For sometime now, Ness, Sam and I have taken Saturday as our family Sabbath. Today as part of it, we went for a walk down Tuapiro (a little harbour side settlement 5 minutes from our place) to collect some pine cones and read the Bible together. This was our pulpit. Not a bad spot. Perhaps a little reminiscent of St Francis preaching to the birds!
The reading was this week’s gospel passage, Luke 7:1-10 – the story of the Roman Centurion who had such great faith that Jesus could save his servant, even by just ‘saying the word.’
It’s a fascinating little story (aren’t they all). The Centurion asks the local religious folk to go and ask Jesus on his behalf, because he really cares about this servant and doesn’t want to lose him. The religious folk approach Jesus and tell him, ‘You should really help this guy, he deserves it. He even helped us pay for the new synagogue. He’s one of the good guys’ (my paraphrase).
But as Jesus heads towards his house, the Centurion sends a messenger to intercept them and say, ‘You don’t have to come. I’d be embarrassed if you did. I’m not worthy to have you in my house. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.’
It struck me that both the religious people and the noble outsider have the wrong picture of who God is and how God works. The religious people figure, ‘He’s a good guy, he deserves it.’ Their worldview leaves no room for grace, for God to do more than we could hope or expect or demand. The more I keep company with Jesus, the more I realise that the word ‘deserve’ just doesn’t really belong in his world – whether its, ‘I don’t deserve this’ or ‘I do deserve it’! God just seems to be working on a different system. He seems like to like ‘gifts’ more than ‘wages’.
While the religious folk are certain the Centurion has ‘done enough’ to mean Jesus owes him this healing as a reward, the Centurion is convinced he could never do enough, that he’s an embarrassment to himself and to Jesus, and that he’d rather Jesus stayed at a distance.
He’s wrong too. And this might be news to some of us. Too much of our religious energy is spent making ourselves feel suitably guilty for whatever failure we’ve had. The truth is that God is not embarrassed by us. The truth is that God has chosen to share our lives and our world with us. In Psalm 22 we’re told this about God,
He has never let you down,
never looked the other way
when you were being kicked around.
He has never wandered off to do his own thing;
he has been right there, listening.
So while one group wants to make a case why God has to pay us back because we’ve done something to deserve it, the other is so busy rehearsing everything that disqualifies us, and hoping that God doesn’t go to too much trouble on our behalf.
Yet the truth that both these perspectives miss is that God loves us. He is not in the business of blessing people because he’s obliged too, nor is he interested in bailing people out just because he has nothing better to do. In Jesus, he ‘moves into our neighbourhood’ (John 1:14), making our world his own. As Karl Barth says, God binds himself to us. It is a choice he willingly makes. We are freed from having to make bargains with God, or to try and make a play for his spare time or left-over blessings. We are loved. We matter.
Yet Jesus finds much to celebrate in the Centurions response. He is astounded by his faith and laments that he hasn’t found its like anywhere among the covenanted people of Israel. I like this about Jesus. The Centurion has it wrong in thinking he’s not worth Jesus time or presence. That decision is God’s alone, and he has decided humanity is worth the gift of himself, that’s what Jesus is all about! Yet, instead of finding fault, Jesus finds reason to praise the man, to give him the worth that he was so convinced he didn’t have and didn’t deserve. Jesus gives it to him, giving him dignity in front of the religious crowd: not for his good deeds, but for his great faith. Man I love the way Jesus loves us.
Then of course, he also heals the servant, just to remind everyone who he is. Great guy, this Jesus.