When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am also a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you: I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment. (NIV)
Maybe you, like me, have had your computer pick up a nasty virus that hijacks every file and function you possess. For me, the most frustrating thing about those events is that there is nothing I can do by myself to fix it or make it better. I must humble myself and ask some computer geek to get into my system and take care of the problem. It feels weird looking at my screen and having somebody I do not know working inside my personal computer. But if I fail to get help, my computer would be worthless – unless I let someone with authority fix the blasted thing.
Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Since he has authority over everything, we must live our lives in submission to his will and way. Only through humble resignation to Christ will we experience the healing and deliverance we seek.
Jesus preached his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and taught the people as one who had authority. In that Sermon, Jesus laid out the values of God’s kingdom: humility, sorrow over sin, meekness, purity, mercy, and peacemaking. Now, in today’s Gospel lesson, we see the power and values of God’s kingdom evidenced and expressed in two stories of healing and deliverance.
The world needs saving, and that is exactly what Jesus is up to. Jesus Christ’s authority is total, and comes from his moral authority, as the very embodiment of the Beatitudes he taught. Grace always gets the last word, as Jesus healed without showing favoritism nor discrimination.
In the first story, Jesus used his authority to heal and transform a leper. Leprosy was a feared disease in the ancient world. There was no known cure, and lepers were forced to live apart from everyone else. The Old Testament book of Leviticus says that a leper must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out “unclean! unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45-46). Lepers were the ultimate outsiders.
A leper came to Jesus with a humble profession of faith: “Lord, if you want to, you can make me clean.” It was a clear case of genuine need, and poverty of spirit. Jesus responded by doing the unthinkable: He touched him. In a great and wonderful reversal, Jesus did not become unclean by touching the leper but instead the leper was made clean.
If we want the world to be saved and to follow the way of Jesus, then we will emulate our Lord by touching the world. It will not do for us to stand afar off from the outsiders of our community and avoid marginalized people. It will not do for us just to provide a service without having to touch someone. Authentic Christian ministry communicates love through contact and identification with others.
Eleven centuries after Jesus walked the earth, another man, Francis, met a leper on the road as he journeyed toward Assisi. “Though the leper caused him no small disgust and horror, he nonetheless, got off the horse and prepared to kiss the leper. But when the leper put out his hand as though to receive something, he received money along with a kiss” (Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano). Francis did what seemed humanly impossible because he was filled with the love and compassion of Christ. The love of Jesus allows us to touch others with compassionate care, especially to those who have been rejected and mistreated.
The second story was equally eye-popping and unbelievable to the people in Christ’s day. Jesus used his authority to heal and transform a Gentile. Again, we see the Beatitudes expressed toward a Roman Centurion who felt unworthy to even have the Lord Jesus come into his house. Furthermore, the Centurion’s profession of faith amazed even Jesus: “Just say the word,” he said in recognition of Christ’s authority, which is big enough to heal without even being present. Centurions were the backbone of the Roman military machine and hated by the Jews. Yet, Jesus the Jew not only responded to the Centurion’s request, he affirmed this Gentile’s faith as greater than any Jew.
Grace answers to need, and not to smug self-confidence. The Roman Centurion did not ask for healing for himself but for his servant, and Jesus listened and answered. The Centurion neither demanded nor claimed healing but came in a spirit of humility and asked with confidence that Jesus could heal his servant if he wanted to. The Centurion simply threw himself on God’s mercy. So, Jesus upheld the Centurion as a model of faith for us all.
Not only did Jesus affirm the Centurion’s faith, he gave a solemn warning to the self-righteous: Their lack of humility and genuine faith would land them outside the kingdom. In another great reversal, the insiders will become the outsiders, and the outsiders become the insiders. The independently proud did not experience healing and transformation because they did not even know they were sin sick. They saw no need for an intervention by Jesus because they already had their righteous deeds to boast about. They were more concerned about looking good and saving face and did not perceive their own unworthiness.
The self-righteous approach to handling problems and difficult situations is to come up with good ideas and clever strategies, relying on sheer personal effort and willpower. Prayer may or may not happen after the plans are laid, and there is no sense of beginning with beseeching God. Our delusional thoughts of personal autonomy only separate us from the grace of God we so desperately need.
There is a spiritual dimension to every situation and trouble we face – including sickness. If we only examine the medical end of physical problems, we may be dealing with symptoms instead of the root issue that plagues us. The Apostle James said:
Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you have sinned, you will be forgiven—healed inside and out. Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. (James 5:13-16, MSG)
Jesus healed and transformed outsiders. The followers of Christ must constantly ask: Who are the outsiders among us? Do we care about strangers? Are we willing to touch aliens and immigrants? Will we intercede in prayer for those who are foreign to us? Will we search for and pursue those on the periphery of society? Do we believe the risen and ascended Jesus can and will heal, deliver, and transform people?
Jesus cannot be domesticated into some figurehead that suits our desires and conforms to our ideas about how things ought to be. Jesus is portrayed in these stories as eager to heal, wanting to show grace to the least and the lowly among society. May we participate in word and deed the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, NLT)