April 24th, 2019
"How to amaze Jesus"
From: "Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God's Lovingkindness"
"He is worthy for you to grant this."
"Lord, don't trouble yourself,
since I am not worthy."
Luke 7:4, 6
The consistent testimony Luke heard form the eyewitnesses he interviewed while writing his Gospel was that they were all amazed. Some thirty years after they had seen and heard Jesus, they were still astonished by him. We believe this because in his Gospel Luke exhausts the language of amazement. Of the seven Greek words that can be translated "amazed" or "astonished" or "awed" or "astounded," Luke uses every single one of them. His is the only Gospel that does. What's more, he frequently uses two words for amazement in the same sentence (for example, Lk 5:26). The shepherds are amazed, as are Joseph and Mary. The people in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth are astonished, as are the residents of Capernaum, where Jesus relocated. Those who witness the miracles, who hear Jesus' synagogue sermons, were all of them amazed.
As Luke's narrative moves along, if you are really listening, you begin to wonder whether Jesus will ever be amazed. You have to wait seven long chapters to finally see it happen.
As the story opens Jesus returns to Capernaum, a large city on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus had established a temporary home. It was primarily a fishing village, but archeologists have uncovered so many large basalt millstones that they have begun to theorize that it was also a center of industry that produced them.
Upon entering the city, Jesus receives a message from a nameless Roman soldier. He is apparently a "God-fearer" - that is, he has made a preliminary commitment to Judaism. He keeps the three pillars of fasting, prayer, and giving to the poor but has yet to become a full proselyte. Beyond that, he has made an extravagant donation to the Jewish community of funds for a new synagogue. Its basalt foundations can still be seen in the excavations of Capernaum. In Judaism all of this means one thing: he is worthy. He's done all the right things and deserves any favor Jesus might do for him. That is, he has a right to expect something.
A further indication of the influence of Judaism on the soldier is the care he demonstrates for his sick slave. Romans were notoriously cruel slave masters, but clearly this centurion is a changed man. His heart and life have been shaped by the God of Exodus 34.
A delegation of elders from the community comes to Jesus with the request. They sum it all up in one phrase: "He is worthy for you to grant this" (Lk 7:4). That's it in a nutshell. The centurion prays correctly, fasts as he should, and gives to the poor. He has financed the new synagogue. He is worthy. The elders assume he has a right to expect Jesus to do something. This is not arrogance; it is simply the way the system works. Jesus silently responds by following them in the direction of the centurion's home, which was probably on the far eastern side of the city where a Roman military base has been excavated.
As Jesus and the elders come close to his home, they are met not by the soldier but by some of his friends. In Luke's account Jesus and the centurion never actually meet. The centurion has had some time to reconsider and has decided that Jesus does not need to come to his house after all. All he needs to do is simply say the word, and the slave will be healed. What follows is a fascinating speech from the Roman soldier on the theme of authority, how he has it and recognizes that Jesus does too. He understands the ability to command using a single word. But verse 6 says it all: "I do not deserve to have you come under my roof," the soldier says.
In my Bible I have those two statements circled with a line connecting them:
"This man deserves to have you do this" (Lk 7:4 NIV).
"I do not deserve..." (Lk 7:6 NIV).
Upon hearing this, Luke tells us, Jesus is "amazed" (Lk 7:9). He tells the Jewish crowd that he has yet to find this kind of faith in their community. But what exactly is the nature of the faith of the soldier? It is precisely his readiness to ask for what he acknowledges he does not deserve. At long last in Luke we see Jesus amazed by a simple soldier who understands that God is more loving than he has a right to expect.
To recognize all these details, to do word counts and draw circles and connect the ideas, may be interesting, but it falls short of truly listening to the text. If we are really paying attention and loving God by listening to his Word, we should stop and ask, Why? Why was Jesus amazed? What amazed him? Who amazed him?
The answer is obvious. The soldier's response amazed Jesus. His acknowledgement that, though he had done everything right, he was still undeserving amazed Jesus. But most of all, I believe what astounded the Lord was the fact that though the centurion confessed he was not worthy still he had the confidence and boldness to ask Jesus, to do it anyway. Here is a pagan centurion who seems to intuit that though he has no right to expect anything from Jesus, he can ask for and expect to receive everything. He understands something his Jewish neighbors have yet to figure out. The way you respond to the God of Exodus 34, the God of hesed, is to boldly ask him for what you do not deserve and then to stand by and confidently wait for him to be amazed.
The context of the story of the centurion in Luke 7 is one of tension, tension between the old orthodoxy and the new reality. The elders expect Jesus to honor their request because of the obedience and generosity of the Roman soldier. The soldier, on the other hand, seems to understand that what he has done does not entitle him to Jesus' favor. He nevertheless seems to understand that because of the lovingkindness of the God of hesed, he can ask for what he does not deserve. Though it is rightly listed as one of the miracle stories of Jesus, the point of the story is not the healing of the servant. The highlight of the story is the amazement of Jesus.
Of all the ways hesed might possibly come to life in us, of all the myriad ways it might be applied, this passage provides the best example, in my opinion. The person who understands the lovingkindness of God is always ready to persistently seek, ask, and knock on the door that opens up to a world they have done nothing to deserve. As we come to understand God's hesed we will have a growing confidence that he is delighted to give us his blessings. Like the centurion, our attitude will become "Just say the word..."