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. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say 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 only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also 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 the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Worth – true worth – its hard to find these days, isn’t it? It’s election season and in just 5 weeks we’ll be watching the news as the results come in. Elections are all about worth – who is worthy of my vote? Who is worthy to hold the presidential office, to be our leader? And, oh, do we hear all about it: we hear a 1000 reasons why one candidate is more worthy than the other; it gets tiring. As I was reading through some history books about the presidential election way, way back in 1960, I found this picture of a poster attacking Richard Nixon. It had a picture of Nixon with a cunning smile on his face and it read: “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Well, as you may remember, Nixon lost that election to JFK. I guess America wasn’t quite ready to buy any used cars from Nixon.
That image of the used car salesmen stuck in mind. What is it about these people that causes us to dislike them so much? Some say they’re all liars, always trying to make a buck, willing to do anything to move cars off the lot. All that may or may not be true, but I think the main reason we dislike used car salesmen so much is their arrogant, assuming insistence that some car is definitely worth our hard-earned money: “GUARANTEED SATISFACTION! Just sign on the dotted line…” How do you respond when someone is constantly trying to convince you that something has worth? Doesn’t it make you wonder about what’s beneath all their show?
In our text from Luke, Jesus runs into a bunch of used car salesmen also known as the Jewish Elders! They approached Jesus and “appealed to him earnestly” so that he would go and heal the beloved, dying slave of a Roman centurion. A more descriptive translation would read that they were desperately pleading with Jesus and just wouldn’t let up. They tried to convince Jesus that this centurion was worthy. He was worthy of Jesus’ time, his attention and his blessing. What were their reasons? This man was a lover of the Jews and had even built them a synagogue, which would have been a significant financial sacrifice for a centurion. He had done so much, he was such a good man, he was a man of authority and power – he deserved Jesus. Like experienced salesmen, these Jewish elders had played up their product and now they were just waiting for Jesus to take the bait. You can tell they were determined to move this car off the lot.
But what was beneath all of their desperate appeals? Were they really that concerned about the centurion’s dying slave? Isn’t it interesting to note that the centurion never asked the Jewish elders to sell him to Jesus like a used car? He just wanted Jesus to come and heal his slave. And Jesus also never asked to be convinced of the centurion’s worth. The elders took this simple request for healing, got themselves dressed up in their gaudy, cheap suits, slicked back their hair, threw on their best pair of shades, and started dangling the keys in Jesus’ face: “You don’t wanna miss this deal Jesus!” What was driving all of this? Remember: the elders were known as the teachers of the Law. They were the scribes, the lawyers, the Scripture experts. Their primary arena of influence was the synagogue, the place of teaching. The synagogue was the seat of their authority. And now, who had built their synagogue? Essentially, these elders had entered into a patron-client relationship with this centurion. He was the authority behind their authority; without him, they had no place to teach, no place to exert their power. You see, the elders were obsessed with the worth of this centurion because they were dependent on his power. And then these poor elders start talking to Jesus and they just have no clue who they are talking to. They thought they could convince Jesus to join in their patron-client relations, because, in their eyes, Jesus was just another teacher, or maybe a prophet at best. They thought his authority was dependent on the Roman centurion just like theirs. In their attempts to convince Jesus of the centurion’s worth, the elders revealed their refusal to accept Jesus’ authority as their Lord and Messiah. They wanted Jesus – the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – to play their little power games.
But when the centurion gets a chance to speak for himself, we hear a completely different perspective. Does the centurion echo the arguments of the Jewish elders? Does he remind Jesus of all his accomplishments and generosity towards the Jews? Not at all. In fact he does the exact opposite. His words completely contradict the elders’: they said he was deserving of Jesus’ healing, but he says he isn’t even deserving of talking to Jesus face to face. Instead of trumpeting his authority as a Roman military commander, the centurion exalts his unworthiness, his incapability, his need for a different kind of power. He may hold military might, but he knows he doesn’t have the power to heal. He expresses a dependence on Jesus’ power – he calls him Lord! The centurion knew he couldn’t prove himself worthy of Jesus; he was not interested in being a salesman.
The crazy part about this story is that Jesus actually affirms the centurion’s worth, but not at all in the way the elders were expecting. It was not because of his power, his accomplishments, or anything he had done – it was his FAITH. And specifically, it was the faith he displayed by accepting Jesus’ authority. The elders refused to believe that Jesus was their Messiah so they assumed they could obligate him to help them out. The centurion may not have known all about the Messiah of the Jews, but he was convinced of one thing: Jesus had the power and he didn’t. He wasn’t convinced of his own authority, but he sure was sold on Jesus.
You know, politicians like Richard Nixon aren’t the only ones who are sometimes accused of acting like used car salesmen. You wanna guess who the others might be? Preachers, pastors, ministers, and church leaders of all kinds. How often do we come to Jesus like we’ve got something to sell him? Maybe its our latest project – a new synagogue perhaps – or maybe we’re just trying to sell ourselves. “Jesus don’t you see how much I’m doing? Don’t you see how worthy I am of your blessing, your time, your attention? Have you forgotten me?” Maybe you find yourself desperately trying to convince Jesus that your plans, your ministry, or your church are good enough for his blessing. Listen: Jesus is not in the market; he’s not buying anything; AND he never asked you to sell him anything. He never asked you to prove your worth. All he wants is your FAITH. He just asks that you believe in his authority, that you believe that your worth is not found in your accomplishments but in your active faith in his immeasurable, incomparable, incontestable, and infinite might. Jesus is Lord! He is Messiah! By faith, you are already made worthy. You don’t have to measure up because Jesus is worthy! Quit trying to sell Jesus your old used cars and sell yourself to his Kingdom, to his authority, and you’ll find the healing, the wholeness, the peace you need to continue faithfully as servant leaders of the Church. Amen.