I find it incredible that of all the possible Sundays of the year, our appointed Gospel reading for this Memorial Day weekend, focuses on Jesus’ encounter with a military person. What can we learn from Luke’s telling of Jesus and this Roman officer on this Memorial Day weekend?
Well, it’s clear that Luke wants us to know that this military man is not the kind of officer we were expecting, not in that time and place, anyway. We would expect to hear something very negative and derogatory about this military officer, not something this positive.
This Roman centurion was part of an occupying force, since Israel was under the control of the Roman Empire. Just by seeing a Roman soldier or a Roman centurion in their community would have reminded the Jewish people that they were not a free people.
The Jewish people would have despised the presence of these Roman-occupying forces. There would have been an incredible amount of resentment and hostility toward the presence of these outsiders.
This was the historical context in which Jesus lived. His own people were under the control of the despised Roman Empire.
So, we are a more than a little surprised when Luke tells us that there was this Roman commanding officer who was very kind and gracious toward the very people he was in charge of occupying.
Luke tells us that he loved the people of that community and when he heard they were about ready to start a capital campaign to build a new synagogue, he covered the cost and even had his men build it. I wonder if the name of their Capital Campaign was “Putting Capernaum First.”
Luke tells us that a servant of this unusually gracious Roman commanding officer was very ill and was near death. Having heard about Jesus’ many healings (word must have really spread), he sends the Leadership Board of Capernaum First Synagogue who he had gotten to know during their capital campaign to plead with Jesus to come and heal his very ill servant.
Jesus, hearing the news of this centurion’s servant, decides to go with them to the home of the centurion. As he nears his house, another group of people from Capernaum First come out to meet him.
Knowing that Jewish custom would keep Jesus from entering a Gentile house, this centurion shows great respect toward Jesus by telling him that he would not have to enter his home. With full assurance that Jesus would be able to heal his servant, he simply asked Jesus to speak a word of healing for his servant from outside his house.
The centurion surprises us yet again by recognizing Jesus’ authority even though he could have pulled rank on Jesus based on his own military status. When the people went into the house, they found that this centurion’s servant had been totally healed by Jesus.
What Jesus does next is the third huge surprise in this story. The first surprise is in hearing that there was this Roman commanding officer who was generous toward the very people he was occupying.
The second surprise in the story is in how humble this commanding officer was toward Jesus by respecting the cultural boundary that the Jewish people had with their Gentile neighbors. He did not force Jesus to come into his house, although he could have easily used his authority to do so.
The third surprise in the story is that Jesus was able to heal this servant, although in a way that shouldn’t be a surprise since Jesus was able to heal many people. But let’s not take these healings for granted. Every healing is an incredible display of God’s miraculous presence in our time and space. It’s easy to read the gospel accounts where Jesus heals someone, and because we are so used to hearing them, we think, “Oh, just another healing by Jesus today, ho-hum, what’s new?”
Let’s not lose the sense of awe and amazement that Jesus was able to do incredible signs and wonders throughout his ministry.
This brings us to the fourth surprise in Luke’s telling of this story. The fourth surprise is that Jesus is astonished by this commanding officer’s faith. This is the only time that we find Jesus surprised by someone’s faith. Usually it’s the other way around. People are surprised at who Jesus claims to be.
Luke tells us that Jesus was impressed with this centurion. Jesus was surprised that this Gentile who was considered an outsider was displaying more faith in God than anyone he had encountered among his own people of Israel.
Luke, the masterful gospel writer will introduce us to another Roman soldier toward the end of his gospel as Jesus is hanging on the cross. Luke tells us that when Jesus breathed his last, a Roman centurion who had watched him die said, “Certainly, this man was innocent.”
Luke wants us to know that some of the people who have the biggest faith in God, don’t even sit in a church pew on Sunday morning. Even a Gentile commanding officer can see that Jesus is who he says he is.
It is very fitting that on this Memorial Day weekend when we take time to give thanks for those who have served in the military and who are no longer with us, that we think about the faith of this military officer in Luke’s gospel. This story reminds us that there are many other soldier faith stories that can be shared as well.
A couple of years ago, my brother shared a soldier’s faith story with me. It’s about a World War II veteran who owned a farm near our farm where we grew up in south central, Pennsylvania.
Our families were very close and we still stay in touch even after all of these years. Our parents were about the same age. They attended the same school and church all their lives. It was a small rural area where everybody knew each other.
Only George is living now. He still lives on the farm that’s next to our family farm.
A couple of years ago, my brother, who still lives in that area, decided to take George out to lunch one day, just as a nice neighborly thing to do. George is around ninety years of age now.
Here is what my brother wrote about that day when he took George, our long-time farming neighbor out to lunch. It’s a story about a soldier’s faith.
