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.