Luke XXVII: Lk. 7:1-17
While Luke has finished teaching on leadership and discipleship in His Kingdom, He isn’t done demonstrating what it looks like. In these two episodes, Luke illustrates what the Lordship of Jesus does in a rich and powerful centurion and a weak and defenseless widow.
The Powerful Centurion
A centurion was the leader of a military unit of around a hundred soldiers. Centuries in turn were combined to make cohorts, and a number of cohorts came together to form a legion. Each centurion was responsible for the training and quality of the men under him, and extra-biblical literature indicates that some centurions were known for being harsh and cruel. Regardless, a centurion was a man who had power and authority and wealth. This might make us suspect that Jesus’ “woes” would apply to him (cf. Lk. 6:24-26), including the fact that all the Jews speak well of him (Lk. 7:4-5, cf. 6:26). But when the Jewish elders ask Jesus to come, Jesus went with them with no indication of reluctance (Lk. 7:6). The Jewish elders urge Jesus to heal the centurion’s servant because he is “worthy” (Lk. 7:4). They say that he “loves” the Jewish people and built their synagogue (Lk. 7:5). While Jesus is still on his way, the centurion sends friends with a message saying that he is “not worthy” to have Jesus come under his roof (Lk. 7:6). He says this is why he did not consider himself worthy to come to Jesus himself (Lk. 7:7). Finally, he says he understands Jesus to be a man under authority and with certain things under his authority (Lk. 7:8). It’s on this basis that the centurion makes his request: “say the word, and let my servant be healed” (Lk. 7:7). To this point, it has been other people marveling at Jesus (cf. Lk. 4:22), but now it’s Jesus’ turn to marvel at the centurion’s faith (Lk. 7:9). While this centurion certainly seems to be a pious man, we should not miss the fact that he or the Jews might have viewed one another as enemies, but he has done good to the Jews and Jesus does good to him (cf. Lk. 6:27). But the centurion does not think that he deserves the work of Jesus, he merely has the boldness to ask and believe that if Jesus says the word, it will be done. The military image seems to imply that the centurion understood that Jesus also had the full freedom and authority to refuse the request. This is a lesson in discipleship. If we believe that Jesus is the teacher who can see, the tree that can make us fruitful, the one who is able to turn our pit of sin into the deep foundation for a solid house (cf. Lk. 6:39-49), then we must trust Him and obey Him no matter what.
The Weak Widow
It’s striking how Luke sets this next story right alongside the previous one. What could be more different from a rich and powerful soldier than a weak, heartbroken widow? Remember that in those days there was no social security or pension funds that might kick in when your husband died. Your only hope was your children, and your sons in particular. Jesus enters a small village just as a man who has died is being carried out for burial. He is “the only son of his mother,” in other words, the only hope of his mother who was a widow (Lk. 7:12). The word “compassion” is the key word in this story. Other characters have called Jesus “Lord” previously, but this is the first instance of Luke giving Jesus the title “Lord” (Lk. 7:13). However, it’s striking to see the verb that is attached to the subject. A Lord or Master is a man of authority and power, but Jesus exercises His authority with compassion. As in the previous episode, Jesus gives a command. And it’s a strange command, given the context: “Do not weep” (Lk. 7:13). Then, ignoring all ceremonial concerns, Jesus walks up to the bier and touches it (Lk. 7:14), much like He touched the unclean leper (Lk. 5:13). And just as He has previously rebuked demons and fevers and they have obeyed Him (Lk. 4:39, 41), and as he has recently given the word and rescued the centurion’s beloved servant from death, so too here, Jesus gives another command and He summons the young man to arise (Lk. 7:14). He commands life to rise out of death. Once again, he says the word, and it comes to pass. The dead man obeys and sits up and begins to speak, and just like the great prophet Elijah of old, Jesus gives the son back to his mother (Lk. 7:15, cf. 1 Kgs. 17:23). This is the point of the miracle: Jesus had compassion on the widow and gave her back her son, gave her back her hope, her future, her provision, her protection.
The Authority & Compassion of Jesus
Both stories illustrate the authority of Jesus and the compassion of Jesus. In the first episode, we meet a man of faith who has the boldness to ask Jesus for a great favor but he’s clearly not in the same desperate situation as the widow. In the second episode, we meet a widow who doesn’t seem to have any faith at all. She doesn’t even seem to know who Jesus is or know to ask or hope for anything. The thing that holds both stories together is the fact that Jesus has the authority to intervene and the compassion to want to.
Both stories present temptations. Sometimes you are tempted to think that your concerns are beneath Jesus. You do not ask Him for help because you aren’t desperate; you don’t ask because you don’t seem to be on the edge of ruin. It doesn’t seem worth it. But this requires you to go through life not caring about all the details of life, and even more troubling, it assumes that Jesus doesn’t care about the details of your life. But He does. He marvels at the faith of the centurion. He loves that kind of faith, the kind of faith that asks Jesus for anything, for everything, and then trusts His authority and compassion to do what is best.
On the other hand, sometimes you’re tempted to think that your situation is hopeless, that it cannot change. And so you don’t ask Jesus for help because you have despaired and lost all hope. But once again, this is to make peace with evil and death rather than to believe in God’s promise to undo it. And perhaps even worse than that, it assumes that Jesus doesn’t care about your desperate situation, that Jesus doesn’t care about your broken heart. But He does. Sometimes He gives us strange commands in the midst of trouble. Sometimes He says do not weep. Sometimes He restores life unexpectedly, and sometimes He takes life unexpectedly. But He is the Good Lord, and He always exercises His authority with compassion.