Referring to George, he writes,
He has lived a good, long life, filled with may difficulties like anyone else, but also filled with countless blessings.
He is now a widower and is learning how to live again as a single man, no easy feat after decades of marriage.
He met her in his teens, when he was a strapping, handsome young man. In a culture far removed form the one we know today, he courted her.
Although, he did not come from wealth or position, he was a hard worker and a man of the soil…and he knew she was the one with whom he wanted to spend his life.
They married when he was 18, and soon after, they were expecting their first child. But while he was starting a family, Hitler was starting a war, a war that would soon demand his involvement.
He was shipped to basic training to train for an occupation that he had never imagined. Within weeks, he was on a boat headed for Europe.
Since wars don’t offer tutorial programs, upon reaching the continent, he found himself on the front lines, sharing foxholes with other young men, whose lives had similarly been interrupted.
There were bone chilling rainy nights in foxholes where his body experienced a coldness he had never before felt.
There were times when he saw buddies die before his very eyes, and wondered if this is how his story would end.
The Allied forces pressed forward and one day he found himself in the attic of a German farmhouse, serving as a watchman.
That’s where the war caught up with him. He was struck in the skull with shrapnel from mortal fire. He was transported to Paris to an army hospital.
But for the grace of God and a battle helmet, his life was spared. Doctors told him if the shrapnel had invaded another half inch, he would not have made it.
And so he returned home, to the family that he had started, and to create the family that would be.
Seventy years later, as he was having lunch with me, he showed me the scar, a wound not completely healed after seventy years.
Seventy years of life…births, anniversaries, holidays, illnesses, deaths, accidents, challenges.
Seventy years of additional children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, all who would not be here, if that shrapnel had penetrated one half inch deeper. And a scar to remind us how life is so mysterious, precious, and fragile.
He has had seventy years to experience a gratitude that might not otherwise be…
Seventy years to live a life that could just as easily have been take away.
Seventy years of passing on life to others who bear the family name.
Scars from wounds remind us of who we were, who we are, and who we can become.
When my brother shared this story about George with me, he said, “Isn’t it incredible that as much as you think you know someone after all these years, there is always more to know?”
A few years ago, I conducted a funeral for a World War II veteran. The family told me about a time when their father was in Germany during the war. He was commanded to go into a German orchard and apprehend a Nazi soldier.
They told me that their father did as he was ordered to do even though he didn’t know what to expect and he was fearful for his life. After he apprehended the soldier, they had a long way to travel to get back to camp.
They said how their father told them how he had treated this soldier humanely and with respect even though he was the enemy. He saw him as a fellow human being with the same human worth as anyone else.
They said how he treated him that way because of his faith. And they also said that their father only told them that story later in his life, because he was a very humble man. Reminds me of George. And it reminds me of the soldier in our Gospel reading. These are humble stories of faith.
When Jesus turns to the crowd to tell them that even in Israel, he hasn’t found anyone with as much faith as this Roman officer, that’s an important word for us to hear as well. If this Gentile was able to see that Jesus is the one who can bring healing to our world, than there’s hope for all of us.
Jesus doesn’t see insiders and outsiders. He doesn’t see Jew and non-Jew. He doesn’t see American and non-American. He doesn’t see church members and non-church members. Jesus sees beyond all of those boundaries and into our hearts. Jesus is looking to see if we have faith.
Do we have faith that Jesus can bring healing to nations who are at war? Do we have faith that Jesus can bring healing in our community where there is so much poverty? Do we have faith that Jesus can bring healing out of what seems like a hopeless situation?
Do we have faith that Jesus can bring healing to a broken relationship? Do we have faith that Jesus can give us new life and hope? Do we have faith that Jesus can bring transformation to our community and world?
Personally, I want to say that my answer to all of these rhetorical questions is a resounding “yes.” But I must admit, that if I’m tempted to say, “no,” or “I’m not sure,” to any of these questions, Luke wants us to remember the faith of this soldier from our gospel reading today.
With that kind of faith, there’s no telling what God will do through you and me.
Small Group Questions
May 29, 2016
On this Memorial Day Weekend, our appointed Gospel reading appropriately is about Jesus’ encounter with a Roman military officer who needed Jesus to heal one of his servants. Since this officer was part of the occupying force over the Jewish people, his request of Jesus was a tremendous step of faith since he was a Gentile. Luke tells us that even Jesus was surprised by this officer’s act of faith!
Share a time when you were surprised by someone who showed faith toward God.
Jesus was known to heal people throughout his ministry, including this story of a Roman military officer’s servant.
When have you experienced Christ’s healing presence in your life emotionally, physically, or spiritually? What needs to be healed in your life, now?
Since this is Memorial Day Weekend, form groups of three and take turns praying for those who are serving in the military, their families, and our country. Also, include prayers of thanksgiving for those who served our country but who are no longer with us.