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Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of October 20, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Luke 7:1-10
Key Verse: Luke 7:7
I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.
To understand and learn the important role of humility in faith and life.
Jesus has finished giving the Sermon on the Plain just outside the city of Capernaum which stood on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The narrative reveals Jesus entered
Capernaum in contrast to traveled to
This wording implies he was near the city while giving the sermon. Though reared in Nazareth, Jesus chose Capernaum as his home and headquarters. It is also the home of Matthew the tax collector. The town had a population of approximately 1,500 people, making it a busy fishing village. The town possessed a synagogue. Jesus taught and performed miracles in Capernaum. One of the most memorable miracle accounts involved the lowering of the paralytic through the roof into the presence of Jesus. Later Jesus became angry with the town for its unbelief in Jesus as Messiah, cursing it along with Bethsaida and Chorazin. (Mat. 11:23) This unbelief on the part of the town makes our narrative especially interesting for it is a story of humble faith expressed by a Roman soldier. (Wikipedia used as resource)
Historical and theological reflection introducing the narrative
In Jesus’ day, Israel was a puppet nation for the mighty Roman Empire. The Israelites were given a degree of autonomy, especially regarding their religious belief, yet were taxed and ultimately governed by Romans. The Jewish people highly resented Rome’s presence. The zealots were determined to drive them out with militant action. A Roman centurion lives in Capernaum, embodying the Roman occupation. However, he is a man who respects Israel’s religion and history. Our narrative even states that he was perceived by the Jewish elders as a man who “loves the nation.” He is good to the city, even helping them build a synagogue. The narrative seems to imply he may have been a God-fearing man who respected the morality of the Jewish law and believed in the God of Israel. We have no way of knowing this facet of his life. However, we do know that in a day when most centurions would have been mistrusted and despised, the people of Capernaum are respectful of him. The centurion was still a man of status and rank, with the power to command the Jewish people to obey him. He must have utilized this power with great restraint. His humility stands in stark contrast to many in Capernaum. No one expected a Roman Centurion to care about the Jewish people under his authority. No one expected him to respect the God of Israel. No one expected him to ask Jesus come to his house. No one expected such humble faith from a gentile soldier. Again, God has used an unexpected person to reveal his surprising love.
Historical, theological, and experiential reflection upon Luke 7:1-10
These two verses introduce the narrative to follow. A servant of a centurion is dying. The more revealing words in this introduction are the descriptive words that the servant was highly valued.
The teacher’s manual for this lesson reminds us that servants could be treated as little more than a tool for their master. It was legal to use the servant in most any manner chosen. We can only imagine the painful, often humiliating conditions in which they performed their duties. Using the servant as a tool was often inhumane, and the servant would have been stripped of their humanity. They would have felt like things.
The adverb is important. This servant isn’t just valued, he is highly
In the original language the phrase meant that the servant was considered precious.
The centurion’s servant isn’t just liked, he is considered precious and treated as such.
I enjoy giving my spouse jewelry as gifts. Her jewelry box contains several pieces she frequently wears. However, there are pieces we would never keep in the box. They are too precious, too costly. We do all we can to protect them and would feel a sense of loss should we lose them. I love the text of I Peter 2:4-6, in which Peter describes the Jewish people as precious to God. He is also directly asserting that the church is now just as precious. Jesus’ suffering reveals just how precious we are to God. The centurion is aware of the great loss he would experience without this precious servant. He will do what it takes to protect and save his life. It may be the skills of the servant which have made him so highly valued. However, the entire tone of the narrative indicated a human, emotional bond of love and care. We might infer that the servant has become a friend. Though the first verses are introduction, they provide us with an emotional context for the story that follows.
Who is precious to you? How do you treat them as precious? Do you feel precious to God? How can you know how precious you are to God?
This one verse is enlightening. First, it informs us that the centurion had heard of Jesus.
