In my reading of Jesus’ many encounters in the Gospels I am continually moved by what these stories tell us about how God meets people. Throughout Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus ministering mostly in public non-religious places. He teaches beside the seashore, in cities, in homes, along the road. In Luke 6 he chooses his twelve disciples while in prayer on a mountain, then descends to a level place where he welcomes crowds who come to be healed of their diseases and freed from unclean spirits (6:17). Reading the Gospels regularly with inmates sheds fresh light on old stories due to the threatening conditions in which inmates find themselves.
We read the story of the Roman centurion in Capernaum whose beloved slave is about to die. We read about how he sends some Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and save his slave’s life. We notice together that the Jewish elders come to Jesus, insisting on the centurion’s worthiness. “He is worthy for you to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5). Jesus goes to his house, and I ask the men if they think he is going because Jesus thinks he is worthy?
We know from the beginning that Jesus is willing to come to his house, though the text is not clear regarding whether Jesus is going because the Jewish leaders have convinced him that the centurion is worthy. I ask the inmates what they think.
I know from years of experience that people in crisis often try to make themselves as worthy as possible when they really need God’s help. I find myself doing this too. There is a deep seated assumption in most people’s thinking that God is in reality like a probation officer or judge, looking to see if people are complying with requirements, evaluating evidence proving innocence or signs of measuring up to demands. Even if people claim to believe that God saves by grace, when we really need a miracle we will make sacrifices perceived as pleasing to God.
Inmates might make a special effort to clean up their language, confess all their sins, not miss a service, read the Bible more than usual, pray a lot, offer answers they perceive to be right in Bible studies, forgive enemies, fast, etc. The Jewish elders reflect this theology that everyone is familiar with. They emphasize the centurion’s merits to Jesus. We don’t yet know whether Jesus goes with them because he thinks the centurion deserves it. All we know is that Jesus is on his way to this pagan, Roman centurion occupier’s house to heal (rather than free) one of his slaves. We read on looking for clues about what’s really happening here.
An older, grey bearded man missing half his teeth is ecstatic. He has been reading ahead and wants us all to know the good news he’s found.
He doesn’t think that the Roman centurion himself told the Jewish elders to tell Jesus about how worthy he was of his help for building their synagogue. He argues that the Jewish elders advocated for the centurion based on their belief that people have to be worthy to have their prayers answered. He thinks the Jewish elders want the centurion’s ongoing help for their projects, and do their best to convince Jesus to help them ‘pay him back’ by healing his slave. Everyone is curious now to read the next verses to see what in fact is going on, and if there’s good news for them or confirmation of their negative suspicions.
The story clearly states that as Jesus draws closer to the centurion’s house the centurion sends his friends (people other than the Jewish elders) to tell Jesus that he is not worthy. Friends go now rather than the elders– the beneficiaries of the centurion’s charity. They speak as stand-ins for their friend: “Lord, do not trouble yourself further, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you” (v. 6-7a).
“Does the centurion’s confession of his unworthiness keep Jesus from healing his slave?” I ask the men. “Does Jesus say to the centurion’s friends, ‘hey, wait a minute, I thought this guy was worthy, a righteous man deserving of a miracle. Since he’s not, tell him to forget it!?” The men laugh as it seems this couldn’t be the case. We still need to read the next verses though to get to the final outcome of the story.
We read how the centurion’s friends pass on his detailed request that models his faith that Jesus’ grace and love trump his unworthiness.
“But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go?’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come?’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this?’ and he does it.”
I find myself amazed that the centurion doesn’t present his best self to Jesus through his friends. He gives Jesus examples from his daily life as a Roman military commander who gives orders to soldiers who occupy Jesus’ homeland. He doesn’t give examples of his authority in building Capernaum’s synagogue, capitalizing on the Jewish elders earlier appeal. Nor does he hide or in any way minimize having a slave. Rather he even uses his ordering of his slave as an example of the authority he has over people in a pagan hierarchical domination system. You could almost say that the centurion uses real examples from his “life of crime” to show that he understands Jesus’ authority as king in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus marvels at this man and publically states to the crowd and his disciples: “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith” (Luke 7:9).
In my past reading of this story I have always thought of the centurion’s exemplary faith as simply his belief that Jesus could heal from a distance with word, giving an order to eradicate sickness. While Jesus certainly is able to do this and does in other Gospel stories, today I’m seeing something new.
When we read the final outcome something clicked there in our circle in Skagit County Jail’s multipurpose room. The older man with white hair reads the final verse.
“And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”
Together with the inmates we find ourselves marveling at the extreme humility of both the centurion and Jesus. The centurion doesn’t clean up his image to get Jesus’ help but presents himself the way he is, trusting in Jesus’ mercy. Jesus does not publically speak a word of healing from a distance towards the slave, impressing the crowd, Jewish elders or the centurion’s friends. Jesus doesn’t model the authority the centurion affirms. The centurion’s friends find the slave well, without Jesus having taken any credit for the miracle. Rather Jesus given the enemy centurion as modeling something he calls faith, which we try to get our minds around in the final minutes of our jail Bible study before the guards come.
“How does this story speak to you guys today?” I ask the men. “What do you hear God saying to you as we’ve been reading and discussing?”
“The centurion knows he’s unworthy but asks Jesus for a miracle anyway,” someone says. “We can do that now here in jail, and this gives me hope that Jesus will answer even when I don’t have my life together and don’t deserve help.”
“Jesus is willing to go where the centurion lives, whether he is worthy or unworthy,” someone else says.
We talk about faith as an assurance that we can appeal to Jesus for concrete and immediate help as we are right now in our undeserving state, without having to clean up our act. We can count on him coming to us wherever we are. We spend the last few minutes in prayer, thanking Jesus that he’s already on his way towards us, whether others are praying for us or we are asking for help ourselves. I invite the men to dare to make their requests known to Jesus, regardless of their current situation. Together we speak out our prayers with newfound hope.