Just a few initial comments on our text for today. There is a parallel version of the text in Matthew’s Gospel that has a few notable differences from the Luke version of the story. The most significant differences are the following:
In Luke’s version of the story a Centurion sends a delegation to Jesus asking Jesus to heal his servant. According to Luke, at no point does the Centurion actually meet Jesus. But in the Matthew version of story, the Roman centurion comes to Jesus in person to ask Jesus to heal his servant.
In addition, in Matthew’s version we read that the servant was paralyzed and suffering greatly. But in the Luke version of the story, the servant is not just paralyzed and suffering greatly, but described as sick and about to die.
And so while the substance of the story remains very much the same in these two versions of the one story, there are some significant differences, discrepancies or inconsistencies in the factual details of the story.
It is just another reminder that claims for Biblical innerancy are misplaced. The Bible, although our central text as Christians, is not a text that was written and emailed directly from heaven. It is a very human text with human errors and human inconsistencies, and yet, for those who take the time to read, and digest it, to think deeply on its themes and it’s portrayal of Jesus, I believe that it has the ability to open our hearts to the Spirit of God.
And I hope that in some way our reflection on this text today will do just that.
The second thing that I would like to comment on is the miracle that happens in this story, where Jesus heals the Centurion’s servant at a distance.
Over the past 20 months in my preaching here in Dromore, often I have read scripture and some of the miracle stories as having symbolic meaning. It is an approach to Scripture that is not new. It goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.
It is also an acknowledgement that when one speaks of God, the Infinite One, the Eternal One, words begin to fail. Theologians for centuries have asserted that when one speaks of the One who is beyond words, one has to resort to using symbol, metaphor and poetry.
Visiting Rev. Mac about a year ago, I asked him about Rev. Peaston and his theological outlook. One thing that he said really struck me. According to Mac, Rev Peaston used to say that to be religious, or a person of faith, it was necessary to have a poetic imagination. That would really resonate with me. I believe that reading scripture is best done not with a scientific mindset, but with a poetic imagination that is able to touch and inspire the heart and put us in touch with the One who is beyond words.
But having said that, I wouldn't catagorize all the miracle stories as being only symbolic. I would agree with the Biblical Scholar Marcus Borg who suggests that the Gospel writers often deliberately use miracle stories symbolically to convey a sense of a spiritual or inner meaning. Some of these stories might indeed be purely symbolic. But, like Borg, if I were a betting man, I would put my money on the belief that Jesus did indeed have what we would call ‘super-natural’ abilities... abilities that went beyond what we would ordinarily describe as natural.
I have a friend in South Africa who was experiencing excruciating back pain. She was due to fly to the UK to do fundraising for a charity that she was involved in. A doctor didn't think it would be good for her to take a flight of 10 – 12 hours.
Seeing her desperation, someone gave her the number of a healer who could possibly help her. The healer only needed her name. She would do the healing at a distance. She preferred to keep her identity anonymous. It in fact turned out that she was the organist at a local Methodist church and chose to be anonymous because she was not sure if her fellow members who necessarily understand this gift that she had even thought she believed the gift was from God.
Within a very short space of time, a few hours, or maybe a day, my friends back was doing much better, and she was able to make the flight with very little discomfort or pain.
Recently, I had a conversation with someone who spoke about a healer who lives near Derry/Londonderry who in about 1980 discovered by accident that he had healing abilities when he responded to victims of a bombing. Paramedics on the scene began to observe that bleeding that they couldn’t stop themselves, seemed to miraculously stop when they were touched by this man.
I don’t know for sure if Jesus literally raised people from the dead, or literally turned water into wine (but I could be wrong). I would tend to read such stories as having rich symbolic value. In Jesus presence, people who felt spiritually dead certainly came to new life and where people's lives had come to feel like a burden, in Jesus presence, they felt like they were tasting of the wine of new joy. But I do believe that it is quite possible that a healing power from God flowed through him and that he could indeed have healed this centurion’s servant at a distance. There are too many stories of people experiencing what we would call miraculous healing to doubt that such an event could have happened.
