Say The Word

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 7:6-8

And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes; and to another, `Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.”

Luke 7:6-8 RSV

“Just say the word.” You’ve heard people say that. They mean that they stand ready to do whatever you desire. Your wish is their command. If you give them the go-ahead, they assure you, things will start to happen.

A man said that to Jesus one day. Or rather, he sent him that message. All he wanted from the man of Galilee was that He would simply say the word. Listen as I read this moving little story. Luke, chapter 7, beginning at verse 1:

After he had ended all his sayings in the hearing of the people he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes; and to another, `Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.

PLEASE COME

This is like a little drama in three acts. In the first, the centurion sends a message to Jesus, saying, “Please come!” We don’t know a great deal about this man except that he was a military officer in command of a hundred soldiers. The fact that the Jews said “he loves our nation” indicates that he was not a Jew himself. He could have been a Roman soldier but there were no Roman forces apparently in Galilee before A.D. 44. He was probably a member of Herod Antipas’s national guard, a hired soldier from another race. But whatever his background, he was a notable friend of the Jewish people. He had shown himself consistently sympathetic to their concerns and had even been the major donor in the building of their local synagogue.

That’s quite surprising, isn’t it? He’s a member of an occupying force. He has no racial ties with the Jews. Extraordinary that he should provide for them their place of worship! It’s as though in the days before glasnost and perestroika, a communist officer in the Soviet Union had arranged for the construction of a house of prayer for Christian believers. That would have seemed out of character, totally unexpected.

The wonder of his generosity was not lost on the Jews. They thought very highly of this centurion. So much so that when he had a need, they were enthusiastically willing to help. It seems that a household servant of this military man was gravely ill. To the centurion, he was not simply one more servant, a piece of property. The soldier cared about his servant. He not only placed a high value on his services. He appreciated and respected him apparently as a person.

The centurion had heard of Jesus’ mighty works, of His extraordinary compassion. So he arranged for some of his Jewish acquaintances to go and find Him. They were to speak on the soldier’s behalf, asking Jesus to come and heal the servant. We aren’t told here why the centurion did not go in person. After hearing the request with a strong endorsement from His countrymen, Jesus started on His way to the man’s home. At this point, it was simply an appeal for help to which He gladly responded. The centurion made his plea saying, “Please come.” Jesus, as He did on so many other occasions, simply left what He was doing and came.

PLEASE DON’T COME

Now for Act 2. When Jesus and His traveling companions neared the centurion’s house, they were met by another group of messengers. We could sum up their communication to Jesus in these words, “Please don’t come!” Again, these were friends of the centurion, sent by him, but they were to convey in the first person his own message. “Don’t trouble Yourself, Jesus,” he wanted to say. “Don’t inconvenience Yourself; don’t go to any trouble. On second thought, I don’t want You to come to my house at all.”

Jesus must have wondered why. Here’s the first part of the reason: “I am not worthy,” says the soldier, “to have you come under my roof.” It’s as though he had said, “I don’t deserve this honor, Jesus. Who am I that You should visit my home?” It didn’t seem fitting to the centurion.

I’ve sometimes encountered that kind of spirit among humble people who provide hospitality for us as foreign visitors. They apologize for the modest size of their houses. They feel that the accommodations they offer are not what their guests are accustomed to. They treat the visitors like royalty. They see themselves as unworthy to receive such guests.

But on the lips of the soldier, this deference seems hard to understand. He’s obviously a man of means. He was able to provide for a synagogue. He probably lived in a fine house. He was greatly respected. He wielded considerable power. And yet he says, “I’m not worthy, Jesus, to have You enter my home.” “That’s why,” he adds, “I did not presume to come to You.” That explains, in other words, the two groups of messengers. The centurion wanted this favor from Jesus very badly, but couldn’t bring himself to ask it on his own behalf. His reluctance to come was not because he felt himself too busy, too important. Precisely the opposite. He felt it to be far above his station. Now when Jesus was nearing the house, the centurion felt that he had been too bold even to propose this service.

He still wanted his beloved servant healed. No doubt about that. Nothing had changed. But now he had an alternate proposal. “Don’t come, Jesus, but simply say the word and my servant will be healed.” The supporting rationale is most interesting. “For I am a man set under authority; with soldiers under me: and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes; and to another, `Come’ and he comes; and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.” The centurion, after long years of military service, understood a “chain of command.” He himself was under orders, bound to obey his superiors. In his own cohort and within his household, he was the one who gave commands, and they were always obeyed. If the charge was “go,” “come,” “do this,” “don’t do this,” whatever, that’s the way it worked out. That’s what authority means, isn’t it? The right to command and secure obedience. If I have genuine authority, what I desire and command will come about.

