Conversations: Jesus and the Roman Centurion
Text: Luke 7:1-10
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
Title: “Conversations: Jesus and The Roman Centurion
We are continuing in our series of sermons on “Conversations with Jesus.” And we’re asking, “So who did Jesus talk to and what did he say?” How did he approach people, and what kind of questions did he ask? And what do these conversations reveal about the way Jesus might speak to us?
Over the past few weeks we have been mostly paying attention to the way Jesus approached people in his conversations. This week I’d like to look at the flip side of the coin, and think for a minute about how people approach Jesus for a conversation? So turn with me today to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 7:1-10 and let’s look at the interaction Jesus had with some people who come to him with a need for his attention, just like we might do.
Listen as I read the story from Luke 7:1-10.
So Jesus has just finished preaching Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, and he’s now gone back to the little town of Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Peter and Andrew and James and John all lived. When he gets there, he discovers that some visitors are awaiting him.
They are Jewish elders who have been sent to Jesus with a message from a Roman Centurion, whose garrison is located somewhere in the vicinity of Capernaum. Now a Centurion was a Roman army officer who was in command of a company of 100 soldiers. And for the most part, Roman soldiers hated serving in Palestine, because it was far from home, and the Jews were an ornery people who were set in their ways and very scrupulous about their religion, and because they wouldn’t adopt Roman customs and Roman culture.
The Jews were considered troublemakers in the Empire, and it was a bad assignment to be sent to Palestine. So for the most part, the Jews hated the Romans, and the Romans were none too fond of the Jews. But there were some Roman soldiers who actually became intrigued by the monotheism of the Jews, and by their Jewish God, and His laws, and His ways. And some became what the Jews called, “God-fearing Gentiles.”
Well, here we have one. And the description that these Jewish messengers give of this Roman Centurion is a perfect illustration of what a God-fearing Gentile was like. They say, “This man may be a Gentile, and may be a Roman soldier, but he loves our nation, and respects our God, and he has built a synagogue for our town out of his own money and resources.”
“Look at the fruit of his life,” they are saying to Jesus. “You can tell He is a God-fearer. It’s evident in everything he does. And now his servant is sick. And he highly values this servant. And he has heard that you can heal people, so he sent us to come and ask if you could heal his servant. And he deserves to have you do this, because he is such a good man.”
This Roman Centurion sounds like a pretty great guy, doesn’t he? And I guess Jesus thought so too, because he stopped whatever he was going to do, and goes with these Jewish elders to this Roman Centurion’s house.
But then a surprising thing happens. As they are on the way and getting near the house, the Centurion sends a second little delegation of some of his friends, with a second and more personal message. In this message, the Centurion speaks in the first person, saying, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof, that is why I didn’t consider myself worthy to come to you in person with my first message. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. You don’t have to actually enter my Gentile home. Just say the word of command, and it will be done. For I am a man under authority, and I command others who are under my authority. If I tell a soldier to do this, he does it. If I say, do that, he does it.”
And Jesus was amazed, and said, “Wow, I have not found such faith even in Israel.” And when the messengers went back to the Centurion, they discovered that the servant had been healed.
So my friends, this is the story of a conversation that happens by proxy. It’s a conversation between Jesus and a Roman Centurion, but the two of them never actually meet in person to talk. But what strikes me in this story, is the contrast between the two different approaches to initiating the conversation which are exemplified by the two different delegations.
The first delegation are the Jewish elders who approach Jesus on behalf of the Centurion and speak about him. The second delegation are the Centurion’s friends, who approach Jesus and speak more personally for him.
The Jewish elders approach Jesus with an intent to persuade. They want Jesus to do something for them. And it’s not a bad thing they want him to do. It’s not even a selfish thing they want him to do. It’s a good thing that they want him to do: bring healing to the servant of a man who has been good to them. It’s a worthy cause.
But what I want you to notice today, is that they approach Jesus because they want “their will” to be done. They want Jesus to do for them what they want to have happen.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like my prayer life most of the time. I go to Jesus with an agenda, and pray that He will do what I am asking him to do. And just like these Jewish elders, it is not bad things I am asking for, but good things. But like these Jewish elders, my prayers can often be me using my best powers of persuasion to convince Jesus He should do what I think is best.
And you know, I have to admire these Jewish elders. Because they are quite convincing as they tell Jesus about this Centurion’s life and his good works and his friendship to the Jewish people. They make a very good case that this particular Roman soldier deserves to have his prayers answered and his servant healed because he is such a good guy.
But I do notice, too, that these Jewish elders, in pleading with Jesus, never address him as Rabbi, or teacher, or Lord. There is no humility or submissiveness in them. They come with just the power of persuasion. They are making their case for the Centurion.
Now in contrast, let’s listen again to the second delegation, who come with a personal word right from the Roman Centurion himself! Again, they speak for him in the first person, and notice it’s the Roman Centurion who addresses Jesus as “Lord.” That’s pretty surprising for a regional commander of Roman troops to be addressing a local itinerant Jewish Rabbi by the same term he would use to address Caesar, his commander in chief.
