Thursday, May 26, 2016

Who Is Worthy?

When more than one gospel account records a particular story, I like to see if there are any differences in the way the story is told. When there are substantial differences, it likely says a lot about the complexity of the text or how the particular gospel writer has adapted it to make it fit into his larger narrative. In this Sunday's lesson from Luke 7, we hear about the healing of a centurion's servant that is very similar to the account in Matthew 8, but there is one critical difference that shifts my focus away from the healing itself and to the conversation that takes place before the servant is healed.

In Matthew's version, the centurion approaches Jesus and informs him of his sick servant. When Jesus offers to come to the centurion's house and heal the servant, the Roman soldier stops him, saying, "Lord, I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. Just say the word and my servant will be healed." Then there's a conversation about authority and faith, all of which make for a spectacular sermon on Jesus' identity and his ability to engender faith in unexpected people. And all of that is essentially what Luke tells us, too, but Luke offers a prologue, and the prologue changes everything.

In Luke's version, the centurion doesn't approach Jesus--ever. Instead, the centurion sends some elders of the Jews to speak to Jesus on his behalf. Take a minute to read what Steve Pankey wrote on Monday about how the faith of the centurion--a hated instrument of the despised, unholy Roman Empire--amazed Jesus in order to get a sense of how remarkable it is that the centurion had made friends with the local Jews. Then, come back to this blog and consider how the word "worthy" is used in Luke's telling of the story.

The Jewish leaders come to Jesus and say, "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." In other words, they are informing Jesus that this centurion (wink, wink) is the sort of fellow who deserves his special attention. After reading Steve's piece, I'm less amazed by the centurion's faith and more amazed that the Jewish leaders would celebrate him in this way. That's the miracle--that the Jews considered this centurion worthy of anything. But, by the time the Roman officer picks up on the word, the sense of worth has been turned upside down.

As Jesus approaches the man's house, the centurion sends friends to intercept Jesus and say on his behalf, "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." Again, the language mirrors that used by Matthew, but the repetition of the word and the reversal of the sense with which it is used is stark. "Despite what the elders should say, I am not worthy." And Jesus marvels at his faith.

What does it mean to be worthy? Both versions allow the preacher to focus on the humility of the centurion, but Luke draws our attention to it. In every worldly sense, the centurion is worthy of Jesus' attention. He is faithful. He is observant. He is a peacemaker. He supports the Jewish people under his charge. He gives to them and their causes. He is identified as the one who built the synagogue. But, instead of showing up himself to be applauded for his good deeds the way a wealthy donor might, he sends messengers. He's not interested in the credit. He's just hoping for some help--a little salvation.

Who is worthy? No one is worthy, not even one. Luke gives us a Jesus whose assessment of a person's worth is different from his peers. The centurion is no exception--only, this time, the issue isn't whether his colleagues can see the worth of society's outcasts but whether they can see that worth isn't measured in accomplishments or favors.

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