Meditation on Luke 7:1-10
May 29, 2016
Merritt Island Presbyterian Church
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 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; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 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.’ 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.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Coming home from a walk yesterday, I caught sight of a lady who lives two doors down from us. She is a small lady, and she was working on our next-door neighbor’s yard, handling a power edging tool and leaf blower by herself. It touched my heart to see her doing this as she also cares for a 5-year-old daughter and a teenage son who is confined to a wheelchair. I marveled that she had found the time and energy to help a neighbor in need. When she saw me watching her and smiling, she turned off the tools and greeted me. Then we chatted like old friends, though we have only had a few conversations since Jim and I moved in last October.
The yard she was working in was the yard of a young, single man whom we have been praying for as a church since November. John hasn’t been well enough to live in his home for nearly 6 months. I told her that it was nice of her to work on John’s yard. She laughed and lifted her shoulders. “It’s what neighbors do!”
Our neighbor, John, has cancer. His Caringbridge website says that on Nov. 18, John’s father found him unresponsive. He was rushed to Holmes Regional Medical Center where an MRI showed 2 tumors in the temporal lobe of his brain, one being inoperable. On Nov. 21, a neurosurgeon did a resection of the large tumor (the size of a D battery), and told the family that he would receive 2 weeks of radiation and a once a month chemo pill, but “it did not look promising.” He was released on Nov. 26 (Thanksgiving), only to end up back at Holmes on the 28th. He was released again from Holmes Dec. 2, and he traveled north to stay with and be cared for by his family in Rochester, NY. His condition is still very serious.
On March 29, John turned 32.
The neighbor working in his yard got a faraway look in her eye as we talked about him. “It’s so sad,” she said.
We both said at the same time, “He’s so young.”
“I will keep praying for him,” I said. “So will my church.”
We talked about other things after that–our plans for Memorial Day, her difficulties traveling with her son and how expensive it is to go anywhere. I shared that we were going to see my parents in Orange City and that Dad had just had another heart surgery a week ago Thursday, but he was doing well.
As I went inside, I thought about what a blessing our conversation had been–how uplifting it was to share our mutual concerns and encourage one another. And I thought how important it is for the community of faith to persist in prayer for John and others struggling with health problems, without medical professionals offering much hope for their healing.
Later, I recalled my visit to Mom and Dad last Monday–and how everywhere Mom and I went at their retirement community where they have lived only a couple of months, people would stop us and ask how Dad was. They looked pleased with Mom’s good report; a woman who sings with my Mom in church said, “Of course he’s doing well! The choir prayed for him!”
And I thought about how many times we ask people to pray–and they do–and all goes well with our loved ones. And we don’t think much about it. We just move on to worry about something or someone else. I could almost hear Jesus saying, as he often did to his disciples, “Have you so little faith?”
Our gospel reading today in Luke 7 is a healing story, but even more than that, it is a story of an amazing faith and awesome friends who are willing to go to Jesus on their friend’s behalf. This passage reveals the power of the faith community, when we share our needs with one another and take them to the Lord. But it is also the assurance that God cares for all who are suffering–regardless of their status in society.
This healing story takes place in Capernaum, a name that means “city of Comfort.” Capernaum, near the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, is where Jesus lives at the beginning of his ministry–after he is tempted for 40 days in the wilderness and John is arrested, according to Matthew 4:13-16. Five of the 12 disciples Jesus calls are from Capernaum, one of the most prosperous and crowded districts in Palestine at the time. The city is the scene of a number of NT miracles; it is where Jesus casts a demon out of a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
The synagogue in Capernaum comes up in our reading today in Luke 7, the healing of the centurion’s slave. The man responsible for the building of the synagogue in Capernaum in Jesus’ time is a Gentile, a centurion, an officer at the head of a Roman company of 100 men. He may have been in service to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, or to Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea.
