Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘centurion’

What’s Faith? Trust and Healing…

Luke 7:1-10

Question: What is faith to you? Can faith lead to healing? If so, how?

I start by saying that faith is sadly misused–both as a word and a concept. I’ve had plenty of experiences in which people were told that they did not have enough faith, or, if a person was going through a really difficult time [or dying of some disease, illness, or injury] that she should just have faith in God and all would be fine.

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True story. Years ago, in my clinical pastoral care work as part of a Master’s program, I was at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in NJ. A sixteen-year-old kid was in a terrible car accident. He was brain dead. His mom, however, kept him on the machine that kept him, well, “alive.” Meanwhile, the doctors encouraged her to take him off the machine. He was suffering. But she had faith. She believed. She brought in faith healers and called in the kid’s friends from school. They gathered around him in a circle, with the healer, and were told to pray and to have faith. If they didn’t have enough faith, maybe this kid wouldn’t survive. I was mortified. I looked at those HS kids, standing in that circle, and I thought to myself: what are we doing to them? What’s wrong with us? If this is faith, I want nothing to do with it!

This is a challenging topic, and so, I invite you to interact with me on this blog or to email me. Let’s talk about faith in an authentic way. And now, let’s look at a story in the NT Gospels that may help?

We pick up Luke’s Gospel story right after Jesus of Nazareth’s sermon on the plain, and now it appears that he will be headed to the town of Capernaum. This is one of those rare times [at least in my view] when Luke’s author makes it clear that there is a literary agenda. Luke’s Gospel is kind of a bridge—trying to help Jews and non-Jews [called Gentiles] find some common ground as it pertained to Jesus. So at times, Jesus is portrayed as quite Jewish, but in such a way so as to attract Gentiles to his message. Enter the Centurion, then.

A Centurion was a man who commanded soldiers and servants. He was an authority figure. He was a Gentile. He was most likely someone considered non-religious. But the Centurion, for some reason, loved deeply one of his servants, a servant who happened to be seriously ill. Maybe for the first time, this Centurion felt helpless.

He had no authority; he had no control over the situation.

So this Centurion, who obviously had heard of Jesus, understood only one option: have Jesus, another authority, heal his servant. So yes, it’s a story about authority. One hundred percent. Notice that the Centurion didn’t face Jesus, one authority to another. Notice that he sent Jewish elders to talk to him. Huh? Jewish elders. What in the world?

Well, Luke’s author gives us a clue. Apparently, this particular Centurion “loved” the Jewish people. He even helped them build them a synagogue. Okay, I get it. The Centurion was calling in favors. The Jewish elders obliged. They went to Jesus. We don’t know if these particular Jewish elders were “for” or “against” or “neutral” as it pertained to Jesus’ teachings. Apparently, for Luke, that didn’t matter in the story. The Jewish elders came to Jesus and asked him to go to Capernaum to help the Centurion’s servant.

So Jesus did, of course. But on the way, another twist. Jesus was just about to arrive at the Centurion’s house, and then, the Centurion sends someone else to mediate. This time, it was his friends. The message is:

Jesus, don’t come. I’m not worthy to receive you in my house. But, if you just speak a word, my servant will be healed.

The Centurion isn’t willing to meet Jesus face to face, but he is willing to accept Jesus’ authority to heal. Just as the Centurion was used to ordering people to what to do, perhaps this Jesus could order sickness to leave a person?

Whatever the Centurion’s motivation, Jesus, in Luke’s version of this story, is moved. He marveled at the Centurion.

Then, he turned.

Why is that significant? Because each time that Jesus “turns” it is important. This time is no different. Jesus said he had not seen more faith than that of the Centurion, even in Israel. Does this mean that there was no faith in Israel, in Jesus’ people, the Jews? No, of course not. What it meant was that this Centurion—a non-Jew, non-religious person, surprised everyone [including Jesus], by having faith.

And then, almost like an afterthought in the story, the sick servant got better.

allbetter

At first glance, this story is all about faith. But I don’t think it is—at least not in the way we often talk about faith. The story is about perceived authority and humility. The Centurion realized that he was not in control. He found humility. In this case, that was faith.

So, from my perspective, faith, in this case, is about giving up our desire for control, realizing that that there are some things out of our hands.

What do you think?

