September 19, 2017
Dear fellow pilgrims,
Today’s readings focus on people in authority, people who have been given power over other people. When I was little and heard this story in Sunday school, I remember it being explained to me that the Centurion’s holiness was portrayed mainly from the fact that he thought enough of his slave to even ask that he’d be saved. Now, reading this again as an adult, I see holiness in the way that the Centurion situates himself within the earthly titles and hierarchies around him, and how he elevates Jesus above all.
I mean, let's just start with a plain but puzzling reality that God has allowed some people to have power over other people in this world. Since the dawn of civilization, people have always lived according to some power dynamic, some hierarchy where one person or a group of people are entrusted with making decisions that affect many people. (I’d be very interested to hear evidence to the contrary.) I have little experience with being in positions of authority at this point in my life, but from my experience, there is a mixture of a thrill of weight in what my word can do and a weight of responsibility for this ability. (Although the “thrill” I’m talking about here is the nerdiest thrill of a drum major conducting a 150-piece high school marching band. When I keep my hand up, the band holds this note until I cut them off... Oh, the POWER.) The Centurion in the Gospel reading points out this inevitable dynamic of human existence, because he knows that he himself has superiors (my own emphasis, below):
"Lord, do not trouble yourself,
for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.
Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you;
but say the word and let my servant be healed.
For I too am a person subject to authority,
with soldiers subject to me.
And I say to one, Go, and he goes;
and to another, Come here, and he comes;
and to my slave, Do this, and he does it."
It is clear that the Centurion knows his place: he is neither at the top or bottom of the food chain, so to speak. He also knows Jesus’ place, and I’m sure this is much of what “amazed” Jesus about this man’s faith. The words above are not the directly from the Centurion, but rather, friends who were told to go to Jesus and express these words FOR the Centurion because he thought himself not “worthy to come to [Him].”
Others, however, had a very different view of how the interaction between the Centurion and Jesus should play out. Even though the Centurion told the Jewish elders to implore Jesus to come save his slave’s life, what they told Jesus highlighted more of the Centurion’s status and societal influence than his humble request: “He deserves to have you do this for him…” (my own emphasis). Perhaps, the Centurion heard of the way his message was conveyed and chose to send his own friends who did not have their own political agenda to insert into his request.
How often do we make petitions like the elders? We may feel that God “owes” us because we go to church every Sunday, we live a good life, we don’t hurt anyone… etc. etc. Heck, we may feel that God “owes” us because we are actually doing some pretty great community service and are working hard at life, staying humble, are on “another level of holiness” from where you started when you first decided to follow Jesus.
But no matter how much we might feel like we are “owed” because of some conclusion that we are somehow better than others who are not “owed” as many favors from God, we should always come back to the reality described in the petition the Centurion sent to Jesus via his friends. Truly, no matter who we are, how much money we make, how much influence we have over others, we are always not worthy when compared to Jesus, the spotless Lamb, the Divine King.
We should always acknowledge His place first when asking anything of Him, starting with the reality that His very word — the tiniest expression of His favor that we may never come close to perceiving — has enough power to fulfill any petition we could think of asking. This is the faith that Jesus was "amazed" by. And this reality supersedes and affects all other human realities, even when they seem either so magnificent that you don’t want the illusion of control to cease or so crushing that you are tempted to stop believing that Jesus truly is King over all.