This story is SO important in the point Luke is making through his book, as he marks the progress of the message of the Jesus from its original Jewish context out to the whole world. Sure, the Jews’ appreciation of a pious Gentile is an important theme through the book, which was written partially to show the compatibility of early Christianity with Judaism. Jesus, also, will show that the Gentile’s faith was just as authentic as Jewish, which is an important point. Here’s the deal: Jesus radically resisted, and actively destroyed, all notions of rules in our relationship with God. According to Jesus, there is only ONE rule: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” All other rules are just religion, and people’s attempts to control others, judge others, show superiority, etc. It’s both destructive and deplorable, and Jesus would have none of it. The setting is Capernaum, the CORE of his ministry to the Jews. Into the middle of this symbolic place walks a centurion: Roman (despised by the Jews), probably in the service of Herod (despised by the Jews), and a Gentile (excluded from the kingdom by the Jews). The set-up is ripe for Jesus to make a point. (It is a notable fact that all five of the Roman officers mentioned in the New Testament are men of standing and visible integrity.)
But then catch the other part of the set-up: This man with money, power, authority, and political connections finds that they are ALL worthless against the enemy of death. For all that we value these things in life, ultimately, they add up to nothing. So this completes our set-up for the story: a Gentile, a man of power and wealth, with a beloved servant, in a desperate and hopeless situation. Here we see the prime contradiction of life: love vs. death. And the worst of life: someone you love and value is dying, and you can do nothing about it.
The centurion, it says, had heard of Jesus. Look what he was known for (which makes me wonder what I’m known for, eh?): compassion, authority, and the power to do miracles. He asks Jesus to come and help him. You gotta wonder what it took for a man of his stature to appeal to a poor and wandering Jewish preacher. But you know what? I think all that peels away when you’re desperate to help someone you love. Imagine if it was your child. Nothing would stop you. Time was short.
Now, in the middle of this is an interesting tidbit. They pleaded with Jesus to do it because “this man deserves to have you do this.” What? This is the only notion in Scripture that Jesus does something because the person deserves it. So I’m curious to see what Jesus will do in the face of such a motive, since he operates by grace and not by who deserves it. And what does v. 5 give as to why he deserves it? (1) He loves the people of God, and (2) He contributed to their religion. So does that make him worthy of the mercy of God? What will Jesus do and say?
“So Jesus went.” Cool. Despite the “do it because he deserves it,” Jesus went. So I’ll say this: He doesn’t work out of mixed motives, but he’s also not blind to good deeds.
But then the guy intercepts Jesus, and look how he treats Jesus: with a spirit of humility of self, with respect, sincerity, goodness, and being thoughtful. And then he specifically says, “I don’t deserve for you to do this.” Amazing. Other people said he deserved it, but the guy himself says no. He’s thoughtful of Jesus, knowing the Jewish mindset and that for Jesus to enter the house of a Gentile would have made him ceremonially unclean. And the symbolism of all this is just over the top. Are those who are not in covenant relationship with God deserving of God’s miraculous mercy? Of course they are.
He approaches God with exactly the kind of humility that the Scriptures ask us to show. But it’s not that the guy thinks himself particularly low (which is not the definition of humility), but it’s that he discerned the far superiority of Jesus. Humility isn’t thinking low of yourself; it’s actually not thinking of yourself at all. He recognizes Jesus’ superior authority: just say the word. It’s the same kind of authority he has as an army officer, but far above it.
Jesus is SO impressed. In v. 9 he says, “Dude! Is anybody else seeing this???” The FAITH this guy has. Now this is the way I see it: This is not the faith of the ancients (Noah, Abraham, Moses, et al.) who were told something and they had to choose whether or not to believe it, but the faith that has seen the evidence and believes.
This so cool. The idea is not a simple empiricism that treats observation and experience as the only way we can know something. instead, he has an open mind that is informed by what he experiences in the world. Scientists do this through the experimental method. When responsible examination of nature takes place, the examiner discovers not just nature, but nature with meaning as created and sustained by God, for instance.
The man returned and found his servant well. Jesus did have authority. Jesus went outside of Judaism. Jesus ignored the stupid rules of religion. He didn’t get trapped by the possibility of having his motives misread. Neither does he care about stupid ceremonial uncleanness. Jesus responded to his humility and faith, just as the Scriptures teach he ALWAYS will.