This morning’s scripture reading is an interesting healing story in Luke’s gospel. While some readers may be tripped up by issues of slavery or confusion around the discussion of authority; the message of healing and grace that is presented in the text certainly applies to all of us. This is a scripture reading about breaking down barriers and about the role that the community plays in healing.
This story is told in a few different forms throughout the synoptic gospels. Sometimes the centurion is asking for healing for his daughter, but in this morning’s reading he is asking for healing for a slave. Some modern readers may be so bothered by the concept of slavery that they get tripped up in this part of the story. While it is true that slavery is not part of our modern understanding of a just society, it was a reality in the world in which Jesus lived. The fact that this centurion is asking for healing for a slave whose relationship he valued, shows that he treats the person with a fair amount of respect. Actually, the centurion is speaking on behalf of one who has no voice in society; so we could read this story as an act of justice, rather than injustice.
The centurion is a Roman military authority. While not being himself Jewish, he seems to know and support the Jewish culture. In fact, the Jewish elders say that he has helped them in the building and supporting of the synagogues. While he is a Roman outsider to the faith, he is clearly a supporter and sympathizer with the Jewish cause.
The centurion has heard of Jesus and so when Jesus enters his territory in Capernaum he sends word requesting that Jesus visit his home to come and heal his slave. Jesus is on the way to his house when the centurion sends word again declaring that he does not feel worthy to have Jesus enter his home. He then goes on with his discussion of authority.
The centurion is a man of great authority in the Roman Empire. As he says, he can direct the actions of servants and soldiers and he can get things done. It is because he himself knows authority, that he recognizes the authority that Jesus has. He points out that Jesus’ authority is greater than his own. The centurion’s power derives from human authority, but Jesus’ power derives from God. The centurion knows that if Jesus will only say the word, his servant will be healed.
When Jesus hears this the writer of Luke’s gospel declares that Jesus was amazed. He was surprised and astounded, turning to the crowd to say “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” It is then reported that the centurion’s slave is in good health back at the house, the requested healing miracle has occurred.
This is one of those interesting gospel stories that have several layers of meaning and significance. In the time that the text was written, I think that the writer wanted readers to consider the authority of Jesus, as well as the extending of the boundaries of the faith community.
The issue of authority is pretty clear and is central to the text. At the time that this was written, the people of Israel were subject to the harsh ways of the Roman Empire. They were folks living at home but living in occupied territory. While the centurion in the story was kind and sympathetic to their cause, that would not be the case with most centurions that they met. The fact that this military commander recognizes that Jesus’ authority is greater than his own, would be a significant message to any reader in the time that the gospel was written. The writer of Luke’s gospel wants readers to know that the power of God represented in Jesus Christ, is greater than the power of the Roman Empire. It is a profound message of hope for an oppressed people.
The other point of significance for the historical reader is that Jesus is transgressing boundaries with healing. Not only does he heal the slave of a Roman centurion, an outsider to the faith, but he also lifts up the man’s faith as an example for all. “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” The writer of this gospel wants us to notice Jesus crossing traditional lines and boundaries. He consents to heal those outside the faith community and he points out that even outsiders can come to great faith. This story is showing readers that God’s favor extends to all, crossing social and cultural boundaries.
These are both great points and make fine sermons but what really attracted my attention this week was the role of community. I have read this story a lot but this was the first time I realized that Jesus never actually talks to the slave or to the centurion. Jesus never actually meets these people at all. The whole story occurs in the voice and relationships of community.
When he hears that Jesus is in town, the centurion sends word to him via the Jewish elders. And later when he changes his mind about Jesus’ need to visit his home, the centurion sends word via his friends. Never once does the centurion talk directly to Jesus, rather he consents to have all of his messages carried by others.
As a person who often likes to speak for herself, I found this really compelling. What would it look like to trust others to speak on our behalf to God? And how does the slave feel about the whole affair? I can imagine that some folks would be very embarrassed to have all of this fuss occurring on their behalf, even if they were seeking healing. I know quite a few people who are not even comfortable having their name on a prayer list, let alone a long drawn out public affair like is happening in this story. It is hard to let others know how vulnerable we are, and it is hard to ask others to appeal to God on our behalf. In the American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture, this kind of community of caring is easily looked down upon.
In the time this gospel was written, the role the community plays in this story is natural and practically insignificant. In our own time, it is a blatant example of how the Christian culture differs from the world at large. We live in a culture that teaches us to go it alone, to make our own way. From anti-establishment political candidates, to heroes who make their own paths on the big screen, to admiring those who are self-made millionaires, we live in a culture that emphasizes the power of one. We are taught to strengthen our resolve, to never show weakness, and to make our own way through the world as hard working individuals. This story goes against all of those norms.
In our gospel reading, the slave does nothing whatsoever to secure his own healing. He doesn’t even ask for it. The centurion, who is working on his behalf, doesn’t go directly to Jesus to seek help but sends other community members in his stead. From the synagogue leaders to the friends of a Roman centurion, the whole community is banding together to ask for healing on the slave’s behalf.
We do the same thing here every Sunday. Every week we gather here to lift up in prayer those that are in need of healing. More often than not, those people are not among us. In fact, oftentimes we are praying for people that we don’t even know. We pray for those that are beloved by someone here, even if we have never met the person. This is the role of the caring community; to lift each other up in prayer and to petition God on each other’s behalf.
I know that you have heard me say it before, but you cannot live a life of faith alone. You cannot have a solitary faith. You cannot be practicing faith and not attending church, because faith is nothing apart from community. It is in the community that we come to know God, it is in the community that we experience healing, and it is in the community that we learn to allow others to speak on our behalf. It is in the community that we offer our best prayers and it is in the community that our prayers are answered. Followers of Christ are the community of caring.
We can’t be the community of caring if we aren’t honest with each other. We can’t do it if we don’t recognize and allow vulnerability in this place. I need to be honest about the part of me that’s hurt, if you are going to help me pray for healing. I need to be open about what causes me pain, if we are going to petition God together. I need to be brave enough to admit that I am in need, if we are going to be the caring community of faith. It takes courage and strength to admit your weaknesses.
Our call today is to be a caring community of faith. We are called to petition God on each other’s behalf, to ask for healing and wholeness. We are called to let others speak for us, to trust those we know and love to stand between us and the world. And we are called to embrace healing as it comes to us, like the slave who only receives in this story and doesn’t have the chance to give. We are called to be the community of caring together, and to recognize and celebrate healing in our midst. Amen.