We’re up to chapter 7 in our quest to read a chapter of the gospel of Luke each day until Christmas Eve. Chapter 7 introduces another of my favorite Biblical characters, an unnamed Roman centurion with a sick servant. I’ve read about him for years, and I still feel as though my faith is puny in comparison to his. I’m so glad that God saw fit to have Luke include this short story about him, because it says so much more than the few verses describe.
Roman officials or soldiers aren’t portrayed in a favorable light in scripture. Usually they are shown as cruel and arrogant. The Jews certainly hated them. The Messiah they were expecting was one who would throw the Romans out of their land and restore the glory of the days of David. And it’s a pretty safe bet the Romans deserved the reputation they had.
But the centurions are treated differently. I’m not sure I can define why. They generally are seen as less cruel and hostile to the Jewish people, and are received more favorably as a result. In some cases they are shown to be believers, or at least seekers. The most outstanding examples are Cornelius in the book of Acts, and this centurion in Luke 7.
There’s much to love about and learn from this man. Luke tells us that he ‘loved the Jewish nation’. Furthermore, he had contributed to the building of a Jewish synagogue in town. Rather than arrogantly lord his authority over this conquered people, he was open to learning about them and their law and God. He found something appealing in this Hebrew god, enough to provide a place of worship for his people. To a cynic, it would appear that this centurion was simply “buying off” an otherwise ungovernable people. But this amazing soldier was about to demonstrate there was a whole lot more to it.
One day this man’s favorite servant became ill- deathly ill. He’d heard the stories about Jesus. Living in Capernaum, how could he not? Luke doesn’t tell us whether he sought any others to heal his servant. But he’d heard about Jesus and thought it was worth a chance. But why would a Jewish teacher even consider a request from a Roman? So he sends some of the Jewish elders whom he’d befriended by his generosity as intermediaries to plead his case. Having persuaded Jesus, the group sets off for the centurion’s house.
Here’s where the amazing begins. The centurion must have received word that Jesus was on his way. The centurion sends more friends with a message. The message? “I’m not worthy of your time and presence. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. I’m a man of authority; I know the power of command.” Think for a moment about what this man was saying.
He had command of 80-100 soldiers. When he gave a command, they obeyed or expected punishment or execution. His word was law to these men. He recognized that Jesus had that power of command as well; his word demanded obedience but on an infinitely larger scale. He also recognized his own unworthiness to be in the presence of One who had such power. A simple word would suffice; he didn’t deserve any more than that.
Seeing true humility in any person’s life is amazing. Seeing it in a person with power and authority, where you wouldn’t normally expect to find it, is both unexpected and absolutely astounding. It made Jesus marvel. “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” This Roman, one of the hated Gentile invaders, had outshone those of God’s own chosen nation in having the heart God had sought all along.
When we desire some blessing from God, need some blessing, it’s right and proper to ask for it. But if we approach God as a cosmic vending machine, who has to give us what we want because we put our prayers in the slot, we are foolish to expect a result. What we need is the heart of the centurion. We ask even though we know we’re unworthy to make the request, much less expect the result. When we humble ourselves, we may ask in confidence, knowing that we have a gracious, loving God who is faithful in providing blessings to those whose hearts belong to Him.