a man under authority (being Elite part 3)

What is an elite Christian? If you are reading this post check out part 1 which lays out the main idea. In part 2 we looked at the Canaanite woman who was recognized for her great faith. Today we examine the centurion who was also noted for his great faith.

When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” (Matt 8:5-7 ESV)

As we engage in this story we must remember that the man who approaches Jesus was a warrior in the army of Rome.

He is a leader responsible for around 80 men, called a century. His century would be one of six that comprised a larger combat unit called a cohort. This is similar to the way the military divides men into platoons, companies, and battalions today. As a centurion this man has lead troops into battle. And he has charged the enemy lines and faced his enemy face to face in combat. He has likely killed many people during these battles. The centurion is a tough and strong individual who has earned the right to lead.

Not every man was fit for service in the Roman army. According to Book 1 of “De Re Militaria” (On Military Matters), dating to the 4th century, the new recruit was evaluated before being accepted as a Roman soldier:

The recruit, however, should not receive the military mark as soon as enlisted. He must first be tried if fit for service; whether he has sufficient activity and strength; if he has capacity to learn his duty; and whether he has the proper degree of military courage. For many, though promising enough in appearance, are found very unfit upon trial. These are to be rejected and replaced by better men; for it is not numbers, but bravery which carries the day.

And from Book II of the same work, fewer still would be fit to serve as a centurion. This person was one who excelled in the art of combat, discipline, and self-control:

The centurion in the infantry is chosen for his size, strength and dexterity in throwing his missile weapons and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield; in short for his expertness in all the exercises. He is to be vigilant, temperate, active and readier to execute the orders he receives than to talk; Strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers, in obliging them to appear clean and well-dressed and to have their arms constantly rubbed and bright.

This man has likely formed a strong relationship with his servant, having relied on each other through many trying times. Showing both compassion and humility he realizes his friend needs more help then he can provide, so the centurion approaches Jesus. Recognizing the man’s faith and humility, Jesus is ready to heal the centurion’s servant by offering to go to his house.

Who is serving who?

Most people like when people drop everything to take care of their request. They would respond “great, Lord, let’s go”. That’s what I would have done. I would have been so focused on getting what I wanted that I would grab Jesus by the arm and start heading toward home. But the centurion is not like most people.

… the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

This warrior must have known that Jesus was sent from God and able to heal otherwise he would not have sought Him out. But he also understands that anyone who can heal a broken body and restore a person back to health is someone with authority. He reasons that if an officer in the Roman army can issue commands to the soldiers under him with the full expectation that they will be carried out then Jesus can issue the command for the healing and it will be accomplished.

And anyone with authority over the physical world and diseases has authority over him and deserves to be served and obeyed. Not serve him. Just as John the Baptist knew that he was unworthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah, the centurion puts it all together and humbly realizes that he is not worthy of having Jesus come to his home.

And that is what I would have missed. In my pride I would not have recognized how unworthy I really was in the presence of Jesus. I would have expected Jesus to come follow me to my house. I expect Jesus to fulfill my requests. Now, the account doesn’t tell us what Jesus and his disciples were doing, but whatever it was, the centurion had just interrupted them. Had I been there I would have put Jesus “in a box” and expected Him to do what He has always done and heal through physical contact. Jesus would have come and altered His plans and come to heal my friend. But I would have missed out on truly understanding the power and authority of Jesus.

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.

Take me to your leader

Most people like to be in authority rather than under authority. But the centurion is not like most people and Jesus is amazed at his response. To be under authority requires humility and the recognition that another has control and power over you.

Paul, writing his last (extant) letter to Timothy before his pending execution reminds us that serving Jesus takes hard work:

Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one in military service gets entangled in matters of everyday life; otherwise he will not please the one who recruited him.  (NET 2 Tim 2:3-4)

He compares serving Jesus to being a soldier who was to work hard and focus on his training so that he might be prepared to fight and engage in battle. His focus must be on obeying the one who is in command. Without a good leader to train and exercise his men they are unprepared and on the battle field they are more vulnerable. Without the trust and respect for the leader and his authority the soldiers will be disorganized and defeated when the enemy advances.

Jesus said, “no one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”  He also said “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”. If we are going to be elite we are going to have to be like the centurion who was humble enough to accept the authority of Jesus.

Life is not Fair (Being Elite Part 2)

Challies has written an excellent post exploring the “Entitlement Generation”. One of the examples in the post describes a professor who asked his class – what do want the federal government to do to help you achieve your dream. Here was the result:

8 out of 10 students said they wanted free health care, they wanted the government to pay for their tuition. They want the government to pay for the down payment on their house. They expect the government “to give them a job.” Many of them said they wanted the government to tax wealthier individuals so that they would have an opportunity to have a better life.

