Finding Faith in Capernaum
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. Luke 7:1-10
I’ve always looked at this little story of Jesus’ coming home to Capernaum as being about Jesus, the Roman Centurion and his highly valued slave. It has always had this wonderful quality of the expressed faith of a gentile requesting and receiving the healing grace of Jesus for one of his household. I think I’ve somehow passed over the fact that Jesus never comes face to face with the Centurion though it was always clear that the servant was restored to health remotely.
So maybe it’s a story demonstrating Jesus’ great power to heal, even at a distance without even seeing much less touching the beneficiary of his power. And yes it is about Jesus’ capacity to heal but it has always been about the Roman officer’s degree of faith in the abilities of a Jewish Rabbi. It was so much so the text tells us that “Jesus ‘marveled’ (thaumazo) at the centurion’s faith. More often thaumazo is used to express the awestruckness of others as they witness the mighty deeds of Jesus. Here it is Jesus who marvels and was amazed and astonished.” So the story must be about how even a shegetz, a goyim, the military leader of an occupying force, a gentile can have faith, faith enough to cause even Jesus to marvel.
But this time something different caught my eye. In order for the Centurion and his slave to keep their distance, it meant that some people had to carry the concerns and the needs of the Centurion to Jesus. The story says that first the Centurion sends Elders of the Capernaum Jewish community to Jesus to plead for the healing of his slave. But they did even more – they shared with Jesus what a great fellow this military official was. How did the text have it? “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.” Were it not for that group of Elders who take this concern to Jesus we wouldn’t have a story at all.
Later in the text we read that even more friends of the Centurion met Jesus while on the road to the Centurion’s home. They carry the story of the Centurion’s faith to Jesus– how he understands what it means to be a person in authority.
The Capernaum Elders and the Centurion’s friends have gotten over looked in our retelling of this story of faithfulness. This isn’t a story of the Centurion and Jesus – it is a story of a faithful community, people who are willing to carry the hopes and prayers of those in need to Jesus. It is a community of faithfulness who connects you and me by caring for the needs of one another.
I’ve known times in my life and I’m guessing you have too when I knew that my needs and my story were being carried to Jesus by my friends. And interestingly enough those weren’t times of my great faith or faithfulness, they were times when my faith was shaky at best, when like the Centurion I felt remote from Jesus. It was that beloved community who held me in prayer and carried my needs to Jesus.
So I guess we can conclude that this story in Luke is about great faith but it is mostly a story of the faithfulness of a caring community. Even this man whose faith astonished Jesus relied on members of his community.
There are times when we are like the Centurion, held connected to Jesus by the prayers of our friends. And then there are times when it falls to us to be one of the Elders and friends who carry the responsibility to hold another and their needs in the light of Christ. As Quakers we like to think of ourselves as Friends of Jesus – but times come when we need to be friends of one like the Centurion. But you know as well as I that praying for one who is our enemy, as in fact that Centurion was, can be difficult. And he was not only an enemy he was an alien, different in every aspect of his life than the Jews. And how hard it can be to hold such folks as that on our hearts.
And one last thing. It is found in the last verse of our text. Luke writes: 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. It was those same ones who carried to Jesus the needs of the valued servant and the Centurion who shared witness to answered prayer. Can you see yourself in this story? Can you imagine yourself a friend of the slave owner who carries to Jesus the needs of another? Can you see yourself as the Centurion, or even his slave, with great need and dependent on the prayers of others? Can you imagine yourself a witness to the power of God in your life and in the lives of others? What does it mean to be part of the community of faith?