The Good Tree – Centurion
The life of the centurion portrayed in the Gospel text clearly demonstrates the core teaching of Jesus. The text is primarily dealing with the theme of discipleship that is, how to live a good live according to Jesus. The centurion is a clear example of such a life; he is like a fruitful tree within his community.
To understand such a perspective of the centurion let us therefore have a closer look at the centurion together with the content and context of Jesus’ teaching. It begins with Jesus having spent the night in prayer to God. In the morning he came off the mountain with his disciples to the plains below. There he began to teach them in the hearing of the people who had followed him. Jesus teaches his disciples and through it he encourages them to choose a path that leads to life. He wants them to be living examples in their own community representing the life that is found in Jesus and in the kingdom of heaven. You and I are his disciples today, and he encourages us this morning to take the path to life.
Within the teaching of Jesus on the plain, there are four parables (Luke 6: 27 – 49) that are indispensable in the explanation of the story with the centurion that immediately follows. These parables are like four theoretical lessons followed by a practical demonstration and that is the encounter with the Roman centurion. The practical demonstration brings it all together to see what Jesus teachings looks like in the community.
The first lesson (Luke 6: 27 – 36) to his disciples and in the hearing of all the people that followed him: Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” The centurion was a Roman soldier part of the occupying force in Israel. He was a foreigner, a stranger, an unwanted visitor in the land. And yet, he took the initiative and embraced the people in his community where he lived and worked. He embraced them so much so that the report of him from the community to Jesus was that he loved their nation.
At times we may find ourselves as strangers in a new congregation, school, workplace, neighbourhood, at a party, or even our congregation as a whole in the wider community. The norm is that we wait until someone from the so called ‘friendly’ community comes over to embrace us into their community. Contrary to the norm and our expectations, Jesus encourages his disciples and all who listen to take the initiative to embrace the community that they find themselves in. Jesus encourages us to take the initiative and talk to them, care for them, and embrace them as friends so that over time there will be a good report of you too.
Lesson 2 (vs. 37 – 42): Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Unfortunately, we gladly build jails because we love to judge and condemn people. Had we taken better care of people in the community there would be far fewer people in jail, less homeless, less unemployed, and less broken families. It is sad to say that we feel so secure in our own self righteousness that such things would never happen to us, and therefore we feel we can afford to judge and condemn others. But that is a lie. We are all sinners. We all fail and make mistakes of various kinds throughout our daily life and bear the cost of it in some way.
Only when you consider yourself a sinner, one amongst others then it is much easier to forgive. Then judgment and condemnation will fade away to forgiveness and caring for the person that has fallen on hard times. Such a person values others and exhibits a spirit of humility.
The centurion counted himself as a servant, one amongst others. He introduced himself to Jesus through friends not as a man of authority but as a man under authority as one who is also a servant. He had servants himself whom he valued and cared for. The centurion also counted himself as a member of the community, as one amongst others. The centurion had sent various messengers to Jesus including the elders of the Jews, and the gospel writer reports them as being his friends.
Lesson 3 (vs. 43 – 45): Jesus said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its fruit.” The centurion was a ‘good tree’. From out of his heart he cared for his servant that was sick. From out of his heart he provided for the needs of the people in Capernaum. He built them a synagogue. He may not have shared in their religious faith, but because they had a need he provided for them. He did not judge, nor condemn their religious belief, and since he loved his enemy, and counted himself as one in the community he provided for their needs and built them a synagogue.
Lesson 4 (vs.46 – 49): Jesus said, “But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete”.
The centurion had in a sense built himself a house on solid foundation. As a soldier who was posted to a foreign land, he loved the people where he lived and worked. He did not judge nor condemn them, and he valued them and gave according to their needs. When disaster came into his own life, he was saved. At that time, his valued servant was sick and near death so the elders of the Jews went to Jesus pleading with him to intercede and save his servant. They said to Jesus, “This man deserves to have you do this.” The elders of the community valued the centurion even though he was a foreign soldier in their beloved land.
When the centurion heard that Jesus was close to his house he sent friends with a message to him. He said, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s faith and continued to give a good report of him to the crowd that had followed him. It was not so much what the centurion had said and hoped for that amazed Jesus about his faith, but it was his whole life, a living faith of goodwill towards all people.
Jesus was teaching these lessons to his disciples in the hearing of the crowd that followed him. These lessons are an encouragement for all his disciples, including you and me to take the initiative and make friends of people wherever we are. In this way we can care for them and help them fulfill their needs. These lessons are not just for the disciples of then and today, but for all who hear them because they simply are the way to abundant life.
There aren’t many like the ‘good tree’ centurion, and it is very hard to achieve what he has done through humility. Nonetheless, Jesus encourages us to begin wherever you are with the knowledge and reassurance that you are resting on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ. He is our good neighbour, he is our friend, he does not judge nor condemn us, he forgives us our sins, he loves us, and he earnestly seeks our welfare and fulfils our needs. In our hour of weakness and need, Jesus takes the initiative to restore us in body and soul. Although, it may not be in the ways we expected.
For the elders of the Jews, such help came surprisingly and unexpectedly from the Roman centurion. In all their humility they had graciously received the gift of the synagogue from the Roman centurion. Jesus knows our needs better than we do and gives accordingly. We need to be mindful of the unexpected, be ready to be surprised, and be ready to receive with all humility and graciousness from the hand of Jesus.
The lessons for the day are finished and soon afterwards, Jesus went to a town called Nain and raised the widow’s dead son. Jesus continues to be the Good Neighbour bringing life to all people and doing it in unexpected ways.
Finally, the clear and simply message from the story of the centurion is to love your enemies as Jesus loves you.