Proper 4 • Luke 7:1–10 • May 29, 2016
At first blush, the central theme of this pericope seems to be faith and its remarkable residence in a Gentile centurion. That motif fits well with the preceding context. The centurion distinguishes himself not only as a capable builder of synagogues, but he is also a competent builder of houses, clearly founding his own on the rock. The centurion with his great faith embodies the wise builder of Jesus’s sermon on the plain.
Still, in addition to the keynote on faith, a careful reading of these short verses, especially in Greek, reveals a subject even more pronounced—a refrain illustrated at least three times. The centurion’s slave, it is noted, “was to him honorable (entimos),” and the descriptive phrase is placed for emphasis. Then, when the distinguished delegation of Jewish elders arrives on their mission of mercy, they assure Jesus of the legitimacy of the request because “he is worthy (axios),” and then present evidence to support their claim. Finally, before Jesus can complete his trek to the centurion’s home, a new delegation, this one comprised of friends of the apparently widely popular centurion, appears with a fresh message from the unseen character: “Don’t bother, I am not worthy (ikanos) . . .” So, the question becomes central: what exactly is the definition of worthy? Who has worth?
On one level, of course, the centurion is a worthy man. He likely belongs to that pious group of Gentiles who worship Yahweh and joins his Jewish neighbors in the life of the synagogue. And, he clearly cares for his slave as more than a piece of property. But, this noble Gentile is not self-deceived by his own legitimate success and righteousness in the eyes of the world. The looming death of his treasured servant underscores the greater reality. He is an unworthy creature in great need, helpless in the face of death. The centurion knows his place. Certainly aware of his place in the hierarchy of the Roman military, he’s even more conscious of the place he occupies in the infinitely more significant spiritual ordering of the universe. Only God is God, and he is but a broken and desperate creature. That he already sees Jesus in the authoritative God-spot is remarkable—and that prompts appropriate wonder and praise from Jesus. Perhaps a Gentile can more readily see what Jesus’s own kinsmen struggle to recognize.
Of course, we are the Gentile readers who still yearn to see the reality of our standing. It is interesting to consider that in the standard form of the Catholic mass, just before the distribution of the host, the words of the centurion come from the mouths of the people: “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” And in a closely related context we hear Luther teach: “He is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words.” So, the two themes are married together. The one who is worthy is simply the one who knows where he stands in the order of things, recognizes and confesses his own great need, and then looks to God for help, which, of course, is the essence of faith.
How easily is that faith rattled and threatened by the undying desire of every one to matter. We disguise it with concepts like self-esteem and positive self-regard, but, however it is named, it is pride. Not unbelief, but pride is the antithesis of faith. So those who know the score—who know their desperate need—renounce pride, plead for mercy, and find it. Faith knows its place. Greeted with such faith, Jesus is not content only to say a word and walk away having delayed a servant’s death until another day. No, now he presses on in his task and not only enters under our roof, but stays there. Jesus knows his place: it is with us. Faith knows its place but marvels and delights in the incongruity when Jesus inverts the order of things and enters and stays under our roofs.
Goal: To make clear that the final standard of worth in God’s kingdom centers on the confession of God’s sovereignty and the admission of human contingency and dependence.
Malady: Concealed behind euphemisms such as “positive self-regard” or “self-esteem” pride continually asserts itself, damaging and killing faith.
Means: Submission to authority checks the growth of pride, but desperate need kills it.
“Know Your Place”
I. The places we occupy.
A. Standing in the world.
B. The place of pride: the self counts.
II. The place of faith.
A. Need reveals our true standing.
B. Jesus heeds our cry for mercy and takes his place.
1. On the cross.
2. In our lives.