Readings in Luke Continued – No.26
Lk 7:10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
I think there are times in the Christian life (if we are honest) when you hold your breath and wonder if you got it right as you wait to see an outcome. This particular account in the Gospels is one such case. There is an interesting divergence here between Luke and Matthew which we haven’t yet picked up. Just before this verse Luke records, “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel,” which referred to the centurion’s comments about authority which, in turn follows the words from the centurion about his unworthiness – except Luke tells us that both sets of words were actually spoken by friends who the centurion had sent to Jesus (v.6).
We have commented before on how Matthew tends to give abbreviated accounts and he doesn’t mention anyone else acting as the spokesman for the centurion. He has just reports, “a centurion came to him, asking for help.” (Mt 8:5) and the conversation appears to have been with the centurion – but that is just shorthand which is not uncommon in the Gospels. We need to understand in these situations that writers in Jesus’ day did not have the same cultural requirement to give specific accurate details as we would expect today (although our modern Press sometimes seem to exhibit the same characteristics as the culture of two thousand years ago!). Often we find generalities in one Gospel account and specifics in another. Thus it is in Matthew that we have the words attributed to the centurion – as in fact they were even in Luke, but where others transmit them – while Luke gives us the detail of how it actually came about.
So much for the differences between Matthew and Luke, but now we have to consider disparities within Luke’s text. We have, first of all, seen that Jewish elders came pleading on behalf of this man for healing but it seems fairly obvious that they didn’t quite convey what the centurion subsequently realised he wanted, because we read earlier in Luke’s account, “The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.” (v.3) but then later seems to want to stop him coming. Now either that was how the centurion originally put it (and subsequently changed his mind), or it was how the elders perceived it, how they assumed it, and assumed that that was what he was asking for. It is only when you start looking in detail at the accounts that you begin to realise the workings of the human mind. Look again at the two possible scenarios that we have suggested.
First scenario: the centurion asked for Jesus to come and then realised as he thought about it, that actually he didn’t need Jesus to come; Jesus had the power and authority to speak just a word and it would be done. This is an interesting situation because I do believe that sometimes faith flows and grows once we have committed ourselves to a course of action, and not before. Jesus is obviously on his way for we read,”He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him….” (v.6). One way or another Jesus received the first message and started coming, but when the centurion looked out of his house and saw the crowd approaching, he then obviously asked some friends to go out and stop Jesus with the words he gives them. Perhaps he was not in full faith for ‘distance healing’ before, but he is now!
Second scenario: the centurion in conversation with his Jewish friends, elders of the town, mentions he wishes Jesus could heal his servant and they naturally assume he means he wants Jesus to come to the house – I mean, how else can he get healed??? The other thing about writing in those days was that it was a far more arduous task than today; they did not have the ease of a computer keyboard! Thus they would have been fairly basic in what they included, so we aren’t told if, in fact, the centurion then followed his friends out of the house and talked to Jesus face to face, but that seems unlikely as we are told in today’s verse, “Then the men who had been sent returned to the house,” but that could mean of course they went back while he stayed talking with Jesus. That is the frustration of the Gospels sometimes; they don’t tell us everything we’d like to know.
So here we have a situation with some very human dynamics in it – and Luke likes such things! That’s why we get the details he gives us. This is no ordinary centurion. This is a Roman with Jewish friends who are willing to help him, his own (presumably) Roman friends who are similarly willing to run errands for him – and he’s a man of faith with great understanding about Jesus. This story, perhaps more than most, reveals Luke the writer interested in people and with their interactions. The proof of the centurion’s assumptions about Jesus is confirmed – the friends go back to the house and the servant has completely recovered – simply from a word at a distance from Jesus.
This is a very human story, as simple as it is, and yet it is also a story about spiritual understanding and divine power. We must not let the two writers’ different approaches in recording the events, detract from the wonder of them. These are two men of authority coming together. One has human authority, but that is obviously limited when it comes to changing human bodies, and the other one is divine authority and, interestingly we see elsewhere in the Gospels, it is limited by human belief. Where a man of strong belief encounters the one with spiritual or divine authority, it makes space for the latter to move and bring healing. Because he never changes, is the limited amount of healing we tend to see today in the church down to our limited faith, I wonder? It’s a challenge.