Slowly but surely I can feel my authority slipping from my hands. It’s not a full-blown crisis yet, but already I can imagine a day when it won’t matter what I say. They’ll just do what they want. Of course I’m talking about my kids. Even now it feels like a bit of a miracle when I tell one of my kids to do something and they respond by immediately doing it. And I also have no illusions that this will continue for too long. That direct kind of authority – the kind that speaks and gets an immediate response – the kind based on mere force of will – it just isn’t going to last.
Well, truth be told, my authority is waning in another sense, also.
There is also a kind of authority based on knowledge – you have studied something, you know about some subject, and that knowledge makes you an authority. People will trust you. But here’s the thing about kids – they’re learning all the time. They’re catching up. In fact, on some things I’m already falling behind. On French verbs and on pronunciation, my authority was lost a long time ago in our household.
Esther had been in kindergarten for less than two months when one day I was reading her a little French book. And at one point as I read along she looked up at me and she said: “Daddy, it’s not ‘regard’, it’s ‘regard’ (with correct accent). In terms of the French language I have absolutely no authority, even with a 6 year old.
But would we want it otherwise. Would we a world where children just went on giving in to their parent’s force of will. For kids, growing up requires that authority become nuanced – more of a two-way street – as we reach maturity together. And would we really want children who don’t eventually learn as much or more than their parents – who don’t have more authority on subjects they have studied.
In an important sense, authority lies at the heart of our New Testament reading for this morning – particularly the Roman Centurion’s understanding of authority and Jesus’ exercise of authority. And so we are going to have to come back to this question of authority, and particularly how Jesus exercises it in certain situations.
But in order to get to this question of authority, we first have to work our way through this narrative from the gospel of Luke. And as we start digging into the text, we do so with the most obvious and most curious feature of the story. We start with the peculiar fact that this Centurion sends two separate delegations to Jesus. The Roman Centurion hears about Jesus and wants Jesus to heal his desperately sick servant, and so he sends two delegations in quick succession. But why wasn’t just one delegation enough? In fact, he sends the second delegation even before the first one has returned. But why? Why two delegations, one after the other?
Let’s think about the first delegation. We read beginning in verse three: “When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish leaders 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 the text adds: “So Jesus went with them.”
These religious elders are the first delegation. And they come to Jesus and they tell Jesus all about this centurion and all about his sick servant. They tell Jesus that this centurion is a patron within their community, a wealthy benefactor. He’s the Molson family of first century Capernaum. He has given a lot of money for the building of the synagogue. He has shown great affection for the people and has supported them. The religious elders sum up their message in this way: “He is a good man, and he is worthy to have his servant healed.”
These words of the religious leaders will probably make some sense to us. Ours is a world in which we often function in this way. We all know good people who are generous and kind – people who use their wealth and their resources to support others. Perhaps they have used their wealth and resources to support us. We are grateful for it. And if a situation arises where such a person is in need of help, we want to see them get the help that they need. In their time of need we want to see a good turn done to them – in the same way they have done a good turn to others. “He is a good man, and he is worthy to have his servant healed.”
This all seems and feels normal to us. Yet what’s interesting here is that the language used by the religious leaders in that first delegation can only come across as jarring and strange against the backdrop of what Jesus has just said in Luke’s gospel. The chapter immediately prior to our story in Luke contains the strong language of Jesus’ sermon on the plain, where Jesus speaks these words:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…” Jesus continues a few verse later: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Who to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”
Jesus continues: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. Love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Expecting nothing in return.
If you do a good thing – if you live in kindness and grace, expect
no words of appreciation.
no words of honour and praise.
no gift or blessing in return.
Against the backdrop of Jesus’ words in the sermon on the plain, the language of worthiness can only grate on our ears. With the sermon, Jesus sets himself against a great deal in that ancient culture of his. That ancient culture was one in which giving appropriate honour was profoundly important, especially in relation to a wealthy patron. It was considered vitally important to acknowledge your patron. It was to your shame, and to the shame of the patron, if you didn’t acknowledge his or her gift and generosity. In fact, if you didn’t acknowledge their generosity and gifts, you risked losing their patronage – and shaming yourself in the community. And so the religious leaders of Capernaum have come with words of honour for their patron: “Jesus, he is worthy – he has done so much for our people, he has been so generous. He is worthy. Worthy enough for you to act and heal his servant.”
But Jesus has turned all such thinking on its head. Perhaps Jesus wouldn’t deny that the patron has given gifts. Perhaps Jesus wouldn’t deny that the centurion has been kind. But if the centurion has been generous and kind, he should have done so without expecting anything in return. And the centurion should know that to those whom much has been given, much is expected.
