merit

Eighteenth Day of Lent

READING
Luke 7:1-10
7 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was ill and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ 6 So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: ‘Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 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.’

9 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.’ 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

REFLECTION
This is another very familiar miracle of Jesus which seems to hinge on questions of worthiness and authority.

The centurion in the story seems like a truly good individual who, as a Roman and therefore a Gentile, seems to enjoy the love and respect of the Jewish Elders of the town. We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of this.

The Elders come to Jesus with a request that Jesus should heal the beloved servant of the Centurion. The text says they ‘pleaded earnestly’ with Jesus (Luke 7:4). The reason they do this is at least partly related to their sense of the man’s worthiness. In fact they claim that this man ‘deserves to have you do this,’ (Luke 7:4) and then proceed to relate the reasons why this man has proved himself worthy.

I don’t think these Elders are nasty, or have any ulterior motive to trap Jesus into doing or saying something that would get him into trouble. It seems that there is a genuine and unusual relationship here between people who would normally be enemies.

I’m reluctant to be too critical of the Elders who have made a significant cultural leap to speak positively of this Roman and to recognise in him a person of compassion. Too often we refuse to humanise our enemies by not acknowledging the goodness that can be found in them. But I think we need to think about the language of ‘deserving’ here. The Elders imagine he is worthy of blessing because he has done good things. This man merited Jesus attention for his actions.

I’m glad that God doesn’t think that the Gospel should work on a merit system. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to try and live up to it continually? Not only that, but how fearful we would end up living our lives if grace was a meritocracy? And how unfair life would be, for we all know people who live incredibly good lives and yet they suffer. The reverse is also true. And how terrifying it would be to have other people decide for us whether or not we are worthy.

Any community which works under the merit system, where some decide who is worthy and who is not, who is deserving and who is not, is doomed to fall apart.

By contrast the Centurion seems to understand that Jesus operates under a whole different system, which Jesus later describes as ‘faith’ (Luke 7:9). The Centurion perhaps discerns that by his request he has placed Jesus in a difficult position. If he comes to the house of a Gentile Jesus will automatically make himself ritually unclean, and he decides to save Jesus the trouble. So he sends some friends this time to deliver a message to Jesus.

The Centurion, a man of considerable authority, recognises that despite all his good works he is not worthy of Jesus. He recognises that the merit system is inadequate and that Jesus had the kind of authority that didn’t depend on any religious, political or military institution for its power.

This Gentile understood the power of a word to make things happen, even at a distance. He used it everyday in his work. But the word of Jesus had an authority to make things happen not because of his position or status but because of his connection to God. “Say the word and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:7).

The story says that Jesus was ‘amazed’ at the faith of this man (Luke 7:9). The greek word is thaumazo and is more often a word used to describe the reaction of others who see the incredible things Jesus does. What a testament to the faith of the Centurion!

There are many things to consider in this story, but maybe two will suffice for now. I am moved to ask myself how open I am to seeing goodness and even faith in people I might otherwise consider my enemy? It causes me to reflect on the extent to which I function under a merit system where others are concerned, but am happy to be a recipient of grace when it is me who is being judged.

PRAYER
Lord,
I am not worthy
To receive you.
But only say the word
And I shall be healed.

Amen