But interestingly, for Jesus – as you read the gospels – while he may indeed have had an ability to heal people physically, that was not in fact the focus or the point of his ministry. If anything, Jesus tried unsuccessfully to remain anonymous when it came to healing people. Jesus ultimately seemed to be far more concerned with the healing of the human heart.
And so, in this story, when Jesus commends the centurion for his faith, I don't believe that Jesus was just referring to the Centurion’s belief that Jesus had the ability to heal his servant from a distance.
There are many Christians who believe that healing will only happen if a person has faith. And sometimes, when a person does not get healed, they will blame the person suffering for not having had enough faith. Wendy and I know someone in South Africa who said to someone else: “I have prayed for you. If you don't heal, then it is your fault for not having had enough faith.”
I don't always know why healing sometimes happens and sometimes does not. If one is honest, often healing does not happen. But I think it is also very unfair to blame the person for a lack of faith, because often there is a lot of faith, and yet healing does not happen.
And so when Jesus commends the centurion for his faith, I believe that he is referring to something deeper than simply his faith that Jesus can perform a miracle. I believe Jesus is also commenting on the state of the centurion’s heart.
There was clearly something quite remarkable about the centurion. We read that Jesus is actually astonished by the man. The Greek word suggests that Jesus held him with wonder, marvel and admiration. Even Jesus was taken aback because there was something remarkable about him.
What were the qualities in this centurion that caused Jesus to wonder, marvel and admire him?
- Firstly, he is a person of integrity. The centurion was part of the Roman Empire. In the eyes of the Jews he was part of the oppressive ruling establishment, part of the military machinery of a foreign invading power. And the Romans who conquered the Jews looked down on the Jews as they would have looked down on all those they had conquered. Romans regarded Jews as a backward and filthy race. Judaism as a religion was regarded as a barbarous superstition. And yet here is a Roman centurion who has moved beyond the prejudices of his own people. Here is a man who has managed to win over his so-called enemy. A man who has crossed over boundaries of nationality and has built positive relationships with a people that others would have regarded as inferior. He is a person of integrity who treats people with equal dignity whether they are part of his group or not. It takes someone quite remarkable to be able to do such things.
- Secondly, the centurion being a military man is part of an extremely hierarchical social structure. He is in charge of 100 Roman Soldiers and thus a respected member of the Roman Heirarchy. And yet his care and compassion for his servant transcends his own social class and status. William Barclay writes that in Roman law, a slave was defined as a living tool. He had no rights. A master could ill-treat him and even kill him if he chose. When a slave was past his ability to be productive and to work, he could simply be discarded, thrown out to die.
And yet we read that this centurion transcends the social hierarchy and social norms of his day and expresses, great care, great concern and even love for this slave. There is something quite remarkable about this man. He is a person of compassion and love who expresses that compassion and love to someone who ordinarily should have been outside or below his circle of love and concern.
3. Thirdly, he is a person of deep humility, despite the position of importance that he occupied as a Roman centurion. Centurions were people of power and status. It was in his job description to give orders to people and to boss them around. But here the centurion submits himself with great humility to Jesus, an itinerant Jewish Rabbi. According to Luke, he sends a message back to Jesus as Jesus was nearing his home: “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; nor do I count myself fit to come to you; but just say the word and my servant will be healed.” It is a statement from person of deep, deep humility.
And so we read that Jesus is astonished by this Roman Centurion. An unlikely candidate and yet there is something quite remarkable at work in his heart:
- He is a person of integrity who has built positive relationships with Jews who were beyond the boundaries of his own people.
- As a soldier, a military man, he has a soft heart. He is a person of care and compassion even for someone who was socially beneath him, who ordinarily would simply have been discarded.
- And lastly, he is a person of great humility. Deeply aware of his own unworthiness to even be in the presence of Jesus let alone have Jesus come into his home.