Jesus, the Centurion and the Prayer of Last Resort Trope

Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. (Read the whole passage)

This story sounds like one we have heard before.

The narrative of this powerful Roman solider calling on Jesus to help when he seems to have no other option is actually a fairly common story telling device. In fact, it is called the “Prayer as a last resort” trope. It characterized by the main hero of a story exhausting all other avenues for success, and finally turning in desperation to prayer as a means of solving the problem or saving the day. Praying before the last resort, would of course be a sign of weakness.

Prayer as a last resort is common in movies and on tv. A character is trying again and again to have things go their way, with no success. When faced with no other ptions, they then find a quiet place kneeling next to a bed or they wander into an empty, but open church with candles lit to offer an awkward prayer, something along the lines of:

“I don’t know if you are up there God, but if you are, can you do this thing for me, just this once.”

It is actually a pretty common example of how hollywood, pop-culture and many people in our world think prayer works. It is even pretty common among people of faith like us. We might find ourselves turning to God in ways we have never imagined when we are faced with trial and tribulation, with struggle and suffering. There are usually a lot more prayers offered in hospital rooms than in living rooms. We are more than willing to seek out a greater power when we are in trouble and desperate. But often, like the Centurion who tells Jesus that he doesn’t have to come all the way to his house, that just doing the miracle from a far is enough, we too generally prefer a little distance from God. Or at least, most people in our world are happy to let God be far away until needed.

The story of this Centurion and his request for help is a way of approaching God that is generally familiar to us… or least it is easy to impose this familiar trope onto this story and view it as confirmation that Jesus is pretty cool with staying out of our business until we need help and ask for it in a nice way.

But the Centurion’s story isn’t so straight forward as we think.

The details shows show something very different than the typical “Prayer as a last resort” trope.

First the when centurion sends for Jesus’ help, he sends Jewish Elders when he could have sent soldiers. The elders probably put Jesus ease, while the soldiers would have forced Jesus to go.

The centurion has risked looking like traitor to empire by funding the local synagogue, by being in good standing with the religious authorities, by working with the Jews, rather than subjugating them.

And then to prevent Jesus from having to come to the home of an unclean gentile or risk looking like a collaborator, the Centurion sends word to let Jesus take a pass on the whole healing if he chooses to. The centurion is allowing Jesus to decide what he will do, recognizing that Jesus might say no.

Usually, when a tv or movie character offers up a prayer of last resort, God is only secondary to the equation. It is the willpower or desperation or virtue of the person praying that is supposed to make the prayer work. The power of person praying will accomplish the task. Even a desperate last resort prayer becomes a sign of the hero’s power.

So often our desperate prayers are not about God at all, but instead are about us and our issues.

But not so with the Centurion.

The Centurion’s request for help comes in such a way that it shows that the solider recognizes that despite his power, despite his ability to command and order people around, despite his position in the community… that salvation and healing for his slave is entirely in the hands of Jesus.

When Jesus recognizes the faith of the Centurion, it is NOT about seeing some kind of virtue or worthiness in the Centurion. It is NOT that the Centurion is such a good person that he has earned healing for his slave. The centurion allows Jesus to show the people of Capernaum, and to remind us, of something important. We are reminded of a narrative or trope that we don’t hear all that often.

The faith of the Centurion is that he recognizes how deeply he needs God. Faith is understanding how deeply we need God, no matter how much power or strength or righteousness or virtue we attain. We are all equally and deeply in need of God’s grace, no matter who we are.

And when faith recognizes all that we are not, how powerless we truly are, how deeply we need to be healed and saved… that is when we can see just what God has been already doing long before we ever utter a prayer of last resort.

The last words that Martin Luther wrote remind us of this truth that the Centurion helps us to see. Luther wrote:

We are beggars: This is true.

We are beggars: This is true.

When it comes to the matters of life and death, like the Centurion’s request for his beloved slave who was near death or like so many of those prayers uttered by TV and movie characters…

When we get down to the real power we possess in this world, we are beggars.

We are beggars whose prayers are of little power. They are of little power when compared to the One who can actually do something in the face of death.