Are these expectations fair? Should citizens be entitled to a government subsidized house, education, and job?

Responding to the idea that it is not fair that a child born to a poor woman has less chance for success than a child born into a wealthy family, Thomas Sowell points out fundamental problems with how we define “fairness”:

To ask whether life is fair — either here and now, or at any time or place around the world, over the past several thousand years — is to ask a question whose answer is obvious. Life has seldom been within shouting distance of fair, in the sense of even approximately equal prospects of success. …

More fundamentally, the question whether life is fair is very different from the question whether a given society’s rules are fair. Society’s rules can be fair in the sense of using the same standards of rewards and punishments for everyone. But that barely scratches the surface of making prospects or outcomes the same.

A look at Elite Faith and Fairness

Jesus was amazed at the faith of three people a Canaanite women, a centurion, and John the Baptist. The post from Challies helped me to look at the Canaanite women from a different perspective for the series on greatness. Let’s examine the ideas of fairness and entitlement through this woman of great faith in Matthew 15:21-28 (NASB).

Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.”

The woman is a Canaanite living in the Gentile region of what is modern day Lebanon. She has come to find Jesus, whom she acknowledges as the Messiah of Israel who was to come from the line of David.

Having had the amazing chance to meet Jesus, who had come to this area to share some quiet and private time with His disciples (Mark 7:24-25) she makes a request. What does she ask for? She doesn’t want a seat at the right or left seat of Christ in glory, or power to lord over others, or to be served? Nor does she demand the “better life”. She wants her daughter to be well. At the very heart of that appeal is the absence of any sense of entitlement. The basis for her request is not that she deserves help. She is begging for mercy and compassion.

23 But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” 24 But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26 And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

However Jesus does not initially respond to her request. As the account unfolds Jesus calls this woman a dog and tells her she did not deserve to be helped? This should catch the careful reader off guard, not only because these seem like cold  responses from Jesus, but it is such a contrast to how Jesus has been responding to similar requests. This narrative is surrounded by two accounts of Jesus healing many people (Matt 14:34-36; 15:29-31). The difference is the people being healed in these accounts are in areas surrounding the Sea of Galilee in Israel and are primarily Jewish.

Jesus explains first to the disciples and then the woman that His mission is focused on Israel.

  • I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel
  • It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs

In the latter quote, Jesus is saying in effect: it is not right to give the children’s food to the pets. Theologically the children are Israel, the pets are the Gentiles, and the bread is the offer to be part of the kingdom. This plan for reaching the lost is explained again in Acts when the disciples are told to be witnesses first in Jerusalem (the capital of Israel) and then ultimately to the outer most parts of the world. And again in Romans by Paul who tells us that salvation was first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (Rom 1:16).

But is that being fair to the woman?

Is it fair that she was born a Gentile and not a Jew?

Is it fair that she lives outside of Israel’s borders?

Is it fair that her daughter is sick?

Take a moment to reflect on how you might respond to Jesus at this point? If I am honest with myself, I don’t think I would respond the way the woman does.

27 But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.

The woman shows incredible patience and humility as she continues to plead her case and beg for help. Her persistence is clearly aggravating the disciples, always the model of compassion, who just want her to go away. But despite their complaints and Jesus’ initial rejection she never claims she is entitled to the healing that Jesus can give or that its not fair that He heals Jews. She humbly admits that she is willing to take whatever He is willing to offer out of grace and mercy. She is asking for the table scraps that would be thrown out or given to the pets. She is willing to take the left-overs from the Messiah that Israel does not want.

Compare that to the Pharisees who believe that they are entitled to the kingdom by virtue of their special heritage as descendents of Abraham (Matt 3:7-10). They test Jesus demanding signs (Matt 16:1) then call Him demon possessed (Matt 12:24) and ultimately reject Him as the Son of David (Matt 12:23), and plot to kill Him (Matt 12:14). Their sense of entitlement has destroyed their humility and given them an inflated sense of worth. They are not joyful at the arrival of their King and Savior because they feel they deserve great places in the kingdom already.

The Pharisees were likely incensed to learn that many Gentiles would be granted entrance into the kingdom, but they were not entitled to enter, let alone have seats of glory (Matt 8:11-12).

The series of posts is exploring greatness by exploring what the criteria are for being an elite Christian? More important than what we might say if asked if we were elite is how Jesus would answer it. The response of this woman amazes Jesus and elicits the remark: You have great faith!
Jesus has just let this woman know that she is elite because of her faith.

