Beginning a new study in Luke, Luke 7:2-3 provides some important background about what is about to happen. A centurion (i.e., a military commander) has a servant – or, perhaps more literally translated, a slave – who is mortally ill. Even before modern medicine, people have known when someone isn’t going to get better.
As an aside, we probably think of slavery as the ugly thing that the western world made it in recent centuries, where people were (and, regrettably, sometimes still are) treated as less than human because of their appearance or background. However, history has had a wide range of other forms of servitude, and the Roman Empire (while it still supported a culture of slavery) provided slaves with much more humane treatment and dignity, compared to many other civilizations.
To be clear, I’m not trying to justify slavery in any form, but in this case, a centurion cares for his servant enough to do something about it. In fact, this centurion is willing to humble himself and make the effort to find a way to save this servant from death. This sounds a lot more like a household where servants are treated with dignity and respect (as human beings), rather than treating other people as property.
Now, when we say centurion, we should remember that this would be a centurion for the Roman Empire: the empire that was currently ruling over the Jewish people. However, the centurion seems pretty wise, here. For reasons that we can read later on in this chapter, the centurion apparently doesn’t show up with a squad of soldiers (that is, presenting himself as one who can compel Jesus to do something out of force). As pointed out by the Lookout [see references below], a soldier had the right to force someone to carry his stuff for a mile (see also Matthew 5:38-42). I wonder if the centurion’s house was a mile or less away, and he could have forced Jesus to travel that distance, if he had chosen to do so.
Instead, though, the centurion sends Jewish elders. That in itself should give us a clue about this centurion’s character, given how much other Jewish people in the first century disliked the Roman Empire (even to the point of hating the empire’s representatives).
In Luke 7:4-5, we find out why the Jewish elders were willing to bring the centurion’s message to Jesus.
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.”
Luke 7:4-5 NIV
This centurion wasn’t being a tyrant to those over whom he was responsible to keep the peace. In fact, it seems that he helped build the local synagogue. References suggest that the centurion may have provided money or labor to help build that synagogue. And, to say that he loved the Jewish nation is quite a compliment.
Perhaps Jesus already knew about this centurion, since He is God. I’m not sure how much of His divine knowledge may have been “suspended” while He was a man, but even if He already knew the details, this is quite a testimony from these Jewish elders on behalf of the centurion.
This is a good moment to pause and consider whether or not our lives are sufficiently aligned with God’s will so that others could say the same about us. If someone were to advocate for you, could they refer to your choices and decisions as testimony that you love God and love others? Some have asked, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” That’s a little blunt, and can make us feel defensive. However, perhaps the example of this centurion is the inspiration we need, instead, as a positive example.
While our good works don’t “buy” us the right to receive specific answers from God in response to our prayers, we get to bring more glory to Him when we honor Him with both our testimony to others about what He does for us, and our actions that demonstrate the reality of our faith. May our lives be a testimony – and something that others can testify about – to the glory of God.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for December 5, 2021
- The Lookout, December 5, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Luke, by Mark C. Black. College Press Publishing Company, © 1996.