The account of the healing of the centurion’s slave in Luke also appears in Matthew, but with some variation. Matthew tells of the centurion who himself comes to Jesus and beseeches him to heal his “servant,” who is “lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” Luke’s centurion doesn’t come to Jesus in person; instead 2 groups of people come on the centurion’s behalf, seeking healing for his “slave” who is “ill and close to death.”
Two different English words describe the man who is close to death–a servant in Matthew and a slave in Luke. But it’s the same Greek word–doulos –that is translated servant and slave. The reality is there was no real distinction in biblical times between servanthood and slavery. Servant or slave, one did not have freedom to choose one’s life or make a way for themselves in the world; one didn’t have protections from abuse and oppression; neither would they have a voice, unless someone spoke up for them.
But not all slaves were treated badly in biblical times. Luke 7:2 says the centurion “value(s) highly” his slave. In verse 3, we learn that the centurion believed in Jesus when he heard about him–the wonderful deeds of healing. He cared enough about his slave, who was near to death, that he sent some Jewish elders to ask for Jesus’ healing. We don’t find out why the centurion didn’t go in person until later on. By the way, the word for these Jewish elders is presbyterous–which is where our Presbyterian form of government came from– or rule by “elders.” Presbyterous is sometimes translated “old men,” such as in Acts 2:17.
The Jewish delegation provides an introduction that includes not just the good deed the centurion has done, but also where his heart lies. The “old men” say to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” Jesus listens and without any argument or questioning, he goes with them. Then, before he reaches the centurion’s house, the centurion sends another group of people. This time, they are “friends”–Jew or Gentile, we don’t know. But the fact that he sends “friends” rather than people who work for him speaks of the character of this powerful man. For to have friends, you have to be a friend–you have to care about other people. These friends of unknown nationality and religion convey the centurion’s message, “Lord, do not trouble yourself…” This is literally, “do not bother.” Why? Because the humble centurion knows he is an outsider to the nation of Israel, despite his love for the Jewish people–an uncircumcised Gentile. He feels “unworthy” for Jesus to “come under his roof,” and it is his unworthiness that has prevented him from seeking out Jesus in person. Any expectation of Jesus coming to visit him in his home would be presumptuous, even if he were responsible for the building of the synagogue. What he doesn’t say goes without saying–that a Gentile’s home was unclean to a Jew, a source of defilement for Jesus.
The centurion stops Jesus from coming to his home at the last minute, but not because he is giving up on his request for his slave’s healing. It isn’t necessary for Jesus to come, he says, for he believes that Christ, who has power and authority over all things given to him by God, need only speak the word and his slave will be healed! The centurion understands power and authority, as he is a man under another’s authority and also has 100 soldiers under him–who can say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes. That he would believe that Jesus’ physical presence and touch are unnecessary for a healing to take place would go against common belief of his day.
When Jesus hears of the centurion’s faith he is amazed. Turning to the crowd, he says, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’
And when those who had been sent to Jesus return to the centurion’s home, they find the slave in good health.
Friends, when we pray for our family and friends, do we have a faith like the humble centurion–a faith that amazed even Christ himself? And when Christ heals our loved ones when we pray, do we simply move on to worry about someone or something else?
Would Jesus say to us as he often did to his disciples, “Have you so little faith?”
Let us pray.
Holy One, we thank you for your Word that teaches us of the importance of faith and the power of the community when we come together and lift one another up in prayer. But Lord, we often struggle with doubts and fail to give you thanks for your gifts of healing for family and friends. Forgive us for, at times, having so little faith. Renew us by your Spirit and fill us to overflowing with an amazing faith. Humble us so that we, like the centurion, will understand that we are helpless to live as the people you want us to be if we are not wholeheartedly seeking you and trusting in you. Help us to let go of our anxieties and feel your comforting presence with us always. Stir us to truly love and serve our neighbors and see everyone as friends. Give us patience and strength to walk by faith with you every day until that glorious day when there’s no more pain, sickness or sorrow and we finally we see you, face to face. In Christ we pray. Amen.