The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 7th Chapter
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “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.”
And 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; therefore 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.” When 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.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Because I said so! If you were a kid, you’ve probably heard those words. Because I said so! If you’re a parent, you’ve very likely SAID those words, even if you promised yourself as a kid you never, never, NEVER would! Because I said so! Whether you’ve heard those words or said those words or both, “Because I said so” is at the core of this Gospel lesson.
Look carefully at what happens in this lesson. There’s going to be a quiz. Seriously, there’s a quiz coming. OK, First, a centurion (that’s like an army major in charge of a Company) sends a group of Jewish elders to talk with Jesus about healing his slave.
The Jewish elders say to Jesus… This is the first part of the REALLY important part… “This centurion is WORTHY of having Jesus do this because he’s nice and built us a synagogue.” The KEY here is the Jewish Elders… the religious folks, the folks who have been members of the synagogue for 30, 50, 70 years, the folks who should, by all rights, know how God works… those sort of people… clearly thought that the centurion being WORTHY was what was important. Being WORTHY was what mattered. Being WORTHY was necessary to crank Jesus up to do a miracle.
Second thing to look at carefully… The centurion hears that Jesus is on his way and sends out another message to Jesus, but this time by way of some of his friends, so the message got through unembellished. The centurion says, “I am NOT worthy.” NOT, as in the negative of being worthy, as in having NO worth, as in deserving of absolutely NOTHING.
So, on one hand you have the religious, pious, leaders who you would think would know God well and how God works the best over here saying, “Jesus, do this because he is WORTHY.” THEN on the other hand you’ve got a non-religious, pagan, leader of a big, intimidating chunk of the oppressive occupying army who we would think does NOT know God or how God works best saying, “I am NOT worthy,” as in having NO worth as in deserving absolutely NOTHING.
So, now is the time for the quiz. I told you a quiz was coming so don’t look surprised. On one hand you have religious leaders who want Jesus to act because the centurion DESERVES it and on the other hand you have the centurion who wants Jesus to act but says he does NOT deserve it. Which one does Jesus declare as more faithful? It’s not a trick question. When Jesus turns to the crowd he says of the centurion, “Not even in Israel” not even among all of God’s chosen people… the people who have been hearing about God their entire lives, who SHOULD, better than anyone else on the planet, KNOW how God works “Not EVEN in Israel have I found such faith.”
How often are we those religious elders? How often are we the people who have been members of the church for twenty, thirty, fifty, seventy years… How often are we the people who SHOULD, better than anyone else on the planet, KNOW how God works… How often have we heard from St. Paul that we are saved by GRACE through faith, apart from WORKS? APART from what we DESERVE? How often have we heard those words echoed by Thomas Cranmer, the original theological thinker of the Episcopal church in the 39 Articles? How often have we heard from Martin Luther, the original theological thinker of the Lutheran church, that “I CAN NOT, by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him?”
But how often, in spite of all of that, do we treat God like nothing more than a vending machine, plugging in our being nice to people, our moral high ground, our avoiding of mistakes and our years of membership, like coins until we have enough credit built up and can hit the button and MAKE God send what we DESERVE out the bottom of the machine?
The religious elders were WRONG. That centurion, in spite of doing some very nice things, did not DESERVE anything. The centurion was RIGHT. He knew, in spite of doing some very nice things, he did not DESERVE anything. The religious elders had reduced God to an unfeeling vending machine to be manipulated into action by people doing good things or avoiding bad things. But while the religious elders blew it, the Holy Spirit blew as well, and that centurion understood. God was no vending machine to be fed until what we “deserve” falls out the bottom. God was and is, filled with Grace... our Heavenly parent, who loves us so much that God came to be with us in person so that we could hear first hand from Jesus… so that we could all hear the words of Jesus spoken right to each and every one of our faces in our Baptisms, at the Table and in the Word read and preached each week, that “You… YOU… YES YOU are loved beyond all measure. NOT ever because you deserve it, but you are loved and cherished and worthy and wonderful simply and only God says, “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” Amen.