This phrase may mean that he has heard that Jesus has returned to the town. However, it also reveals that he had heard of Jesus as a teacher and healer. Why else would he have called for Jesus to come? It has always been important for people to hear of Jesus. One of the great joys of being a Christian is to let the world know that Christ is present. We accomplish this through living in a manner that allows others to see Jesus in us. We also accomplish this witness through word. Everyone experiences crises in life. It is especially important for non-Christians to know that there is one to whom they can call. Almost every miracle in the gospels occurs when a hurting person has heard of Jesus and calls to him. Read the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52. This beautiful narrative reveals what can happen when hurting people hear of Jesus, and call upon Him. This verse also informs us that the centurion chose to call Jesus through the elders of Capernaum. First, his use of the elders reveals the respect they must have had for him. Secondly, it reveals the centurion’s respect for them and Jesus. Remember, he could have simply sent soldiers and ordered Jesus to come. However, his choice of the elders might also reveal the strained relationship between the Jews and Romans. The centurion doesn’t just want Jesus to come. He needs him to come! Thus, if he wanted to ensure Jesus would come and be receptive to healing his servant it might prove wiser to use Jews to speak to a Jewish healer. The act of sending for Jesus also reveals the humility of the centurion. Again, he is a man of status and power. One hundred servants are under his command. Yet, he is personally asking Jesus to come.
How can we share with others the good news of God in Jesus? Is the church effective in such a witness? If not, why not?
The centurion has asked that Jesus come to his home through the elders of Capernaum. Later in his ministry the Jewish hierarchy only comes to Jesus to test and entrap him. However, it is the gracious life of the centurion that earns him the respect of the elders. Jesus already is becoming a figure of controversy, yet the elders would engage in an action they would only perform for a good man. Goodness has the power to knock down walls of division. In this story the one thing the centurion, the elders, and Jesus all possess is a love and respect for that which is good. There is a degree of humility in their willingness to approach an itinerate preacher and healer. The narrative also implies that they too possessed knowledge of Jesus and his ability to perform miracles. It is important to note the adverb earnestly.
The word reveals the depth of respect the elders had for the centurion. Another accurate translation is that the elders were asking Jesus to do everything he could for the servant.
Again, this passionate request will later stand in stark contrast to the words they will speak to Jesus in the future. As noted in the introduction, Jesus will later curse Capernaum for its unbelief. The elders most likely were among those unbelievers.
Can you recall a time when you saw respect for the goodness of another break down walls of divisiveness? Do we witness goodness breaking down walls today in the world? If not, why not?
The Jewish elders offer their rationale as to why Jesus should help the centurion’s servant. They remind Jesus that the soldier “loves their nation.” They add further, “and has built us a synagogue.” The building of the synagogue was offered as proof of the centurion’s goodness. How could a Jewish preacher and miracle worker not respect a Roman who built a synagogue? They are stating that the centurion deserves
the help. It is understandable that the elders would think in terms of merit. Central to Judaism was obedience to the Mosaic Law. A person worked for their goodness and the favor of God through obedience and good works. If obedience to the Law and good works earned the favor of God, how could Jesus deny the centurion? Works righteousness will be challenged by Jesus in his preaching, and Paul will confront it as well in his epistles. Paul’s writing in Eph. 2:8-10 beautifully describes the difference between having God’s favor through grace and earning that favor through works.
Does our culture think in terms of grace or works? Do we believe some people deserve help, and not others?
Jesus does not argue. He simply goes with them. The embracing of grace does not mean good works are not valued. James, the Lord’s brother, argued in his epistle that “faith without works is dead.” Jesus is not going to debate with the elders whether the centurion deserves his help. Grace looks more deeply than works; it looks beyond the concepts of earning and deserving. Grace sees the person, their need, and the best response.
How do you understand James’ assertion that faith without works is dead, especially as it relates to helping another?
Luke 17: 6b, 6c
The centurion now sends friends.
The elders most certainly are walking with Jesus toward the centurion’s home. The text does not state whether the friends are Jewish or Roman. However, looking at the event through the eyes of grace there is no Roman or Jew, just friends. No other author of a gospel sees beyond nationality and ethnicity more than Luke. We should not take lightly what he omits from narratives as much as what he includes. The sending of the second delegation reveals a sense of desperate love and concern on the part of the centurion. There is a sense of urgency in sending the second delegation of friends. Now we hear the true humility of the Roman centurion. He states, “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” Though the Jewish elders speak and act through their works of righteousness, the centurion acts through humble grace, even if he doesn’t understand the theological concept. Most Romans were polytheistic. However, as stated in the introduction, the centurion most likely respects the God of Israel. Whether he worships Israel’s God, the text doesn’t state. He probably has not gone through the process and rituals required to become a God-fearing Gentile.
