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Worthy or Unworthy
If God were to ask you why he should let you enter his heaven I wonder what you would say.
For most people in the UK today I guess the question might well come as something of a shock. The underlying assumption that so many have is that heaven (if it exists) is quite simply the place where all but the worst of folk will go when then die. And so the man or woman who has lived his/her life without giving God a second thought assumes it is his/her right to go to heaven.
But supposing we were to push the question a little more I suspect many people would give one or other of the following reasons why they should be allowed to enter God's heaven:
I'm not that bad
I'm no worse than others
I've always done my best and no-one can ask more than that
The common feature with this type of answer is the assertion that somehow we deserve a place in heaven because we are worthy of it.
This morning we are going to look at an episode in Jesus' life where the central question focuses upon this question of worthiness.
Let me remind you of the details of this story before we move on to look more closely at the various assessments and evaluations that undergird the whole event.
The Situation Described
Jesus had finished the sermon that we've thought about in preceding weeks and now he went back to his base in Capernaum.
There was a centurion there who had a servant who was so seriously ill he was about to die. Hearing about Jesus this centurion sent a delegation of Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come so that he might heal the sick man.
These elders didn't hesitate and carried out their mission as best they knew how pleading and reasoning with Jesus that he ought to grant the centurion's request.
Jesus responded by going with these elders to see the centurion but before he gets to the man's house the centurion sends some friends to meet him. There's no need for Jesus to put himself out like this – all he needs to do is to say the word and the sick man will be healed!
Now Jesus responds again – he speaks out commending the centurion's faith. The story ends with the sick servant restored to health and we are to understand that it was due to Jesus exercising his power to heal.
Evaluations and Assessments
Now it is time to consider the story in greater detail. As we do so we should notice straight away just how many value judgments there are crammed into these few verses.
We can find judgments about:
The Jewish elders
The centurion's friends
And these judgments are expressed both in words and in actions.
We will begin by thinking about just three of these various assessments – the servant, the centurion and Jesus himself.
By the time we reach the end of the account we will be in a better position to come to our own evaluation of the Lord Jesus because we will have learnt more about him. How will you think about Jesus and what will you do with him?
We begin here with the servant because without him there would have been no story at all. This man was dying – nothing too unusual there, servants were two a penny and it would be easy enough to find a replacement. Ah, but wait a minute, the centurion thought highly of this particular servant, very highly in fact. He didn't want to lose him and so sent to Jesus for help.
We don't know the details of the servant's sickness. Had it developed slowly? If so we might ask: why had the centurion delayed until things had got to such a state. Did the centurion simply wait on and on until it was nearly too late? That is what many people do isn't it? They put off and they put off... maybe it'll be alright, they think, let's hope so.
I wonder whether some of you are like that. Instead of going quickly to Jesus you too are waiting, waiting. In this particular case the centurion got to Jesus in time make sure that you do too!
But then again it is possible that the servant was suddenly struck down by some serious attack? Perhaps that might help explain why the centurion hadn't called for help earlier.
Life might be fine for you right now, you may not be able to spot any clouds on the horizon, and so you're tempted to put things off, there's no urgency... but you don't know what tomorrow may bring. Our times are in his hands and he it is who tells us that now is the day of salvation.
As we turn to consider the centurion we find that there are several contrasting assessments given. It is clear that this man excited considerable sympathy amongst those who knew him – the Jewish elders were quite prepared to go in to bat for him when asked and he also had friends also who were ready and willing to bring their help.
A centurion was a military man something akin to an army captain. He was usually a man of good reputation and when the Bible refers to centurions it has mostly good things to say about them.
This particular centurion fitted that pattern. The Jewish elders esteemed him highly.
And that is surely something remarkable:
He wasn't a Jew
He was a representative of the occupying forces
Yet the assessment of these Jewish elders was that this man was worthy, worthy of any help that Jesus might be able to give and they had reasons:
This man loved heir nation
This man was generous and built their synagogue for them – the very synagogue where Jesus had already taught and performed a miracle of exorcism when he cast out an unclean spirit from a man who was demon possessed.
These Jewish elders then went enthusiastically to Jesus on behalf of this centurion arguing that Jesus really ought to do something for him.
How many people go thinking like that – Jesus owes us something? But the Bible's message is more about God's grace than it is about our merit. And this grace is freely given never merited – and it simply must be that way because every human being has forfeited all claim to God's favour by falling short of his standards.
Yet how easily we can adopt the attitude of those Jewish elders!
