Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Irony of Worthiness

"I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith," said Jesus.  He was speaking about the centurion we meet in Luke 7:1-10, the gospel text appointed for Pentecost 2 in the Year of Luke. This text is full of irony, because the Jewish elders proclaim the centurion's worthiness based upon his love for the people and his contributions to the building fund.  The man, himself, declares his own lack of worthiness because he recognizes Jesus incalcuable worth, and he correctly notes how far beneath that bar he falls.  But at the end of the story, Jesus does recognize him as exemplary - not because of love or good works, but because of faith.  A study in good works vs. faith?  Ironically, yes.

(The following questions are from my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.  These questions are an attempt to ferret out some of the issues for law/gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case Jesus, clearly functions to praise faith and bring healing.  Most of the story is not centered on Jesus, but on those around Jesus who have either incorrect or correct assumptions about Jesus.  All assume that worthiness is important to Jesus; all assume that love and good works are what makes a person worthy.  What Jesus reveals is that faith is what deserves praise.  Because Jesus brings healing in this story, this is a gospel word - a story that reveals Jesus' love and compassion for us.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Jesus' only words come at the end of the story as he praises the faith of the centurion.  There is, therefore, no word of Law here - no word which functions to show us our need for Christ.  Having said that, the slave who was ill and close to death stood in dire need of Jesus.  His illness was upon him.  If the Law functions to show us how much we need Jesus, then this slave is the personification of our need.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have three choices in this text:  We can identify with the centurion who announces his own unworthiness; we can identify with the Jewish elders who tell Jesus what worthiness looks like; or we can identify with the dying slave.  It might be a fruitful strategy for the preacher to consider identifying with all of these characters at some point in the sermon, pointing out how prone we, like both the centurion and the elders, are to defining worthiness by visible works of love and generosity, when worthiness in God's eyes has to do with the faith we have been given.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?   The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  It is tempting to see this text as a vehicle for doing just that, specifically lifting up the centurion and saying, "Be like him.  Have faith."  But this text does not call us to faith, it praises faith.  Better to lift up Jesus, on whom our faith is centered.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?   The ill slave gives us the most obvious couplet:  sick/healed.  We might also broaden that to say dead/alive or lost/found.

6.  Exegetical work:  There is an interesting juxtaposition of words in this text, both translated as "worthy."  In verse 4 we hear the Jewish elders saying "He is worthy of having you do this for him."  In verse 6 we hear the centurion, himself, saying, "I am not worthy  to have you come under my roof."  The same Greek word is not used for both.  In verse 4 the word is one which has to do with deserving, with bringing everything into equilibrium.  The picture that goes with this term is one of a scales, like one used for weighing nails or sweeping compound at an old-fashioned hardware store.  With this term we understand that a person is worthy because it brings things into eqillibrium. The other term has to do with rank.  If a person is worthy in this second sense, he or she has attained a certain status, or is found adequate in the eyes of the world.  This idea of rank was something the centurion understood well as a soldier. The comparison of these two words can be found in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volumes I and III.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  This is a prime example of how the model lifts up the various ways in which we are lost and then found.  In Crossings' terminology we are found 1) Trying to prove our worthiness; 2) Fearing God's rejection; and finally 3) Caught in despair.  But then 4) Jesus comes, overlooking our unworthiness, and rescues us from death; as a result 5) Faith arises within us and 6) We live freely without fear, bringing others who have been labeled 'unworthy' to receive the healing of Jesus.  More about this model can be found by going to

Blessings on your proclamation!

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