Who is worthy…who is not worthy…it occupies a lot of our attention.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year C) – May 29, 2016 – Luke 7:1-10
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Highly Valued – Pastor Evan Davis
Brett and I have been reading the Daily News-Record‘s annual leadership awards, which their editor and a committee hand out each year to…worthy students from each high school in our area. Do you all read those? Now, they’re all worthy, right? All the finalists? But you might have opinions, I imagine, as to which student might be the most worthy among them all. Particularly if your child goes to one of these schools and you know some of these kids. I’m sure the thought has never crossed your mind that some of these kids seem to win everything and, you know, my kid’s name never comes up for one of these awards and she is worthy of winning something… 🙂
What is a child worth? Awards aside. Is a child’s worth really the sum total of her GPA, clubs, sports, and other leadership activities, community service hours, personal appearance, and creative writing sample, all mailed off to some college admissions office? It often seems that way.
What is this Roman centurion’s slave worth? We already know a good deal about what people thought he was worth – he is simply a slave, not even worth being named. And yet this Roman centurion “values” his slave highly. We could be cynical and assume this means the slave is “worth something” to the centurion, that he is valuable, economically. He works hard or has some other valuable skills. Naturally, the centurion asks Jesus to heal the man to protect his investment. But perhaps the centurion actually cares about this slave, personally – maybe he feels the slave is worth something on his own.
In fact, this centurion is a little different than your average Roman commander. The town elders in Capernaum go out of their way to tell Jesus, essentially, “I know what you’re thinking. He’s a Roman commander. Why would you do this for him? But this one is different. He loves our people. He gave all the money to build our synagogue!” They’re saying, this one’s worth your time and effort.
But the plot thickens. As a Roman commander, this man is acutely aware of the pecking order of worth in society. He understands as well as anyone that there is what they called “the great chain of being,” and everything in your life depended on who’s above you and who’s below you. To whom do you belong, and who belongs to you. But he is also aware of how the Jews valued people. He knew that for the Jews, you were one of them, or you weren’t – and he knew he wasn’t. He knew that if he was even in the same room as a great prophet and healer like Jesus, that Jesus would run the risk of being contaminated by his presence. Amazingly, the centurion cares about this and so he says, “Lord, don’t bother to come here. I’m not worthy. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. Because I know that just like me, you’re a man of authority, so just say the word and I know he’ll be healed.”
We know how the story ends. Jesus is impressed with this Roman man’s trust in a Jewish healer he’d never met, and he says that this outsider’s faith is greater than any he’d found in Israel to this point. Jesus heals the slave from afar. We’ve usually been caught up with the question “why?” Why did Jesus do it? Why did Jesus find this centurion, and his slave, worthy? The town elders say, because of all the good things he’d done. Protestants have been quick to point out, it’s his faith, obviously, not his good works. Jesus simply commends his faith, but doesn’t explicitly say this is the reason he healed the slave.
We could argue about what ends up giving this centurion a positive balance in his worthiness account, but I think that entirely misses the point. The centurion says, “I’m not worthy,” and Jesus says, “oh yes, you are. And so is this one you have enslaved.” Jesus values them both, both of whom are unworthy outsiders from a Jewish perspective, just as he is an unworthy barbarian from a Roman perspective.
I suspect Jesus has his own reasons for finding these two men worthy, when he could easily have rejected them. No one would have been outraged or surprised. But not Jesus. Jesus chose in that moment to demonstrate that one’s value before God is not determined by who you are, what tribe you come from, whether or not you’ve been enslaved, or if you gave the money for the town synagogue. He shows the people that you are worthy because God says you are. Because God created you, and God values all his creatures…highly.
Jesus finds you worthy, regardless of what you’ve done or haven’t done, who you are or who you’re not, what you believe or what you don’t. And of course, if he were looking at the balance in our accounts, he’d find us coming up short. We could focus on how we’re not worthy, and you know what? We’d be right. That would be a very correct thing to say. We could really work up some guilt too. Churches have traditionally been pretty good at that. But I don’t think Jesus is going for guilt here. Guilt is appropriate in some cases, but it should not be the dominant emotion we feel. It should not be our starting place in our relationship with God. Because guilt paralyzes us. It keeps us from being the people God made us to be. And do you know who guilt keeps you focused on?
Yourself! Martin Luther said that sin is simply being turned in on yourself.
Rather, I think the first thing we need is awareness. Awareness that we are creatures, not Creators. That we are sinners, indeed, far from perfect and rather skilled at making everything in the world about ourselves.
So much religion is self-help. It’s focused on getting better, and better, and better….and when you don’t quite measure up, when you are not worthy to have Jesus come under your roof, you get slammed with a heaping portion of guilt. But it’s not about you, and it never was. Of course you’re not worthy. But it’s not about you. It’s about Jesus who heals the unworthy. It’s about our God who forgives the unforgivable in you and in me.
We begin each worship by coming clean about the obvious – we’re not worthy. We confess our sins. But then we move on to what’s more important – the forgiveness which comes from our God. That’s why we’re here. You are declared worthy, so that you might believe that you are. That despite your shortcomings, God created you for a reason. By God’s will and God’s grace, you deserve to be here. This world needs you. Your neighbors need you, and you have a valuable contribution to make.
So there’s somewhere worth focusing…on your neighbor. After all, that was the one commandment Jesus really cared about – love one another as I have loved you. I can hear him, “when you look at the other unworthy people around you, find them worthy just as I have found you worthy. When you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, remember I have overlooked the log in your own. When you so easily see how unlovable your neighbor is, remember that I have loved you all the way to the cross.”
And so maybe the real question is not “am I worthy,” but “do I think my neighbor’s worthy?” We might find that there are plenty who don’t measure up by our standards. But thank God we’re not in charge. Because to God, they’re all worthy of love and respect, no matter how worthless they seem to us. They are all worthy – every kid in school, every person in your neighborhood, and indeed the people in the neighborhoods we avoid. By God’s will and God’s grace, they all deserve to be here too. Amen.