1 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say 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 only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also 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 slave, “Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
I wonder what Jesus was thinking as he made his way to the Roman centurion’s home. Do you think it could be possible that while Jesus was walking across the village of Capernaum he had some questions about what he was doing? He had made the choice to go visit and help this foreigner, an outsider to the Jewish community, a Gentile soldier. But could it be that even as he made his way he had some lingering doubts about whether going was really a good idea? Now there are some key Bible stories that may have been running through his memory and providing a model for what he was doing: that passage about the great prophet Elijah and how he raised the son of the widow of Zarephath, a definite foreigner to the Israelites; or the one about Elisha healing Naaman of his leprosy. Those prophets of Israel who preceded Jesus were very clear that God’s love and healing crossed national and ethnic borders. There’s no question about that.
But still, a centurion? He wasn’t just a foreigner; he was an oppressor, an enemy.
In fact, by the time that Luke wrote this story down on paper, some 50 years after the first Pentecost, Caesar’s armies had brutally squelched a Jewish attempt to throw out the Roman occupying forces, resulting in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. A Roman centurion was therefore a profound symbol of oppressive power. A centurion—now, as the Confirmation class learned last week, importantly, that’s not to be confused with a Centaur. A centurion, rather, was a fully human Roman officer who commanded one hundred soldiers. Perhaps more significant is that he would have been paid as much as 100 times the amount of the typical Galilean’s wages. That salary is what allowed this particular centurion to become a generous benefactor for the Jews of Capernaum and even to build a synagogue for them. Of course, we can’t know why he would do that. Maybe his slave, whom he valued so much, was a Jew and had inspired this generosity. In any case, the crowd that showed up on Jesus’ doorstep deemed the powerful centurion, though an enemy, worthy of help.
But is that why Jesus went? Because the commander was worthy? Was it because he was powerful and wealthy and generous? No, that does not sound like the Jesus who had just proclaimed good news for the poor in Nazareth. Jesus had not come to serve the rich and powerful but the poor and meek and those made humble by the systems of domination that controlled so much of life in the Galilean countryside. They were the ones he came to bless. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a rich, young ruler to give up all of his wealth and possessions and redistribute his money to the poor. So as Jesus walked across town, he must have been wondering, “What will this look like to the peasants whose liberation I have come to proclaim? Will they still be able to trust that I am fully on their side?” I wonder if Jesus carried this question with him.
At the same time, over on the other side of the tracks, there must have been some doubts running through the centurion’s mind, too. Perhaps there had a been a transformation going on in his life for some time, during those years of deployment to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. He had been learning that these foreign peasants actually had some wisdom to share, and a beautiful culture, and cherished friendship. His assumptions as a Roman citizen had been upended. More than that, his sense of power had collapsed when his beloved servant had fallen ill. The centurion’s title, his wealth, his training—none of that could offer any help to his dying friend. He recognized that he was truly powerless. Now he was the one who had been made humble.
Who hasn’t experienced such a moment? We spend much of our time and energy achieving and maintaining a sense of self-sufficiency. We develop our own skills, we obtain some wealth, we seek security. It can be hard to admit that we don’t have what is required, that we need help. Perhaps a day such as Memorial Day, which brings to mind loved ones who have died, reminds us also that our lives are not finally within our control. We cannot completely protect those we love. We cannot save ourselves. That can be a difficult thing to acknowledge, but it is also liberating, too, especially with the good news that is present and active in all our vulnerability and need.
Such a transformed and truthful understanding of life led the centurion to recognize that he could not receive Jesus the way he usually received official visits. Roman power truly meant nothing when compared to the power that Jesus represented, the power of God’s love and abundant life. So he sent messengers to meet Jesus and to humbly explain to him and any others who were listening his understanding of real power.
Luke tells us that Jesus returned from the encounter filled with amazement. He was amazed. In Luke’s Gospel, there is story after story of people being amazed by what God is doing in Jesus—from Joseph and Mary and the shepherds to the disciples. Like them, now Jesus himself was amazed. Even he was astonished by the things God was doing. And it was because of an outsider’s trust and humility and ability to recognize so clearly what Jesus stood for.
What would it take to amaze you? What if God were at work somehow among that particular group of people or community that you’d rather not have anything to do with? Or with supporters of some other tradition or religion or political party? Could God really be there? How amazing would that be?
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells a story about this kind of amazement. She said when her book became really popular and she began touring to talk about it, she got really overwhelmed by it all and afraid about what changes it might bring to her life. At a dinner on that tour, she was seated next to another Christian writer, one she had said some “snarky things” about in the past, as she put it. It turned out she really liked him, though. And she asked him for advice on how to navigate all the craziness in her life. He said to her with nothing but love,
“Nadia – you are just participating in something God is doing. God doesn’t do things alone and we can’t do redemptive things without God. You are already good enough in God’s eyes to be participating in this. God’s grace is enough for today. It always is enough for today.”
And she learned that God may be found in surprising places.
I think Jesus himself learned this in a new way that day in Capernaum. Amazed, Jesus healed the slave. But then what I find even more amazing is that he went away without saying another word to that Roman commander. He didn’t tell him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. He didn’t tell him to put down his Imperial armor and quit his allegiance to Caesar. He didn’t tell him to say a believer’s prayer or to publicly profess his faith in him and the God of Israel. There was none of that. The fullness of God’s grace had already been experienced in that moment.
This morning, God promises to meet us where we are. There are no requirements to make yourself worthy. There are no situations beyond God’s concern. There are no lines we could draw that could keep anyone out. God is present, and what is left for us is to be amazed.