He simply knows and recognizes his humanity. All true humility begins with the recognition of God, of a being far greater than oneself. We cannot understand how little we are (yet very important) until we recognize how big God is. God must always be greater than us, and his will is to be embraced far above our own. In Psalm 103 David offers a majestic and poetic declaration of who God is and what God does. However, as the psalm continues, David adds, “all men are like the grass which withers and fades.” Why would he make such a statement in the midst of his beautiful declaration of God? David understood that unless we realize our mortality and humanity we cannot fully embrace the wonder of who God is. The centurion understands very well his humanity, and he acknowledges what others have said about Jesus. It is most probable that he did not encourage the elders to offer their rationale as to why Jesus should come to his home. He knows his goodness has nothing to do with it. Jesus will come if he chooses, based on his own reasons. Thankfully, Jesus comes for reason of love, compassion, and to reveal the love of God to the world.
How do we acknowledge the greatness of God? How do we recognize our own humanity?
Luke 17: 7a
Initially the centurion reveals to Jesus that he does not consider himself worthy of having Jesus enter his home. Now, he reveals that he does not consider himself worthy of going to Jesus
. The centurion is a man of status and power. Yet, he recognizes that his status and power pale in light of who Jesus is and what he has done. Once again, he has recognized someone greater than himself and his own unworthiness. These are the foundations of all true humility. We should understand the concept of being unworthy as the Bible defines it. It is true that we must understand our mortality, and our humanity. This means we acknowledge our weakness and frailty. However, the idea of not measuring up
is valid only when we compare ourselves to God. Thus, everyone stands on equal ground. Everyone is unworthy in some manner when compared to God’s perfect love in Jesus Christ. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah and the New Testament apostle Paul both state that our righteousness does not compare to God’s nature. (Isa. 64:6, the entire chapter of Romans 3) Therefore, we should never compare ourselves to others in terms of worthiness. We are equal, all in need of grace, when standing before God.
Luke 17: 7b-8
The centurion offers an expression of faith that reveals the very nature of humble faith. “But say the word and my servant will be healed.” There is no attempt to couch his need in perfect language and expression. It is an honest expression of need and trust. The centurion understands the power of an oral command. When he speaks an order to his men it must be obeyed. Yet, he now stands before Jesus in utter humility and acknowledges Jesus’ words possess more power than his own. His words reveal his acknowledgement that Jesus is someone more powerful than himself. The centurion is basically stating that if he can make things happen with his word, how much more can Jesus’ words accomplish! Again, all humility begins with the acknowledgement of someone greater than ourselves. For us that is God, revealed in Jesus Christ.
Do we recognize the creative power of our words? Are there examples of our word accomplishing an act or change in a person or the world? How then are we to understand the words of Christ? What affect does Jesus’ words have upon us? How have they changed us?
Luke 17: 9-10
Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith. His surprise over the man’s faith is not just because the request is simple and honest, though it is. It is the humility expressed in the man’s faith that is amazing. This is a Gentile, a Roman soldier, standing before Jesus in the company of fellow Jews. Above all others the Jewish people should recognize there is something godly, righteous, and indescribable about Jesus, for God has been revealing himself in their history. When Jesus begins to reveal his divinity, they should be the first to recognize and acknowledge it. However, they will prove reluctant to do so. Their lack of recognition will later lead Jesus to do something rare: curse the city. How did a Gentile come to recognize the spiritual status and power of Jesus before the Jews in Capernaum? This recognition will occur again as Jesus is dying. As the Jews stand around the cross, it is a centurion who exclaims, “This man was truly the Son of God!” As previously stated, prior to recognizing and acknowledging God’s greatness we must understand our mortality and humanity. The centurion has done just that and his expression of faith amazes Jesus. Jesus responded to the centurion’s faith by healing the servant with his word.
What expressions of faith amaze us? Where have we witnessed true humility in one’s faith? How can we become the expression of such a beautiful faith?
Humility is the recognition that God is God, and we are not. Humility helps us understand our place in the larger picture of life. We are but one life in a large interconnected world. However, in Christ we understand how important one life is. We are individually loved and employed for the Kingdom of God. Humility not only recognizes the greatness of God, it recognizes God is good. Thus, to worship God and serve God is to live in goodness. It is goodness that can break down all walls of division, and unravel all stereotypes. Goodness is something we can all recognize, appreciate, and embody through Christ. A humble life is one that believes God is great, and God is good. Thus, a life of humble faith embraces our powerful Lord, and embodies his goodness. A humble faith is unashamed to reach toward God in weakness and need, and to reach toward others in goodness and love.
Almighty God, the creator and sustainer of all life, the lover of every soul, we come to you in our frail humanity. We recognize that through Christ we can accomplish the remarkable, and even our weakness can be employed for your Kingdom. Empower us to walk in faith, trusting in your ultimate goodness and redemptive will for all humankind. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.