The Lord's Compassion
Epiphany V (O. T. 5); February 5, 2017
The most interesting thing about religion is not propositions or principles, but people. So let's look at some of the people in these stories.
The Centurion is a very interesting character. You who appreciate good story-telling probably noticed that the Centurion isn't actually in the story at all! And yet he is central to it and is very appealing. From what people say there is a lot we know about him and can learn from him.
First, of course: he is a soldier. A "centurion" was in command of a "century," which would literally be 100 soldiers; by the time of Jesus, however, a "century" could have as few as eighty to as many as 1,000 men in it. Centurions were responsible for training and discipline, as well as giving orders in both peacetime and war. So they were well-paid and, generally, had a respected social position. And so you understand the Centurion's comment about authority: he receives orders from a senior officer, in a line all the way up to the Emperor, but he also gives orders to those junior to him. When he receives an order, he obeys it; when he gives an order, he expects it to be obeyed.
He has been posted, with his century, to Capernaum, a moderate-sized town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is not a particularly prestigious post, but an important one, because the town is on a major trade route and is also a border town between Galilee and Gaulanitis. That means that he and his men would be looking after the safety of trade caravans and protecting the border. The elders of Capernaum express their appreciation for his having paid for the construction of their synagogue – the place where they met for religious assemblies – and tell Jesus that the Centurion loves their people.
So, we know that he has money, and that he invests his money in the religious life of the community he protects. He is not a Jew nor is he studying to become a Jew, but he loves the Jewish people and respects their religion. That is unusual for a Roman; Romans generally have pretty sarcastic and nasty things to say about Jews. But in the first century there were quite a few citizens of the Empire who admired the religion and ethic of Judaism; he is apparently one of them. His construction of the synagogue may have been partly in service of good public relations, but he obviously also respects Jewish religion.
A moment for a comment: we don't do ourselves any favors as Christians by running down other people's religions. It is far better for us to follow the Centurion's lead and respect others; we don't have to believe what others believe, but we certainly ought to learn about other people's religions before developing an attitude about them. It is fashionable right now to take a negative attitude towards Muslims; I wonder how many Americans understand Islam, its history, fundamental beliefs, and the many types of people who practice it, before they say ridiculous things about it. That doesn't mean we abandon our own faith: Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, and my appreciation for Hindu mythology, for example, does not draw me away from Jesus. But I do Jesus no favors by saying nasty things about other religions.
Back to the Centurion: two more things to say about him. He is a kind man. It doesn't come across in English as well as it does in Greek, but when they report his words about his servant (v. 7), they repeat him using a term of affection. The sick slave is not only a valuable commodity that he wants restored, but a person for whom he cares. And he is thoughtful toward others. One feature of strict Jewish practice of the time was that if a Jew entered the house of a non-Jew, the Jew was considered defiled. Although Jesus is perfectly willing to take that risk in order to heal the slave, the Centurion protects Jesus from it by saying he is not worthy to have Jesus under his roof. He's quite a guy.
But what Jesus admires is the man's faith. The Centurion assumes that Jesus has authority over sickness and can make the slave's disease go away. Jesus has done enough healings in Capernaum that he has a lot of evidence for that assumption, but he sees it as a matter of Jesus' authority. It's not magic: Jesus doesn't have to touch the man, or wave a wand over him, or anoint him. "Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed." I know you can do it, and I know you are willing to do it.
Sisters and brothers, there we have a key component to faith in Jesus: to know in our hearts the authority and power of Jesus. We follow him knowing what he can do and what he does do. In our age it is fashionable to ignore and even to scorn authority. The Centurion is a person with authority and a person under authority, and so he understands and appreciates Jesus' authority.
Now a moment on the widow of Nain. We know very little about her, except that she was a widow and had only one son. There are, in this time, very few ways for a woman to have a steady, reliable living. She is dependent on a man: her father, her husband, her son. This widow has no one left to look after her. Of course, you and I immediately think of the grief that any mother has upon the death of her child. Think of Mary at the Crucifixion, or maybe someone you know. My grandmother died not long after my father did; although she had quite a large and loving family, still the death of her only son gave her a serious blow. Compound that grief with this widow's awareness that she is now at the mercy of others; she is a charity case, with no reliable means of support.
Which brings us, finally, to Jesus. His reaction to the Centurion is amazement at the man's faith. His reaction to the widow? Compassion for her. This is a feeling that starts deep in his guts; he feels her pain and sadness deep within himself, and it moves him to restore her son to her. He doesn't ask what the young man might want; his compassion moves Jesus to raise her son back to life. You probably made this connection for yourself: you see that Jesus not only has authority over sickness, but he also has authority over death. He raises the dead to life.
Many years ago I carried on a correspondence with a man who was interested in Christianity but found it hard to believe. One question he asked me was, "If Jesus could heal disease, why didn't he just eliminate all disease?" I don't remember what I told him, but I think the question is relevant to these two stories. Jesus prevented the slave from dying and he restored to life a young man who had died. Why not simply eliminate death? It strikes me that Jesus does these things not as a cause or a matter of principle but because of his compassion for particular people. He had compassion for the Centurion, and so healed his slave. He had compassion for the widow, and so raised her son from the dead. No word how the son felt about it, whether he was grateful or profoundly annoyed. But the widow must have been glad.
It is good for Christians to be involved in causes. It is very good for Christians to be politically active, to encourage government to do particular things. Let's remember that we do so because of the Lord's compassion. Our concern is not principles or propositions but people. Folks care about refugees not as a matter of principle but because they are people for whom the Lord has compassion. Those who march for life do so because of their convictions about people for whom the Lord has compassion. Black lives matter because they are the lives of particular people for whom the Lord has compassion. You fill in the next one for yourself: you do it because of the Lord's compassion. And please note I have been careful to name issues I don't necessarily agree with myself, but wish to acknowledge the root motivation of the Lord's compassion.
The interesting thing about religion is not propositions or principles, but people: the Centurion, the widow, Jesus… and you.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska The verb "he had compassion" (v. 13) is not common and derives from the noun meaning "guts."