February 5, 2023 | The Centurion and the Widow • Luke 7:1-17

Scripture • Luke 7:1–17 (NIV)

7:1 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 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. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 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.”

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.

11 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

 

Often Luke puts two stories next to each other to make a point. 

The centurion in Capernaum and the widow in Nain are so different from each other. 

It is really hard to imagine any places or situations in their world where they would have crossed paths.

It is hard to imagine they could ever wind up part of the same story.

 

The centurion was near the top of the ancient world’s pecking order. He was a leader in the Roman army. He had all kinds of power and authority. He had influence. People would listen to him. They would do what he said. He had enough money to be incredibly generous. Jewish religious leaders respected him. Elders advocated for him. 

Things weren’t looking good for the centurion’s servant. The centurion was concerned. 

The elders made a case for the centurion. Jesus should help. They thought the centurion deserved it. He loved the Jewish people. He respected their culture. He valued their religious traditions. He even built a synagogue. 

Then friends were willing to deliver messages for him.

This centurion throws a wrench into our expectations of a military leader who was part of the empire occupying ancient Israel. He doesn’t seem cruel. He doesn’t seem cold or callous. He isn’t on a power trip. He isn’t set on making everyone’s lives miserable. 

He seems to genuinely care about his servant. 

He seems to care about Israel. 

He’s invested in their religious traditions. Man, this centurion blasts apart our assumptions and generalities. We might not expect him to be an all around great guy, but it sounds like he is. 

There was this one thing. 

Technically, the centurion was a Gentile. And as great as he was. As committed and invested as he was to the faith of Israel, he would never really, fully, fit in. He could be what they called a “God-fearer,” but he would always, to some degree, be an outsider. 

Maybe that was why he sent those messengers to stop Jesus from actually coming to his house?

One of the big debates we see in early Christianity was working out how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could share space and eat together. 

Because Gentile Christians didn’t necessarily keep the dietary restrictions Jewish Christians kept – there was danger of a Jewish person becoming “unclean” if they entered a Gentile’s house. 

Maybe the centurion thought his request for Jesus’ help was a long shot and never imagined Jesus would listen to him and head his way?

Jesus responded to the man. 

He healed the servant. 

It wasn’t because of the centurion’s resume. It wasn’t because of the case the elders laid out. It wasn’t  because of his friends’ messages. It wasn’t because of his humility. 

In compassion, Jesus reached across the boundaries of insider and outsider, clean and unclean, life and death, to offer a healing word to the servant … and to the centurion. 

The centurion had power and authority … connections and support. 

Maybe he represents the top?  

The widow of Nain is pretty much the complete opposite of the centurion. 

Maybe she represents the bottom?

This isn’t good, but it is how it was –back then if a woman wasn’t connected to a man (a father, a husband, a son) she was one of the most vulnerable people in her community. As her son was carried out of the town gates this woman was losing her stability,  her support,  maybe her hope for the future, and maybe even her connection with the community. 

In grief she can’t, or just doesn’t, say anything to Jesus. In their grief, the community doesn’t say anything to Jesus. 

Jesus sees her.

His heart goes out to her. 

He is moved with compassion and reaches out. 

He touches the stretcher they were carrying her son with. Jesus touched it. That is important. Dead people were considered unclean. There were processes and rituals people could go through to become clean again, but they took some time and energy. It is hard to imagine someone who didn’t absolutely have to touch someone who was dead risking becoming unclean. It looks like Jesus absolutely had to touch the stretcher. Jesus’ goodness and cleanness overpowered any uncleanness that might have been there. The dead man sat up. He began to talk. Jesus gave him back to his mother. 

In compassion, Jesus reached out across the boundaries of connected and disconnected, clean and unclean, life and death with a healing touch that brought words back to the son’s mouth and, maybe most importantly to Luke, stability back to the mother’s life. 

In compassion Jesus reaches across boundaries to offer connection, grace, and life. 

It must have been so challenging for the disciples to keep up with Jesus. He kept dragging them across any boundary they had ever known. All that stuff their parents and religious teachers taught them to avoid? Clean. Unclean. In. Out. Jesus plows right through it. Maybe the Apostle Paul said this best in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NIV). If there is a boundary separating people from God and from each other – it seems like a sure bet Jesus is going to break through it. 

It is like we are still trying to catch up with it. 

The faithful centurion. The grieving wife and mother. What could they possibly have in common? 

How in the world could they share the same page in Luke’s Gospel? 

Jesus’ grace. 

Jesus’ boundary crossing compassion brought them together. 

It brings us together. 

I heard a pastor talk about a realization she had during a worship service when she looked out at the congregation she served and noticed the people gathered in that sanctuary didn’t look like they had anything in common. Children. Young adults. 40-somethings. Retirees. Punk rockers. Soccer moms. People experiencing homelessness. Men. Women. Well off. Not so well off. Lots of skin colors. Lots of life experiences. On the surface they were all so different. 

That pastor remembered saying to herself – “It is unclear to me what these people have in common.” 

I would say, what that pastor saw is the sign of God’s presence and evidence God is working in and through a community. 

From the centurion and widow’s stories we know if there is anyone who can bring lots of people who are very different together it is Jesus. 

This is a sign of God’s presence. 

It is a sign of the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of the love of Jesus Christ. When there are all sorts of people who might not have ever crossed paths in any other part of life … but they connect and become a community because of the grace and compassion they have experienced from God that is a sign a church is really, truly, following Jesus Christ.