And so when the Centurion asks for help, Jesus already knows that this powerful solider is actually powerless man. When the hero of TV and movies pray as a last resort, God already knows that these powerful characters are actually powerless people.

But there is also another truth at play. A truth about real power.

Far from being some passive silent onlooker in the sky who may or may not hear those prayers of last resort…

The God of power and might who has created all things has already chosen life over death.

The God of power and might who has died an risen from the dead has already chosen us.

And this powerful God has already come into the world to meet us in human flesh, to encounter our powerlessness, to join us in our weak humanity.

Jesus was already in Capernaum ready to meet the powerless centurion, even if the centurion asked for help in the most gracious way.

Jesus is already here, ready to meet us in the our weak words of confession with the power of forgiveness, to wash away sin and death with the power of the waters of baptism, to gather sinners and outcasts into the one body of Christ in the bread and wine of communion.

Jesus has already already gone to place of our greatest human power and greatest human weakness – death.

Jesus has gone to the cross and faced death head on. Faced the thing that makes us beggars no matter our human power… and Jesus has swatted death away like it is nothing.

And that is because it is.

The centurion’s request for Jesus to heal his beloved slave reminds us that we are all indeed beggars: this is true.

And the centurion’s request also shows that Jesus is already here, already ready with New Life, given long before we ever turned to prayer to save us. New Life given long before we ever knew we needed it.

The centurion’s request shows us where the things that really matter in this world, life and death, are held in God’s hand. Only God has power over these things, no matter how many prayers of last resort we may hurl towards the heavens. And God has chosen not to be far away waiting for a powerful prayer, but to be nearby and ready for powerless people, powerless us. Ready with new life given for us.

Today, underneath this story that sounds like one we have heard before, is another story. Another narrative that we forget too easily and don’t hear enough.

And that is the story of the powerful God who has compassion for and loves deeply a bunch of powerless beggars like us: this is true.

 

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Why did no one help the man for 38 years?

John 5:1-9

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids– blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

We are coming to the end of the season of Easter. Over the past 6 Sundays we have been with the women at the empty tomb, locked away with Thomas, fishing on the other side of the boat with the disciples, walking in temple with Jesus at Hannukah, and back to Maundy Thursday with the new commandment to love.

But today we reach way back into the story of Jesus. Before Last Suppers, betrayals, trials, crucifixions. Before resurrection and miracles. We go back and see with Easter eyes that the resurrection was not just on the Sunday morning of the empty tomb. We see that Jesus has been showing us resurrection right from the beginning. But we can only see it now, only after we have made our way through the Easter story.

Today, a man who cannot walk lays between the pillars of the Sheep Gate Portico. A public square in Jerusalem. He watches as people file by, merchants, soldiers, farmers, religious authorities. He watches as other beggars, the lame, blind, deaf and unclean lay there with him. Many are bathing in the spring water pool hoping to be healed of their infirmities, but the man who cannot walk has no such hope. Instead, he is only looking for the charity of others, as he has been doing for 38 years. Legend has it that at certain times, an Angel of the Lord comes to stir up the waters of the pool. The first person into the water after this is believed to be healed. This portico is a place that gatherers people in need of healing. But the man cannot walk, and there is no way he could ever drag himself into the pool first – without help.

As the man who cannot walk lays there, a group of men come by and stop, one of them speaks to the beggar, asking him question. But without really hearing what has been asked, the man who cannot walk launches into his story, his hands extended. ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Its a well rehearsed story, it is short, to the point and designed to make people dig deep in their pockets. The man has been telling it for decades. He isn’t expecting healing, he is expecting pity or charity. A few coins so he can provide for himself a few more days.

But the question that is asked to the man is not “Why haven’t you bathed in the healing waters of the pool?”

That question is too absurd to contemplate. 38 years is far too long for no one to have done anything for this man. Its is impossible to think that this man could have been laying just a few meters from healing for nearly four decades. The answer that this man has simply fallen through the cracks of human compassion for so long if too painful to imagine. How could that happen?

This story demands a question. “Why has no one helped this man? How could he have been left to suffer for 38 years?”

