The last section we reviewed included some of the most well-known words of Jesus, and today we look at what happened immediately after the Sermon on the Plain. In the seventh chapter of Luke, we read several short stories about Jesus providing healing and encouraging words, and I believe the two key takeaways that I’ve previously missed are humility and action.
The chapter opens with the story of a centurion who has a sick servant. The heading in my Bible is “The Faith of the Centurion,” and the only words Jesus speaks in the passage are “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel” (9) so naturally I always focused on the example of the centurion’s faith. However, something I missed that I believe is key to this story and really must go hand-in-hand with faith is the centurion’s humility.
A centurion in the time of Jesus would be someone with power, a representative of Rome who has government authority over the Jews and also fits into part of a military-like chain of command. The two key points there would be that the man is not Jewish but actually part of Roman culture, which showed very little respect for Jewish traditions and beliefs, and also that he is used to making commands and having them followed. We see this in the second half of the message he sends to Jesus: “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (8).
Based on this man’s culture and status, he would have no reason to show respect for Jesus. He also would have no reason to worry himself over the sickness and struggles of his servant. But he does.
The centurion takes the time and effort to send messengers to Jesus – Jewish messengers who highlight the centurion’s good treatment of their people – and then follows them up with more messengers when Jesus approaches. The message is this: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed” (6-7).
First, the centurion’s relationship with the Jewish messengers shows that he was an honorable man who treated the Jewish community well despite no obligation to do so. They were a minority group that he likely had been raised to look down upon, but he treated them with respect when there was no benefit to him to do so (this experience with Jesus came later, once that relationship and treatment was well established).
Second, he sees this Jewish carpenter, who by every worldly measure ranks far below him in society, as someone he does not even deserve to host under his roof. Not only does he trust Jesus’ message and ability to heal – the faith highlighted in the story – but he doesn’t view Jesus as his own pawn to command. He rightly takes a stance of humility and compares Jesus’ own authority (of which he had none in the worldly order) to his own (of which he had much), concluding that it is himself who does not deserve to host Jesus.
Yes, the centurion showed great faith. Yes, Jesus was right to publicly point it out. But that faith was not functionally possible without a level of humility that not only showed deferential respect to Jesus but had been well-established through a life of honorable treatment of a minority culture. So far in these stories, we’ve seen the religious leaders to be arrogant and hypocritical, while there have been several examples of outsiders either in terms of cultural respect or in terms of actual cultural identity who have responded to Jesus in the way that reflects the humility and faith we’re called to emulate.
Later in the chapter, some of John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus to ask if he is the one they’ve been waiting for. While it would be very easy for Jesus to simply say, “Yes,” he does not do that. For Jesus, words take a backseat to actions. Here, instead, is what he says: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (22).
While at this point Jesus has already shared incredibly powerful sermons with words of hope, it’s not his words that he appeals to. “Go back and report to John what you’ve seen and heard.” So many of these stories of healing end with a sentence about how word spread throughout the villages about the work Jesus was doing. He’s telling John’s followers to judge based on Jesus’ actions and the things others have to say about him.
Too often, we resort to words. Especially in modern white Evangelical Christian culture in America – the culture in which I was raised – the primary emphasis above everything is “sharing the Gospel,” which means to tell people about Jesus and get them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” so they can be “saved” and go to heaven. While adherents to this faith structure are often generous people who play active roles in doing good at various levels of society, the primary focus is on words, and those words are talking about someone who walked the earth 2,000 years ago.
In Jesus’ own time, he did not appeal to his own words, and he did not (directly) appeal to the words of prophets from thousands of years earlier. He instead told people to use their eyes and ears and report what they see happening and what others are telling them contemporaneously. What is the impact in the community? That is what you are to report to John.
None of us is perfect, and we’re all bound to have negative experiences with others at some point. But if we profess to follow Jesus, we must follow his example. And if we are going to invoke his name in connection to our lives, the result must be a diverse community around us that can report what they’ve seen and heard. I fear far too often in our current culture that if we were to do such an exercise, the report would not align with the one of Jesus but would instead include things like “refugees are rejected, Muslims are cursed, LGBTQ people are shunned, the poor are belittled, women are repressed, guns and political power are worshiped.”
The final section I want to examine in this chapter is the story of Jesus’ feet being anointed by what the heading in my Bible calls “a sinful woman.” This is a well-known story covering verses 36-50, but I think it contrasts quite clearly to the story of the centurion earlier in the chapter. Jesus is dining with Simon the Pharisee, who, in the context of the Jewish culture, would have held a place of authority as a Pharisee. But unlike the humility reflected in the life of the centurion, Simon has no such meekness.
When a “woman who had lived a sinful life” (37) weeps at Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair, kissing them, and anointing them with perfume, Simon says to himself “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner” (39). Such words drip with disdain and hatred.
Jesus responds – even though Simon did not say those words aloud – with a short parable about two men having their debts forgiven, with Simon correctly answering Jesus’ question that the man who had the larger debt forgiven would love the one who canceled his debt more than the other.
It is at that point that Jesus turns it on Simon and basically drops the hammer:
Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not pour oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. (44-47)
While this story again sees Jesus highlighting faith – he ends the passage by telling the woman “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (50) – the part I’ve missed before is the humility that must go hand-in-hand with that faith. The centurion showed humility in a situation where he easily could have commanded authority. Simon shows no such humility; from a worldly perspective, he had no reason to. The woman show nothing but humility in a situation that, from a worldly perspective, she either should show extreme humility or (more likely) should not have even been present.
As a Pharisee, Simon was a strict adherent to the Jewish laws and beliefs. He was a religious elite, the modern equivalent of a Christian church leader who has been a pastor for many years and can always be looked to for advice from the scripture. But he had no humility. The centurion had none of Simon’s religious training, but he had humility. The woman had “lived a sinful life,” but she had humility.
By the end of the chapter, two of the three receive tremendous praise from Jesus. We so often strive to identify with those two, but if we honestly take a step outside ourselves and evaluate our own words and actions, how much more should we identify with Simon? And if that’s the case, our response to such a realization should be obvious: humility and action.