If the evaluation of the Jewish elders was that the centurion was worthy that was certainly not at all the evaluation made by the centurion himself. He didn't allow himself to be influenced by the favourable opinion others might have of him – they were wrong and he knew it. Similarly you must be careful not to listen to the flattering words of others who look only on the outside or on the surface of your life – you have to do ultimately with God who weighs the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Unworthy is the centurion's estimation of his own worth. Unworthy to come to Jesus and unworthy to have Jesus come to him! With such an attitude in his heart this centurion is not asking for his rights or for what he is due he is rather asking for mercy and for grace.
The same attitude that was displayed by the centurion here is to be found recorded with approval in other parts of the NT:
The prodigal son in Jesus' famous parable tried to speak these words to his father:
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." Lk.15:18-19.
Or the publican who didn't dare even life his eyes to heaven but prayed:
"God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Lk.18:13.
Or later, the example of the apostle Paul:
"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." 1Tim.1:15.
Jesus had already responded favourably to the request of the Jewish elders to bring his help, now he is thrilled to find a humble man expressing a genuine and profound faith. Have you yet to come to Jesus like that?
Jesus' declares his own estimation of this man. He doesn't respond to him with a "No, no, you mustn't exaggerate" he accepts the centurion's assessment but moves on to applaud his faith. For Jesus this man is primarily characterised by his faith.
The Bible teaches us that faith is a gift that God gives, it is not something that earns his favour but the mark of favour freely bestowed. But just stop a moment and consider how generous Jesus is here. He applauds the centurion and praises him openly before the wider crowd for something that God has given him as though it were his own!
The most important evaluation that is recorded in this section concerns the evaluation that is made concerning the Lord Jesus himself.
The centurion, we're told, heard about Jesus and is convinced that Jesus is able to heal his servant. Even though the predicament of his servant is serious in the extreme the centurion recognises that Jesus has the power and the authority both to intervene and to rectify the situation.
The Jewish elders share this evaluation! As they go to Jesus as emissaries of the centurion they exhibit not the slightest doubt concerning Jesus' ability to perform this sought after miracle of healing.
The question this leaves me asking is the following: Being convinced of Jesus' power and authority and being willing to intercede on the part of another did these men ever go to Jesus with personal faith for themselves and for their own salvation?
How foolish to seek the well-being of another while ignoring salvation for oneself! And yet there are people who say something like: "I'm glad for you" when they see the positive effects that knowing Jesus Christ have upon a person's life. But they don't go themselves!! Don't be like that – make sure that you go to Jesus.
Let's think about the centurion again: he seems to have done a bit of thinking since he sent the Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come.
Now as Jesus nears his home he sends some of his friends to Jesus: the words are important: Jesus is addressed as "Lord" – surely Luke has included this detail for us because of what he has just written at the end of chapter 6 where Jesus said:
"Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?" Lk.6:46
It seems that the centurion has also been thinking about his own experience as a military man under authority himself and with men under his charge. He didn't need his superiors to be present – their orders were sufficient to cause him to act. Similarly he didn't always have to go with his men, he knew that when he gave an order it would be carried out. If that was true in the military realms then surely the principle held true in Jesus' realms of authority too.
In other words the centurion has developed in his understanding of Jesus' power and authority – he fully believes that all Jesus needs to do is to say the word and his servant will be healed.
And the centurion is not wrong. The account closes with the declaration that the sick servant has been fully restored to health.
As we close let me highlight the loveliness of our Lord Jesus for you and to urge you all to come confidently to him with humble faith.
Just three things with which to finish:
The servant's condition was extreme – it may have been compounded by delay and prevarication – but Jesus responded to the request.
Until you come in personal faith to Jesus Christ your spiritual condition too is desperate – you too may have long delayed and prevaricated but you may come because the way of salvation is still open. Come to Jesus Christ.
The centurion was part of the hated occupying power that was Rome which was in so many ways the enemy of God's people. But this centurion looked to Jesus in faith and Jesus responded.
Whatever your background, whatever you may have been a part of in the past is not an insurmountable obstacle – you too can and must come in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ.
The arguments that the Jewish elders advanced in their attempts to urge Jesus to act on the centurion's behalf were doctrinally unsound and downright wrong and yet Jesus responded.
You don't have to be able to dot all the religious i's and cross all the theological t's in order to come to Jesus – you come as you are with out trying to sort everything out first. As one hymn writer has put it:
Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
bruised and broken by the fall;
if you tarry till you’re better,
you will never come at all:
not the righteous –
sinners Jesus came to call!