Thursday, October 25, 2007
Thursdays with Luke #22
In chapter seven we will see three stories that demonstrate the compassion of Jesus for all people. The present story shows his compassion for a Gentile. The next story (7:11-17) will demonstrate his compassion for a widow. The final story (7:36ff) will reveal his compassion for a woman who was a sinner.
These stories illustrate the fulfillment of the words from the Isaiah scroll that Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19).
After finishing his sermon Jesus went to Capernaum. Capernaum was the center of much of Jesus’ ministry. It was located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Archaeologists have excavated a limestone synagogue there that dates to the second century. Underneath it archaeologists have found the ruins of a black stone synagogue from the first century [E. Earl Joiner, “Capernaum,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon: Mercer University, 1990), p. 135]. Those may be the ruins of the synagogue referred to in this story [A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. II (Nashville: Broadman, 1930), p. 99].
A centurion sent a delegation to Jesus to ask him to heal his servant. A centurion was literally a “ruler of a century/hundred.” He would have been a Gentile. Interesting parallels exist between this story and the story of the healing of Naaman by Elisha in 2 Kings 5. In both cases a Gentile military officer is healed by a Hebrew prophet after intercession from a Jewish source. In the case of Naaman, it was a Hebrew slave girl. In the case of this centurion, it was a delegation of elders from the local synagogue. Luke is making the point that God’s interest in reaching out to and helping Gentiles through the ministry of Jesus and the church is in line with what God had always done. Luke will in Acts later tell of the centurion Cornelius seeking out the Apostle Peter with the result that he and his family are saved [Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1991), p. 117]. So Luke consistently makes the point that God’s love and mercy and salvation are for everybody.
The centurion is a role model himself. He cared deeply about his servant, even though a servant was “only” a servant. He therefore models the kind of concern for people, regardless of their social or economic standing, that should characterize all believers. There is an interesting phrase in v. 2. The phrase translated “was ill” (NRSV) or “was sick” (NIV, KJV) is literally “was having it bad.” He was so seriously ill that he was about to die.
The centurion made his request through the elders of the synagogue who vouched enthusiastically for him. He loved the Jewish people and he was the main contributor (maybe even sole contributor) to the construction of their synagogue. It’s interesting that Jewish leaders are seen as being willing contributors to this transaction who seem to think that Jesus just might be able to help.
Jesus was willing to go. As he went, though, the centurion sent some of his friends to ask him not to come after all. He expresses at least two reasons. First, he is unworthy to have Jesus come under his roof. Here is humility, the reaction that comes from knowing that you are a sinner who does not merit being in the presence of the holy. Second, he recognizes the authority of Jesus. Jesus does not have to be present to heal his servant. The centurion knew what it was to have authority; he was used to giving orders and to having them carried out. He believed that Jesus had that kind of authority and thus only had to speak the word to heal his servant. Jesus’ authority is underscored by the fact that the servant is healed even though, according to the record we have, Jesus did not even speak the word (Johnson, p. 118)!
Jesus is amazed and says to the crowd, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith!” (v. 9). Faith can be found in surprising places and it can be lacking in surprising places. The people of Israel, the heirs to the promises of God and the recipients of the law of God, were for the most part lacking in faith. But here was a Gentile who exhibited an amazing faith that did not even require the presence of Jesus but just trusted in who he was and in what he could do. We might be surprised at where faith can be found. That is the challenging word for us in this text: do we have faith and if we do, how radical is it?
There is also a comforting word in this text for us. As Fred Craddock put it, “The centurion anticipates all those believers yet to come who have not seen Jesus but who have believed his word as having the power of his presence…[Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), p. 95].” Jesus does not have to be physically present to have a life-changing and life-saving presence in our lives. He is present in his Word. We can know him and his grace and his power just as surely as anyone who ever encountered him physically.
After his resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples but Thomas was absent. He said that unless he could touch the wounds in Jesus’ side and hands he would not believe. A week later Jesus appeared to the disciples and this time Thomas was there. Upon seeing Jesus Thomas affirmed, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus then said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
So there it is: blessed are you!