Every time I read the gospels, I’m glad we have the four instead of just one melded version that picked up the pieces of all of them. I like how Mark is straightforward and direct, and how Matthew always takes pains to connect the story of Jesus with the ancient story of God at work in the people of Israel. John gives us some sense of the “big picture’ significance of Jesus.
And Luke throws in great human details like one in this passage. Let me show you what I mean.
When Jesus arrives in Capernaum, he’s met by a delegation of Jewish elders who bring him a message from a Roman centurion. The soldier has a slave who’s ill and near death, and is asking for Jesus to heal him. Here’s the part I like – the elders give the centurion’s resumé to Jesus. He built us a synagogue, they say. He’s one of the good Romans and he treats us well.
They figure Jesus might not want to help a Roman, and that’s probably a safe assumption, as most Jewish people we’d meet on the street in that day wouldn’t have wept much if Rome disappeared overnight.
Whether convinced by the elders or for reasons of his own, Jesus has decided to heal the sick man and sets out for the centurion’s home. But the centurion anticipated this and warns Jesus away from his house, knowing that a Jewish religious leader who visited a Roman’s home would have problems with his own people.
He says he knows what authority is, as he has people in authority over him and he has authority over others. So if Jesus does in fact have the authority to heal his servant, then it will be done whether the two meet face to face or not.
Jesus comments that this man has great faith, “unlike any in Israel.” And the slave is made well.
We don’t always use the word “faith” in the way it plays out here. We often make it a synonym with “believe,” and we lump it in with other kinds of mental or intellectual actions.
But the centurion recognizes a different dimension of faith. For him, it is a matter of not simply agreeing that Jesus might heal his slave. It is a conviction that the healing will be done if Jesus wants it done, and a willingness to live by that conviction no matter what.
That’s where his comments on authority come in. If the centurion were here to explain his actions, he might tell us something like this: Either Jesus wants to heal my slave or he doesn’t. If he wants to, then he either can heal him or he can’t. And if he wants to heal him and he can heal him, then it’s a done deal.
I sometimes don’t do so well as the centurion, and I imagine many of us would say the same. We’ll profess a belief that God will do something and then we’ll go and try to do it as though he can’t.
I don’t mean things like praying and then not taking people to the doctor – God will work through human hands and skills to heal just as much as through his own ways.
Think of it more like this: When each of us learns to drive, there comes a point where we have to be driving the car ourselves. If the person with us tells us we know how to drive but then insists on taking the wheel anyway, we wonder if they mean what they say. And they might also be my dad, but that has more to do with him getting carsick easily unless he’s at the wheel.
When we’re driving ourselves, then we guide the car, we choose the route, we follow whichever traffic regulations we choose (or remember. Who goes first at a 4-way stop?). Other people might offer advice or warnings. Constantly. Mom. But when another person drives, they do those things.
The centurion lets Jesus know that he doesn’t have to risk his reputation among the people in order to heal. He has sent word to Jesus because he believes Jesus can heal his slave, so Jesus need make no special journey, or say special words or make some kind of show. He just has to say it’s done, and it’s done.
The centurion’s faith didn’t heal the slave – don’t misunderstand the story. Jesus did it. He noted the centurion’s faith as an example for us to follow, but he did the healing. We can’t automatically make Jesus do something just by believing in it hard enough. That’s the way we save Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, not how we trust in and follow our Lord.