It seems ridiculous… almost too absurd to be true.

And yet the same question could be asked all around us in our world. This story is not only NOT absurd, but it is a story told all around us.

How long must the community of Shoal Lake First Nation go without clean water? 100 years? 200 years? Why has no one helped this community?

How long must Syrian refugees camp out a the boarders of closed nations? 5 years? 10 years? Why have these nations turned their backs?

How many people have to die of fentanyl overdoses until we do something? 100? 1000? Why has no one helped them?

How many children on First Nations must attempt suicide before we commit to making their living situations worth staying alive for? 50? 100? Why has no one noticed before now?

These questions are hard to ask, and even harder to imagine the indifference it took to let these things happen in our world.

Yet, there is a problem will all these questions. The questions are no more compassionate than the indifference and inaction that they question. Asking why no one has helped is more about us than the people suffering. It is more about making our own guilt go away, than offering what suffering people really need.

Notice that when Jesus approached the man who couldn’t walk today he didn’t ask, “Why has no one helped this man in 38 years?”

Jesus doesn’t jump to solving problems. He doesn’t define the man by his condition. Jesus doesn’t dehumanize the man in some attempt to be the white knight riding in to save the day.

Instead, Jesus asks the man who cannot walk, “Do you want to be made well?” 

Jesus presumes nothing. Jesus doesn’t jump right to problem solving. Jesus isn’t worried about saving the day or about making his own guilty feelings better.

Jesus is concerned with the man. Jesus recognizes the man. Jesus humanizes the man.

Jesus isn’t there to save the day, but to save the man. Jesus doesn’t do it by dragging the man into the pool. He doesn’t even do it by helping the man walk.

Jesus saves the man by seeing a person first and condition second. By seeing a person rather than a problem. Jesus embraces and acknowledges the man’s humanity.

“Do you want to be made well?”

It is a question that is about what the man who cannot walk needs and wants. It is about how the man wants to address his own suffering. Jesus isn’t there to force solutions on a problem, but to care for a person in the way they need to be cared for.

It is this that saves the man. Not the healing pool. Not the command to walk.

Jesus saves the man by caring for him as a person. But turing him from a problem into a human being. Before the man ever takes a step, Jesus welcomes this man back into relationship. Jesus welcomes this man back into life.

And the man who had been lame for 38 years gets up and walks. He walks because Jesus has seen him, recognized him, welcomed him back to life. Restored him to true life, to be more than his problems, to be more than injustice, to be more than legs that don’t work right.

“Do you want to be made well?”

Jesus’ question is rarely one we ask of those who are suffering. Human beings rarely take the time to ask this of each other, because it requires we get out of ourselves.

Because we when ask it we realize that problems we see around us are not just situations needing solutions. If we were to ask questions that humanize one another, we would see that we too are the people of Shoal Lake living for generations without clean water. That we are refugees fleeing for our lives. That we are those dying as we try to numb our pain with drugs. That we are people whose living conditions aren’t worth living for. We are all those people, just as we are the man who has not walked for 38 years too.

We are the ones whom Jesus is asking “Do you want to be made well?”

Today, as Brooklyn is dunked into the healing waters of Baptism, we are reminded that Jesus has asked us this question too. That God has seen us, recognized us, named us and claimed us. In the waters of baptism Jesus turns into people, Jesus welcomes us into new life. We stop being defined by the problems of sin and death, we stop being the sum total of the suffering we endure. And Jesus turns is into people. Into beloved children of God.

And in this act of God, in these cleansing and healing waters, God says to us, “Stand up and walk.” And through the waters of Baptism, we are raised to new life, we are raised to walk, to walk in this life of faith.

Today, as we near the end of Easter, we see that Jesus has been showing us resurrection all the way along. We just couldn’t see it before now, we couldn’t see it without Easter eyes. As Jesus sees the man who couldn’t walk, whom no one bothered to help for 38 years, Jesus sees us too. Jesus sees all the suffering and injustice of our world, Jesus sees us – not as the problems that define us, but as people who are beloved and cherished by God.

And because God has seen us and loved us we are able to stand up and walk.

Amen