Understanding Jesus’ initial response is difficult. Was Jesus testing her faith, trying to teach the disciples a lesson on faith and the heart (15:17-18), or trying to show them the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Matt 15:7-8) as well as their own lack of compassion. Probably all of the above are involved in how Jesus handled the situation.

Whatever conclusion one draws it is clear that Jesus gives us a lesson on being elite. If we want to be great in the kingdom it requires a humble recognition that life is not fair and we don’t deserve all that we think we do. Most importantly we need to recognize the need for a Messiah because we are not entitled to a place in the kingdom because of who we are or what we have (or have not) done. Until we start to let that sink in we are not going to be great in the eyes of our Savior.

[Continue reading through the series: part 3]

Are you Elite?

The Greeks were know for their irony. And I am not sure one could have scripted a more ironic start and finish to the 2011 NFL season.

The season started with Eli Manning, quarterback for the NY Giants being put on the spot when he was asked: is Eli Manning an elite quarterback, a top 5, top 10 quarterback? Are you in the Tom Brady class? To which he answered, “I consider myself in that class”.

Most people laughed at the time. Despite a SuperBowl 42 win and some good numbers, most did not think Eli was in Brady’s class. But when you make your living as an NFL quarterback, are the number one overall pick (in what may be the best QB draft ever), the son of a former NFL quarterback, and your older brother is often considered to be the greatest QB in the game, you are used to be scrutinized. Add to that the pressure of playing in New York and calling yourself elite becomes major news.

Eli backed up his claim with 15 TDs in the 4th quarter and 6 come from behind wins to get the Giants to the playoffs. With a 7-7 record, the team rolled and notched 5 straight wins to earn a showdown with elite QB and potential classmate Tom Brady of the Patriots in SuperBowl 46.

Adding another 4th quarter game winning drive with the championship on the line, the question that started the season was reconsidered:

“This business about being an elite quarterback,” Coughlin said, “that’s come and gone. I don’t think we’ll hear much about that anymore.”

Anytime we ask who are the elite quarterbacks it generates excitement and debate from fans. Part of the fun is trying to figure out how does one rank elite quarterbacks?

Should it be wins and losses, championships, or eye popping numbers – like yards, completions, or touchdowns? Or maybe clutch performances and team leadership?

It is tough to know what factors to use and which deserve more or less weight. That is why when we look at the lists of top 10 QBS we see familiar names but often in different orders. Some will put Peyton Manning and Dan Marino at the top because of the stats despite the lack of championships. Others will go with Joe Montana because of the 4 rings and clutch performances.

What would you say if someone stuck a microphone in front of you and asked if you were an elite Christian?

And how would you know? What would you use as criteria?

What makes someone great? And should Christians even be asking that question?

Before we move forward, we need to be clear about something. I am not proposing that we should be comparing ourselves to other Christians so that we can evaluate whether we are better than they are. We may from time to time need to evaluate a person’s walk and gifting to determine if they meet qualifications for a position like deacon or pastor/elder. We may also have to evaluate the teaching ability of two pastoral candidates and determine who is greater as part of a hiring process. But those situations are different than arguing about being a better Christian than someone else for boasting purposes.

Like us, people argued over greatness in the first century. In the Bible the scribes asked which commandment is the most important (Mk 12:28) and the Pharisees liked to compare their works to others (Luke 18:9-14), and based greatness on who gave the biggest gifts, prayed the best, or fasted the longest (Matt 6:2, 5, 16).

The disciples argued about who was greater on a couple of occasions. In Mark 9 we encounter the disciples traveling with Jesus.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?”

34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.

I wonder what that might have sounded like:

Thaddeus: Remember when Jesus sent us out two by two. I hold the record for healing more people in a single day.

Thomas: Right but I think John healed more over the whole trip. Right John.

Bartholomew: Well who cast out the most demons?

Thomas: During one exorcism or overall?

James: Well, guys, not to brag but John, Peter, and I did get to see the transfiguration.

Peter: And don’t forget I got to walk on water!

John: But you did sink like a stone.

Peter: Well at least I got out of the boat.

Andrew: yes, but Peter I am the one that brought you to the Messiah in the first place.

This conversation is based on my “sanctified imagination”, a term used by one of the pastors I know to  preface his descriptions that fill in the gaps in a Biblical narrative.

Through their example, if we are honest, we can see some of our own pride in them. The desire to be greater than those around us, to be found favorable in the eyes of those around us. This is the attitude we need to recognize and guard against.

We should want to be great Christians. But not at the expense of others. We should also desire all Christians to be great. In order to do that we need to know what a great Christian is. So we turn to Jesus who gave a few lessons on what greatness looked like.

[Continue reading through the series: part 2]