The kingdom of God is a kingdom that privileges those on the margins, those who are poor, those who are mourning, those who are without resources and strength and wealth. Jesus says that God is at work most profoundly and in the most transformative ways among the humble, the poor, and the weak as they manifest and live in the grace of God. And those who are wealthy, should simply give, expecting nothing in return.
“Jesus, he is a good man. He loves our people. He gave money to build our synagogue. He is worthy. He is worthy to have his servant healed.”
You know, it’s a difficult thing to put your reputation into someone else’s hands. It is a difficult thing to let someone else speak for you.
At some level, this happens to all of us, all the time – we are often in situations where we have to trust others to represents our words, our ideas, and our opinions.
Maybe you share your opinion on some controversial topic with a friend, and they in turn tell someone else what you think – and you just hope they get it right and don’t make you look stupid or insensitive.
Maybe you tell a parent something important or sensitive on the phone and then they go and pass it on to one of your siblings, and you just hope they don’t misrepresent your thoughts or feelings to your sibling.
Maybe you pick up your child from school and the teacher says: “You know, your daugher said…” And you think, oh no, what did she say? How has she made us look?
It is a difficult thing to entrust your words to someone else. It is a difficult thing to entrust your reputation to someone else. It’s always risky.
Maybe that’s what the Roman centurion was thinking to himself after he sent off that delegation of religious elders. Perhaps once those religious leaders were on their way he thought to himself: “Oh no, they’re going to get it completely wrong. They’re going to go to Jesus and start talking about how great I am – they’re going to go and tell Jesus how worthy I am – they’re going to tell him that I’m such a great person, I deserve to have this servant of mine healed. What was I thinking to send them? What have I done?”
And so while that first delegation is off fulfilling their commission, the Roman centurion gathers some of his friends, and gives them a clear message to deliver. He tries again. We read in verse 6: “The centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, ‘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. Only say the word and let my servant be healed’.”
The religious elders say to Jesus: “He is worthy. You should do this for him.”
The friends say to Jesus: “He does not claim to be worthy.”
It is such a strong contrast in the text. He is worthy. He is not worthy.
The centurion, even if he has only just heard about Jesus, understands the message Jesus. He understands the way that Jesus embodies. The kingdom of God is not about showing deference to those who have power or honour or wealth or privilege. Within the kingdom of God, no one is worthy. The kingdom of God is about the grace of God that is alive to those who are broken and sick and marginalized. So the centurion says to Jesus: “Only say the word and let my servant be healed.”
The religious elders were caught up in that world-view of privilege and honour – a world where it is so important to show all deference to the powerful – where those who are good and generous should be paid back in kind. But this gentile, this Roman centurion, somehow understands that the kingdom of God isn’t about who is worthy of honour or blessing – it is simply about the grace of God extended to those who are broken. In this case, his ailing servant.
Within the gospel of Luke, and in terms Luke’s wider history of the church, this Roman centurion, this gentile soldier, represents something significant. He represents the spread of God’s love and covenant to all peoples. Here we have a gentile who understands the way of Jesus. Here we have a gentile who understands the kingdom embodied in Jesus. Here we have a gentile who speaks of Jesus as Lord. To speak of Jesus as Lord means everything for a Roman soldier since a declaration of Jesus’ as kind or ruler is an affront to his identity. It is not Caesar who is king. It is not Caesar who rules. It is Jesus who is king, who has authority.
Which brings us back, finally, to where we began this morning. Through his friends, sent as intermediaries, the centurion says to Jesus:
“But only speak the word, and my servant will 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.’”
Though the narratives of the New Testament, Jesus exercises authority in ways that are rich and complicated. Rarely does Jesus exercise authority in the way that we spoke of at the outset – rarely does he merely issue a command that demands an immediate and perhaps unthinking obedience.
Sometimes he teaches his disciples, leading them gently into his way.
Sometimes he enters into conversation with women and men, letting them discover the truth through interaction.
Sometimes he confronts and commands his followers – expecting immediate obedience.
But regardless of how his authority is exercised in a given situation, the centurion understands, and we can understand, that it is an authority for us:
for our healing, and for the healing of the world,
for our forgiveness, and for reconciliation in relationships,
for the renewal of broken lives,
for justice where lives are disrespected and broken.
In the case of the centurion’s slave, the authority exercised by Jesus is direct and forceful. In response to the faith of the centurion who knows Jesus and his way – Jesus commands healing. And it is done. Jesus here reveals a direct and powerful authority over that which is dehumanizing.
We read: “When Jesus heard the centurion’s words, 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.” Thanks be to God, for the gracious authority of Jesus.