Teaser for next week: Luke 7:11-17: A young man had died in a certain town, a mother’s only son. Jesus had compassion for the woman, and…Have you ever felt that you were dead? Why? Can we rise from the dead in this life?

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Healing from Every Angle

Luke 7:1-10

Two weeks ago I was asked to be a part of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Disparities in Health Care Symposium. My role was to find members of particular religious traditions who had medical experience to participate in a panel. The symposium’s purpose was to educate medical students about minority health disparities in cancer treatment and also Spirituality and Health matters for religious minorities. In other words, what is the role of spirituality in health care, especially for minority groups? How can doctors, nurses, and other health practitioners partner with faith-based organizations to improve health outcomes for people? I worked on the questions for the panelists with members of Jefferson Health faculty. I spoke with the panelists. I sat with the nurses, students, and doctors. I heard the presentation of the main speaker, Mr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. I learned about the various cancer statistics and how certain communities have less access to quality care.

But the morning didn’t get really interesting until the panelists started to talk about faith and healing. One of the panelists, Dr. Rehana Jan, a Muslim woman, shared how in her faith community’s tradition, a chaplain or a priest/pastor is not part of the equation. When someone is sick or in the hospital, the Muslim community goes to that person. She shared a story about being in the hospital on her shift and hearing a question from one of her doctor colleagues. “There must be someone really, really important in that particular room. There are crowds of people spilling out of the room over there.” Dr. Jan laughed. “Well, that person is not a celebrity. He is a Muslim, though. And his community is there to be with him, to pray with him. That is what we do.”

Another panelist, Dr. Gity Etemad, who is of the Baha’i faith, shared that in her tradition, when a person is sick or hospitalized, the Bahai’s get to work praying. One calls another. Then another calls someone else. And so on. It is not all that formal, but it just happens. She shared a story of a Baha’i man who knew that he was at the end of his earthly life. He called his friends in the faith community and asked them to stay with him during his last days. Each day, and most of the hours of each day, a different person went to sit with him. And they prayed. That is what he wanted. He passed away with members of his faith community at his side.

Those present at the symposium were energized. The medical students asked surprising questions related to faith, prayer, healing, and partnerships between doctors, nurses, and people of faith. By the end of the morning, it was obvious to me that people were truly wondering: what role does faith play in medical care and healing?

Today’s story in Luke’s gospel—a tale about a Roman soldier, a sick servant, and Jesus’ absentee healing power—is a treasure-filled narrative full of surprises. It comes right after Jesus gives his famous sermon on the mount. This story has characters we need to examine more closely.

First, the Centurion. What’s a centurion? Well, a centurion was a professional soldier in the Roman Empire’s army. A centurion could command up to 100 soldiers. In the first century, centurions were part of the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee. They were the oppressors. And yet, this centurion shares the spotlight with Jesus of Nazareth.

Look, it gets even stranger…

This centurion, who is used to ordering people around, tells some Judean elders to find Jesus. Apparently, one of the centurion’s slaves is very sick and needs healing. Shockingly, the elders go to Jesus without hesitation and actually beg Jesus to help the centurion’s slave.

He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.

This centurion seems to be somewhat smart. First of all, he knows that he himself cannot approach Jesus to ask for the healing. That would be too dangerous. A Roman soldier begging a Jewish rabbi to heal a servant? But the centurion also was familiar with Jewish faith practices in the home. He understood that inviting Jesus, a Jew, into his Gentile home would be considered unclean.

But it keeps getting stranger. The centurion stops Jesus before he gets to the house. He says:

Do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.

Humility from a centurion?

But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.

But only speak the word.

The centurion then goes on to compare himself to Jesus. He as a Roman officer has authority over other soldiers. They jump when he says jump, they come and go as he tells them to. Jesus, to the centurion, had the same authority, though not as it pertained to orders.

The centurion recognized Jesus’ authority to heal.

And the surprising finish to the story is Jesus’ reaction to this Roman.

Jesus was amazed.

He turned to the crowd following him and said:

Not even in Israel have I found such faith.

And oh, by the way, just in case we have forgotten, the slave did heal.

There is so much to explore in this story. First, the Gospel of Luke’s audience. We must keep in mind that Luke is aimed at Gentiles, or in other words, those who were not Jewish. The authors of Luke seek to show that the message Jesus taught was a message also meant for Gentiles. This Gospel wishes to illustrate, via the stories, that the Gentiles [and Jews] who followed Jesus were actually now Roman citizens trying to make their way in the world without more violence. Luke is a collection of Greco-Roman stories for Greco-Roman people. They received Jesus’ message in a way that would have made sense to them. They would have understood the connection between Jesus having authority from God and the centurion having authority from Rome.

