At times, often out of my totally want of humility, I find myself complaining about issues to the wrong people—what makes them the wrong people is that they have neither power nor authority to address my complaint. And in other times I find other people complaining about their issues to me when I have neither power nor authority to address their complaint. It’s really important to be able to address our complaints, and the way to know this is by finding a way to answer the question, “Who has both the authority and the power?”
This question permeates us at every life stage, mostly when we find our power and authority’s limit:
- a helpless 3 week old baby cries—who has the power and authority to comfort it?
- a confused 2nd grader is bullied—who has the power and authority to resolve it?
- a menstruating 11 year old has the “first” at school—who has the power and authority to meet her needs?
- a 16 year old wants a driver’s license—who has the power and authority to authorize?
- a 17 year old discerns between college or tech school—who has the power and authority to be a guide?
- a 24 year old selects a diamond for an engagement ring—who has the power and authority to assist?
- a 30 year old desires to buy a home—who has the power and authority to guide?
- a 50 year old ponders care for aging parents—who has the power and authority to decide?
- a 60 year old ponders retirement—who has the power and authority to assist?
- a 70 year old considers a late life romance–who has the power and authority to guide?
- a 90 year plans a funeral—who has the power and authority to help?
This very question is in play in Luke 7:1-10. The servant of the εκατόνταρχος is ill. And the remedy for the servant, healing, is beyond both the power and authority of the εκατόνταρχος. The servant’s master is the εκατόνταρχος, the Greek word for the Roman word for “centurion.” It all happens like this:
“After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.” (NRSV)
Now, per the text, Jesus never meets the man face-to-face. And this makes perfect sense when you consider it from a Roman cultural perspective. The Centurion, appointed by the Roman Senate, elected, or promoted from within the ranks, is in charge of around 100 men, and sometimes more. Under Emperor Julius Caesar the number under a centurion’s command was doubled. This position is one of high social rank, and considerable authority and power; not to mention the immense weight of the training, shaping, disciplining of the men under their command for which they were personally responsible.
Why would such a person condescend to personally meet a street preaching teacher? He wouldn’t.
But there’s a twist in the text. This Centurion, with the human power and human social status, this Centurion who could command his cohort to grab Jesus by the nape of the neck and forcibly drag him to the servant, who could even order him on pain of death to heal the servant is humble.
Eventually this Centurion sends word to Jesus saying, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”
Seems like this Centurion recognizes what it means to knows one’s place in the universe, to know that one may have power in some spheres yet not in others, my be granted authority by the Roman Empire, but such authority cannot heal the servant.
Now let’s go back to the text, specifically to the parts before Jesus hears that the Centurion sees himself as unworthy for Jesus enter his home. Don’t the Jesus leaders hail the centurion as being totally worthy of having Jesus do this for him? Don’t they say this to Jesus: “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” vv.4-5.
And doesn’t Jesus begin to go with them to the Centurion’s home? Yes—he does start in that direction, but the friends of the Centurion who’ve been sent by Jesus convey that Jesus is too worthy to be in the Centurion’s home, and further tell Jesus that the Centurion has this to say, “I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”
Jesus celebrates this faithful remark and goes on to lift up the Centurion’s faith in the remainder of the text which concludes with the servant being healed.
At least four things can be said for the Centurion:
- he did not utilize power and authority as means to compel a desired outcome.
- he did grasp that human power and authority has a limit, perhaps even limits.
- he clearly understood humility, knowing one’s place, is important for people.
- he lived a life that others called worthy, even if he saw himself to be unworthy.
As to #1—he didn’t bully Jesus. A mark of humility.
As to #2—he was at the end of his power and authority in the face of illness. A mark of humility.
As to #3—he lived a life that showed love. Who builds a synagogue, no cheap building project, for a community that one does not love? A mark of humility.
As to #4–his life pattern was noticed. The Jewish leaders were no fans of Romans, yet here is a Roman centurion being lifted up as worthy by a Jewish community. A mark of humility.
Isn’t it true that we humans are rather found of wielding authority and power? And isn’t it also true that these, at times, get in the way of modeling God’s kingdom of love, truth, justice, mercy, peace, and grace?
Isn’t it true that sometimes we have a major problem with feeling that we are worthy of having Jesus do this that and the other for us? And, all the while, isn’t true that we are unworthy to have him under our roof?
And when it comes to matters of worth, Jesus already was coming to heal the servant even before the Centurion declared his unworthiness. He’d already started with the Jewish leaders in the Centurion’s direction.
So why bring up the “unworthiness” business? Why waste good papyrus by not jumping from the part where Jesus is going with the Jewish leaders in v. 6 to the healing the servant in v. 10?
Perhaps because readers of this text need to hear again and again and again that humility makes humans receptive to receive what Jesus offers. We need to hear this often because our ideas of authority and power and status get in the way.
We hear this question of power and authority over and against humility when an adult has never been baptized yet has communed for years. It gets put out there in this way, “Since I have communed all these years, why be baptized. I mean now I’m all grown and I’ll feel awkward.”
We hear this question of power and authority over and against humility when someone has not been to worship and has not made a financial contribution to the congregation in the past year (ELCA denominational requirement for membership) and we send a letter of inquiry to them as to whether they wish to participate in the life and mission of the parish, or whether they have found another congregation to be a better fit for them, etc. It gets put out there in this way, “My family has been in that church for 127 years, 4.5 months, 11 days, 13 hours, 25 minutes, and 19 seconds! Who do you think you are threatening to remove me from the rolls?”
Power and authority—they really can get in the way of being God’s family and extending the invitation to join God’s family to others. Humility, however, opens the door wide for us to receive what and who God sends our way. Humility is why the centurion isn’t seen as just one more Roman military bully isn’t it?
It’s completely true that we can’t earn anything from God, bully anything out of God, or use human power and authority to move God to act or do for us. Our concepts of worthiness and unworthiness don’t compel God to act for us or love us either, do they? What God does is done out of God’s grace for God’s own purpose. Human worthiness or unworthiness, human power and authority, none of them have anything to do with it. Yet humility—isn’t humility what “flings wide our doors and unbars our gates” to receive God’s grace and mercy, God’s Truth and love, and to offer it, even liberally share it with others?