-servant or because the servant is particularly skilled, either way the centurion cannot shrug off the man’s severe illness. He wants him healed and restored.
So he orders a detachment of Jews to fetch this wonder-worker named Jesus he has heard tell of. Again, a foreigner ordering around some of his occupied subjects could be viewed dimly until those folks catch up with Jesus and speak so well of the centurion—and they sound sincere in doing so—that the reader begins to understand that despite the fact that this centurion represented an occupation by Rome that the Jews despised, this particular leader had earned respect, even affection, from the people. He even lent a hand in building up the local synagogue.
Jesus responds immediately but word travels faster than Jesus’ feet because well before he gets to the centurion’s residence, the centurion finds out Jesus is en route and so sends back word to stop him, using an analogy from his own military experience to tell Jesus he can do what needs doing for the sick servant by remote control and so need not enter the centurion’s house—something he considered to be too much of an honor for a man in his position in any event.
Again, if you wanted to take a cynical view of all this, you could suspect the centurion is playing politics here. Maybe some of the Roman higher-up folks who had gotten wind of his kind treatment of the Jews and his deference to their religion didn’t like hearing that kind of thing. Thus, if those same folks found out that this same soft-on-Jews centurion also played host to a Jewish Messianic wannabe who was causing a stir in Palestine . . . well, that would not sit very well at all. So maybe the centurion calculated that it would be safer to keep this Jesus person at bay.
That would certainly be a plausible way to think of this story were it not for Jesus’ own exceptionally positive reaction. Near as we can tell, he never does meet this man but from a distance praises the intensity of his trust and of his faith. Jesus marvels over the fact that even in Israel he seldom if ever ran across such belief, such willingness to be humble and hopeful, trusting and faith-full as this. (Granted, given the reception Jesus typically got among his own people that bar was not set particularly high but still . . .).
We are then told the servant got better just then and just like that. No words are recorded of Jesus to send forth this healing nor do we see Jesus praying to the Father that this be accomplished. Apparently it was all internal to Jesus himself (or he whispered a silent prayer to the Father in his heart).
What a curious little story this is. The potentially cynical or suspicious ways to view the story—fully plausible until events unfold a bit more—all evaporate in the end. Thus what we end up with are three people—Jesus, the centurion, the sick servant—who have a very significant “encounter” with one another—worthy of inclusion in the Gospel—and yet they never lay eyes on each other, never shake hands, never speak in person. Yes, all of this bears witness to Jesus’ amazing power and all of it points to his being the Messiah of God.
But reading this story 2,000 years later—and so roughly two full millennia since Jesus has been able to come in person to the bedside of any sick person—what strikes me most about this story is not just the revelation of divine potency or even per se of Jesus’ compassion. No, what strikes me is that there is something about the central dynamic of this story that reminds me of how we now live by faith in a Jesus who does his work in our lives and beams forth is caring compassion and healing for us and for those we love but who does all of that not in person but through others, through the Spirit, through emanations of divine power.
We don’t get to see Jesus with our waking eyes the way for a few brief years people in the Mediterranean Basin did way back then. Whether or not we, too, would feel unworthy to have Jesus come under the roofs of our houses, the fact is he doesn’t do that now in any event. A few weeks out from Ascension Day and Pentecost, this story can remind us that indeed we live in “the already and the not yet,” in that in-between time during which our Savior is not physically available to us. But perhaps among other things Luke 7 functions in Scripture as a reminder that Jesus can and will do his work anyway. It can happen because it did happen.
The key is faith. The key is trust. The Holy Spirit has graciously given us the gift of faith by grace alone already. As believers who serve the risen and ascended Lord Jesus, we lean into that gracious gift to give us comfort and assurance at all times and especially perhaps in those times when we, too, via our prayers need to send word to Jesus that someone we love is sick, is suffering, is sad, is lonely. Faith tells us the message will get through. Faith tells us Jesus is willing and able to help, even if for now in this still-messy world all things cannot turn out in every instance as we fervently may wish they would.
But Jesus is here for us even though we don’t see him or shake his hand. And when he sees faith in action, I have to think he marvels and delights over this now no less than on that long ago day near Capernaum.
Sometimes when someone in the congregation is ill—and often when it is a particularly dramatic illness or crisis such as anything involving a young child—congregations will organize round-the-clock prayer vigils. I confess that I sometimes wonder about this in terms of the practicalities of prayer and such. Wouldn’t anyone’s bedtime prayer to the effect “Please be with little Sara all through the night, dear God” cover Sara for the night? Can’t God “bank” our prayers and be mindful of them without needing “live” prayers going on and on and piling up before his throne?
Maybe. Maybe not. What I do know is that as a pastor I—like many of you pastors reading this probably—have heard some startling testimonies from parents. Sometimes they may not even have been aware that someone had been assigned to get up out of bed and pray for Sara between 2:00am and 3:30am that morning and yet mothers who sat in uncomfortable chairs at the bedsides of very sick children have told me, “I cannot explain it but I felt a calm all through the night, a presence as though Jesus was right in the room with me. Again, I can’t explain it, but I felt strengthened, buoyed up, despite my anxiety and weariness.”
Maybe when it comes to prayer vigils, what I need is not more pondering about the mechanics of prayer and a bit more faith (and wonder) that our God delights in prayer and has chosen by the Spirit to work through them powerfully and to bring Jesus close to those in need.
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