In saying these words, the centurion was acknowledging Jesus’ authority in another chain of command. Jesus is one under orders who has Himself been given full authority to command. In the centurion’s eyes, that meant at least authority over disease. Jesus could say to afflictions and terrible deformities, “Go,” and they would leave. “Just say the word, Jesus. Speak the command, and that’s all it will take. If You say it, my servant will be well again. Master, please don’t come; only command the legions of disease. Only tell death to go away. That will take care of everything and You can be on Your way.”

REMARKABLE FAITH

In Act 3, we hear Jesus speaking for the first time. The experience had made a deep impression on Him, especially the words He had just heard. He marveled at the centurion. He shook His head in wonder. Jesus had never heard anything like that before. This second message took Him completely by surprise. He hardly knew what to make of it. Yet He turned to the crowd following Him and celebrated what He had heard. “Nowhere,” He said, not even among the Israelites themselves had He ever encountered such remarkable faith! The man’s acquaintances had bragged about his good works, his friendliness and acts of charity. Jesus singled out especially his great faith.

As I reflect on the account, I ask myself, What was so extraordinary about this soldier’s faith? He had the confidence, obviously, that Jesus might be able to heal his servant. That was a part of it. But many others had demonstrated this kind of faith before. He sent messengers to invite Jesus to come and made request for healing, but that also had been done by many others.

Maybe it was the phrase, “I am not worthy,” that impressed Jesus. The sense of being unworthy seems to be a vital part of living faith. Remember how Jacob schemed to deceive his brother? He had tried to bargain even with God. Faith was not strongly evident in this man’s early years. He seemed more shrewd and calculating than believing. But in his moment of danger, when Esau was coming toward him with hundreds of soldiers, when Jacob was facing the possible loss of his family, he began to pray in a different way, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:10). Jacob had a sense, perhaps for the first time, that everything he had was not his by right, but by grace. The hand of God had stayed him, and the love of God had pursued him all along his devious way. He prayed on that lonely night a prayer of real faith.

Remember the Syro-Phoenician woman? Jesus called her faith great because she too appealed humbly to His mercy. When He said to her, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” she wasn’t offended. She was willing to accept that lowly place as where she belonged. This was her plea, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:27-28). It was then that Jesus said, “Oh, woman, great is your faith.” I am not worthy. When we say it from the heart, with an awareness of God’s goodness, there’s a lot of faith in that.

But it was the soldier’s reflection about authority that seems unique here. Jesus took that as a singular expression of faith. The centurion had shown keen insight. He had seen the situation clearly. He grasped in a homely analogy from his own military service the real truth about Jesus’ mission.

For one thing, he saw that Jesus was a man under orders. He had been delegated by God, appointed by His heavenly Father. Jesus had spoken of His life as one of entire obedience to the will of God. He came not to do His own will but the will of the One who had sent Him. The words He spoke were the Father’s words; the works He did the Father’s works. His meat was to do what the Father wanted. His life-prayer, “not my will but thine be done.” And the centurion had grasped that somehow, had realized that Jesus was God’s obedient Son, totally subject to the Father’s authority. That’s a vital part of genuine faith.

But the soldier saw more than that. He saw Jesus as One to whom God had given authority. And to the centurion’s mind, that delegation was absolute. Remember how Jesus said after the resurrection, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18)? The centurion seems to have had a glimpse of that in advance. He recognized in personal trust that Jesus had a universal right to command.

A military man could say to his soldiers, “Go,” and they would go, “Come,” and they would come, “Do this” and they would do it. And Jesus could do that, he realized, to everything and everyone under His authority. It was as though the centurion had said, “To You, Jesus, disease and even death are mere underlings. You tell them what to do. Every power affecting human life is subject to You, and moves at Your command. Your supreme authority has been given You by God.”

Further, this authority is so all-encompassing that in the mind of the centurion Jesus can control everything, everywhere by His bare word. He doesn’t have to come to the man’s house. He doesn’t have to see the sick servant, touch him, pray over him, pronounce some mysterious words. No, wherever He is, He can simply speak a word of command. Nothing can withstand that. Everything from the stars in their courses to the microbes in a human body leaps to do His bidding. “If You say the word, Jesus, it will happen.”

As the sequel shows, this man was right. Jesus didn’t come into his house or do anything else that we know of. In fact, from what we’re told, He may not even have spoken. But when all the messengers got back to the house, the servant was well again.

We live today on the other side of Good Friday, Easter morning and Pentecost. We’ve seen far more than the centurion did. We’ve seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus, now crucified, risen and exalted. But I wonder how many of us, in the light of all that, have a faith like this nameless soldier. Do we trust in Jesus as our Savior and Lord? Has it dawned on us that everything in the universe is subject to Him? And do we appeal to Him even in what seem to be the most impossible situations with a sense of deep unworthiness and yet with calm confidence, “Lord, just say the word and it will be so”?