Proper 4C: What Impresses Christ?
By: The Rev. William Culpepper
There is a word that is thrown around in my social circles more and more these days it seems. That word is “entitlement” and it usually seems to refer to those who believe they are owed something because of someone’s actions or status (whether that status was achieved or handed to them at birth). Recently, I’ve read this word in blogs centered around the 2016 elections—in fact, I’ve heard supporters of both political parties accuse the other of exploiting their sense of entitlement to gain votes. I see this word lived out through many of the people that I encounter in my daily life. And if I’m completely honest, I hear myself grumble and complain about not getting what I think is owed to me.
It is often frustrating and even more often ugly to witness. So when I read that the Jewish elders approach Jesus and ask him to heal the servant of a centurion because the centurion (not the servant by the way) “…deserves [it]” (v.4), I immediately get a bad taste in my mouth. Here is a member of the ruling Roman government who is wealthy enough to have servants in his house, sending representatives made up of the very same people that his empire has conquered to Jesus, asking that he, a Jew, heal a servant because he deserves it—either because of his status or because he was gracious enough to build a synagogue (v. 5). Talk about entitlement! Why should he receive preferential treatment? Because of his power? Because he is well liked in the area?
And still, Jesus goes with them to this man’s house. Or at least he almost goes to his house. He doesn’t quite make it. Before they can arrive, more of the centurion’s representatives approach Jesus and the crowd. This time they are friends of the man (v. 6) which we might safely be able to assume means that they were of comparable status to the centurion. Probably politically powerful. Probably economically rich. Probably Roman. Probably not Jewish.
As they approach, I ready myself again for more words of entitlement. I expect them to tell Jesus again how much the centurion deserves to have his servant healed because of how great a man he is. But I am shocked! Shocked because the message that the centurion sent to Jesus is “Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof” (v. 6, emphasis mine).
A little later, after he receives the full message, Jesus is “impressed” (v. 9) with the centurion and heals the servant despite never coming into physical contact with him—presumably because of the centurion’s faith. As Jesus said, he had not found faith like the centurion’s—not even in Israel (v. 9).
And that, I believe, is the crux of the story.
From the very beginning of this passage, Luke sets up a dichotomy between the people of Israel and the people of Rome. He is careful to say that the first group of people that approaches Jesus is a group of Jewish elders and that the second group that approaches Jesus is comprised of the centurion’s friends. The irony here is that it is the Jewish elders who claim that Jesus should heal the centurion’s servant because the centurion deserves it, whereas the friends of the centurion bring a message from the centurion claiming that he is not worthy of the Son of God to come to his house, much less heal his servant. This passage is yet another example of a concept that we find over and over throughout all four Gospels—namely, those who should have a more developed understanding of the work of God misunderstand the message of Christ, while those who are on the outside of the faith community somehow seem to understand Jesus’ message more completely.
The religious people in this passage approach Jesus claiming that he should help a man because he has done something to deserve that help, but according to Christ the non-religious man has a greater faith than anyone else in the entire Jewish nation because he understands that despite his worldly status, we are to humble ourselves in the presence of God.
We see this play out in different ways in our lives of faith today. Too often we see members of churches making demands of the pastors and the staff while saying something akin to “I’ve been a member here for 20 years” or “I give more money to this ministry than anyone else.” Even in my tradition, I’ve seen some who have been ordained longer than others bring up their longevity before making an argument or motion during our Annual and General Conferences. I am not advocating that we should discount someone’s ability or experience when it comes to making decisions or policy (and I am by no means suggesting that I myself am immune to utilizing my own clout), but I do read here and in other places in Scripture that God values humility over entitlement and that what impresses God is not the use of influence, but rather restraint in doing so.
 For the purposes of this essay, I am quoting from the Common English Version.
The Rev. William Culpepper is an ordained Deacon in the South Georgia conference of the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as the Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at a church in downtown Macon, Georgia. With a 2 year old daughter and another girl on the way, he and his wife Lindsey have their hands full but wouldn’t have it any other way.