It’s also surprising that as a commander of troops, this Centurion actually uses no powers of persuasion and makes no case for himself at all. In fact, his words to Jesus are, “I do not deserve to have you do anything for me. I don’t deserve to have you even come to me or enter my house. And I did not consider myself worthy to come to you, which is why I sent elders of your own Jewish community to speak with you. But I trust in your Lordship. I trust in your command, your authority, and I trust that if you just say the word, my boy will be healed.”
And by the way, in Greek, that is the word the Centurion uses here for his servant. He doesn’t use “doulos,” the normal word for servant or slave, but “paidos”, which means “boy.” He calls his servant “my boy.” And that doesn’t mean this was literally his son. It simply shows the affection this Centurion for his young servant. He was like a son to him. The Centurion’s language reveals his heart.
And so what is Jesus responding to when he says, “I tell you I have not seen such great faith even in Israel?” Well first, it’s the whole package of this Centurion’s life, isn’t it? It’s his humility and submissiveness before God and before Jesus. It’s his respect and his love for the Jewish people.
It’s his heart of kindness even for the servants in his home.
But secondly, what really strikes Jesus, is that this Centurion doesn’t just call him, “Lord,” but actually trusts Jesus to act as a Lord would act. He trusts Jesus to BE Lord, and to speak with authority, and to use his power to enact his will. He believes Jesus has the authority to speak the word of healing and it will be done.
And Jesus says, ‘Wow, I have not found faith like that anywhere in Israel.”
Now for today, I simply invite us to pay attention for our own lives to the contrast between these two ways of approaching Jesus for a conversation. The first approach is to come to our prayer time for a daily conversation with Jesus loaded with our agenda. And the consequence is, that our prayer time will be spent with us talking, trying to find just the right words to persuade Jesus to do what we want him to do.
And again, I am not saying this is the worst thing in the world. This is what my prayer life looks like more often than not. And in this Jesus Story, I want you to notice that Jesus doesn’t scold the Jewish elders for coming to him like this. And look, he doesn’t refuse their request. He actually listens to them and IS persuaded and drops what he was doing and goes with them to the Centurion’s home. OK, so the first approach is not terrible. It’s just normal.
But I am struck this week by the second approach today. And it was this second approach that Jesus was rather struck by Himself that day. It was so unusual that Jesus had to say, “I have not been approached like this anywhere in Israel by anyone.”
The second approach involves coming to Jesus in humility and submission to Jesus as a rightful Lord over us. And then trusting Jesus to actually be Lord over our situations.
So in our prayer time, we would approach Jesus acknowledging who He is, and then our requests would be framed by a deep trust that Jesus is in fact Lord, and we can trust him to act in accordance with his nature and his will and his promises.
This is what the Centurion does that amazes Jesus. He acknowledges Jesus as Lord, and then humbly asks Jesus to be Lord, and to act in accordance with his Lordship: simply speak the word as Lord, the Centurion says, and it will be done.
You see that? The Centurion isn’t trying to convince Jesus to obey his will
and do what he wants Jesus to do. His request is an acknowledgement of who Jesus is, and a humble request for Jesus to be who He is and do what is in His power and nature to do.
There is something about this approach to conversing with Jesus that has challenged me this week. It has confronted me with a truth about who God is and who I am. And that truth has been slowly converting the way I think about my prayer life this week; and the way I enter into my prayer life and approach God in prayer. But it is has also been consoling me. There is a “rightness” to it that somehow puts my soul at rest.
It even struck me the other day as I was praying “the Lord’s Prayer,” that it is actually built on this same model. When Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray, this is exactly how Jesus teaches them to approach God in prayer.
He says, “Begin by acknowledging who God is, your heavenly Father, and
honor His name. Then submit yourselves to God’s Kingdom and to God’s will, asking that His will be done, and not yours.”
And then Jesus teaches them to ask their heavenly Father to act in their lives in ways that are true to His nature, and to His character and to His promises: That He will give us each day that which He deems that we need, bread for our body, food for our souls. That He will forgive us our sins, which is something God tells us He is eager to do for us if we will confess our sins. That He will guide us through times of trial, and deliver us from the evil one.
These are not requests we make trying to persuade God to do what we want God to do. They are requests for God to be God, and to do what God has promised us He will do, and what’s in His very nature and power to do.
And the prayer ends by acknowledging that all power, and all the honor and all the glory belong to God.
It’s like the Centurion acknowledging Jesus’ Lordship, and asking that He be Lord, and act according to his will and his ways, and simply speak the word and it will be done.
My friends, a Roman Centurion of all people, is a model for us of how to approach God when we want to converse with him. And it is a model of humility, and of trust. It’s a model that Jesus could only admire. Perhaps we should, too, and build our lives on a model like that.
Let us pray. (Pray “The Lord’s Prayer” slowly together)