Luke is exposing this society to us. A centurion, clearly someone of high social status, an oppressor in an oppressive empire, is an unexpected character. After all, this guy has slaves. Yes, that’s right–slaves. We don’t like to say that word, but the silent [very important] character in the story is indeed a slave. Though we are reading about the Greco-Roman world of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel, Palestine, and Greece—it is impossible to ignore our own context. In the United States, slavery is part of our horrific past. Today, though we don’t use the word slave to describe individuals, this horrible kind of oppression still exists.

There are still many people in this country who are treated as inferior to others—they are manipulated, underpaid or never paid for hard work; they are bought and sold; they are often abused. Sadly, in our society, some still believe that certain human beings are superior to others. Some believe that God favors people over others. Some are oppressors and some are slaves.

This is a sickness of society.

Luke’s story takes us to that difficult place and pushes us. The Jesus we follow is the one who transcended such manipulative and oppressive social norms. He was the one who ate with sinners and tax collectors; he hung out with the outcasts; he touched unclean people who were sick or even dead; he said that the last would be first. Jesus served the God who loosens the chains of those in bondage and rains down justice on those who are downtrodden. The God of great mercy and compassion, working through this Jesus of Nazareth, set free the minds and hearts of those who were enslaved by many things: disease, addiction, depression, mental illness, religious oppression, and brokenness. In fact, this same Gospel of Luke has Jesus say that he comes “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed.”[1]

So why does this centurion, someone who is an oppressor, amaze Jesus with his faith?

Maybe because the centurion also acted beyond social norms. He considered himself unworthy before Jesus, even when others called him worthy. In short, Luke challenges us all to not judge a book by its cover.

Maybe this miracle healing is about more than just a sick person getting better. Maybe this is about healing sickness in society, restoring healthy relationships, and embracing the full humanity of every person.

If you ask me, Jesus’ reaction to the centurion is much like his reaction to a sick, bleeding woman in another story—the one who reaches out to touch his cloak and is healed. You see, if we consider the Greek language in Luke, the text literally says that Jesus marveled at the centurion. Actually, this type of emotional response is very similar to the emotions expressed by other people when Jesus heals someone. This time, though, the tables are turned. Jesus himself marvels at the work of God in another. And that other happens to be a Roman soldier.

This story speaks to me and says:

Healing comes from all angles.

You see, we all have our ideas about how we heal. It’s not an easy thing to define, is it? Some people die of an illness at a young age. My sister-in-law died of cancer in her early thirties. Was there no centurion of great faith to heal her? Did Jesus choose not to pass by her house? There are others who suffer from addictions and need just as much healing. Their struggle is day to day. It never ends. Who believes in their ability to heal? Is it a lack of faith that keeps them from overcoming it?

I certainly don’t have the answers. But I do think that healing is bigger than how we define it. I think that there are people who are healed every day—mentally, physically, spiritually—because someone believed that they could heal and surrounded them with love and care. Because of those kind and patient people, they started to believe that they could heal, too. I’ve stood at deathbeds and watched people pass from this earth. No, their illness didn’t go away. But some of them were healed from other sicknesses. Sometimes they reunited with estranged family members or long-lost friends. Sometimes grownup children forgave past hurts and restored their relationship. Their bodies were overcome by disease, but they were still healed.

In every case, healing comes from all angles. God shows up when and where we don’t expect God at all. And then we are amazed. God shows up in the people who stand by us when we’re sick and in need of healing. God shows up on the day we choose to be sober and all the days we count after that. God shows up in the forgiveness in our families; God heals us from a tattered past and reminds us that every day when we open our eyes we have yet another chance to heal ourselves and to heal others.

God points us to this centurion and says:

You know all those times when you want to give up because you start to believe that lie that you are not capable of change, of love, of compassion, of breaking the cycle, of rising above social status?

Well, it is possible for you, too.

You can heal.

You can help others to heal.

You can marvel at a merciful God who doesn’t ever play favorites.

Healing from all angles—no matter where you are on your journey.

Amen.


[1] (Luke 4:18;cp. Isaiah 61:1).

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