This week’s gospel lesson has brought about a change in my heart. Usually, I would put Luke at the bottom of my preference list of gospel accounts, but this time he tells a story in a way that totally draws me in.
As I read the account of the centurion’s servant’s healing-from-a-distance, I am immediately drawn to the word “worthy.” It shows up twice in the reading—once on the lips of the Jewish elders who are persuading Jesus to help and once on the lips of the centurion himself. And I think the whole point of Luke’s telling of the story is the contrast between them.
Matthew shares this story here, and, in his account, there is no group of Jewish elders who approach Jesus. They aren’t really necessary to the account, and the story flows quite nicely without them. But Luke sticks them in as a foil—a way of contrasting the Jewish leaders’ sense of worth with that of the Roman centurion. The elders say to Jesus, “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.” That’s their list of reasons that this officer in the Roman army deserves Jesus’ mercy. Then the centurion sends word to Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” as if to say, “No matter what the elders say to you, I don’t deserve this.” Those are two very different takes on what one deserves.
But the centurion still asks for the healing, yet he does so in the absolute most humble way imaginable: “Just speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” That catches Jesus’ attention. Jesus stops everyone and says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Israel? Who is he talking about? To whom is he preaching? It’s the elders themselves who hear that lesson.
Luke shapes this story around questions of value. Who deserves salvation? Perhaps we are tempted to applaud the elders for their willingness to look favorably upon the Roman centurion—a Gentile and natural enemy of their people. Or maybe we’re supposed to applaud the centurion for his surprising love and support of the Jewish people. But Luke wants us to be clear that the only thing worth applauding is the humble faith of the centurion who relies not on his accomplishments but on Jesus’ mercy for help.