St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 4, Year C, 2016
“O Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.”
In our journey through the lectionary we have returned to the Gospel according to Luke, the Gospel where the voices of those on the margins of society are lifted up. To give you a little context, today’s passage occurs fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. It is soon after the 12 disciples/apostles are chosen (and remember we call them apostles because they are sent out by Jesus to proclaim the Good News). The passage is also right after the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Beatitudes: “blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, etc.” (Luke 6:20-26). The Sermon on the Mount also includes a command to “love your enemies” and to “do good to those who hate you” (6:27).
So it really should come as no surprise that the first thing to happen after this sermon is that Jesus is presented with a request by a centurion, one of the military leaders of the hated Roman army that has been occupying and oppressing the Jews for about 100 years at this point. Rome is the enemy, and so in the text we see Jesus challenged to practice what he preaches.
The centurion requests Jesus to heal one of his slaves whom he “value[s] highly”, who is “precious” to him (7:2).
Notice what the Jewish elders tell Jesus: they urge Jesus to listen to his petition because the centurion “loves our people” (v. 5). The type of love is not romantic love or the love two friends share; this is agape, the highest form of love, the type of love that God has for us; the centurion is demonstrating God’s love. How has he demonstrated this? He has built a synagogue for the Jews to worship their God rather than force the Roman religion upon them. He has gone out of his way to beg a Jewish itinerant preacher to heal his sick slave, someone considered to be of the lowest class. He has taken the time to understand Jewish customs; he sends friends to tell Jesus not to enter his house because he knows that would make Jesus ritually unclean. And finally, the religious leaders validate his worthiness and trust by vouching for him.
Presented with such a case, Jesus is understandably surprised—even shocked—that someone he would normally consider an enemy of the Jews is using his place of power and privilege to advocate for those under his command. What’s more, the centurion exhibits such strong faith in Jesus’ ability, trusting him to heal his slave from a distance. Jesus has been traveling around teaching and healing, but he has not seen this level of faith among his followers or friends (v. 9). In fact, in just a few verses, some of John the Baptist’s disciples (on behalf of John himself) will question whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, even after Jesus raises a boy from the dead, but this centurion seems not to have a shred of doubt in Jesus’ abilities (vv. 18-23; vv. 11-17).
On the surface, it would appear that the lesson we are to learn from Jesus’ encounter with the centurion is that faith can turn up in the most unlikely of people, places, and situations. This is true and an important lesson, but the underlying message we can glean from this interaction is that we are called to cultivate relationships with the marginalized in our society.
If you’re like me, you tend to identify yourself with Jesus and his disciples whenever you hear a story about the group. As followers of Jesus, doing our best to practice what he taught, this makes sense. Yet, in this circumstance we come to realize that we are actually called to act like the centurion. Like the centurion, we come from a place of power. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, and even the poorest in our nation have a much greater standard of living than those in many other nations.
What Jesus teaches us, especially in Luke’s Gospel, is that we have a responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable in our communities. We have an obligation to lift up the voices of the oppressed. The centurion is still part of a system that subjugates others, yet his story is exceptional because he cultivates a relationship with the people under his charge. He listens to them, learns from them, and then becomes an advocate for them.
We, too, are called to be advocates for the destitute, the persecuted, the ignored. This is no small or easy task, but the tough work of following in Jesus’ footsteps and building the kingdom of God is not left up to us alone. We recently celebrated Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday, reminders of all parts of the Trinity. When Jesus ascends back into heaven, he does not leave his disciples (or us) alone; he promises that he will send someone to help us. The Holy Spirit is our own Advocate, who guides and inspires us, so that we can be empowered to advocate for others.
The centurion recognizes in the poor, oppressed rabbi’s teaching that God’s mission goes beyond that of the prevailing culture. He recognizes that in spite of his own power and prestige, his salvation will come from one who is, in nearly every way, less than him. May we, like the centurion, learn to listen to those on the margins, those whom society dictates are not worthy, and use our power and privilege to make a difference. Finally, may we be strengthened by the prayer taken from the centurion’s plea to Jesus: “O Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.”
image found here