When I was learning to drive, I spent a lot of time in the car with my dad. He was fairly patient, and in the end, I got my license, ok so I got it on the second try, but still, I got it. There was one particular day though, pretty early on in the process when I almost got us smooshed between an oncoming truck and telephone pole. I was pulling out of my driveway and had needed to turn the wheel all the way to one side to make the turn onto the road, but instead of letting the wheel spin back to straight ahead, for some reason I was manually returning the wheel to the correct place, hand over hand, painfully slowly… As I finally got the wheel back to center, a truck going pretty quickly on the other side of the road, passed within inches of the corner of my front end. If it had been a movie, the camera would have flashed between a shot of my hand pulling the wheel to the right in slow motion and the speeding truck passing inches from my bumpers corner. I can remember that moment to this day, and I remember not wanting to let go, needing to correct the direction of my car myself, even if I might not be able to get it done in time. In those nerve-racking seconds, I was reluctant to let go of control, though in retrospect that would have prevented the problem all together.
We continue this morning on our Lenten journey toward the miracle of Easter, but before we arrive there, we must take the time to reconcile ourselves to the reality of our lives. That’s a big part of what lent is a time of introspection. So, we have to take the time to acknowledge our brokenness, our pain, our fear… and with that in mind we have this story this morning…
Honestly, there is quite a bit going on in this passage from Matthew, and more than a little of it is about power. But for me, the only place to begin is with Jesus, and all that sass! “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Wow, that might sound like a formal compliment, but I think if you look a little closer you will see that it was intended not for the man in search of Jesus’ help, but for everyone else there witnessing this interaction, maybe even for you and me. The man looking for help was not just a man, and not just a wealthy man, and not even just a wealthy gentile, but he was a Roman Centurion. Now just to give you a little background, the roman empire was huge, spanning from the modern-day UK to the middle eastern nations in which Jesus lived and did his work. It was renowned for its roads, aqueducts, and the variety of peoples that existed within its borders. All of that was held together by the might of its military. AND that military had any number of tools at its disposal, from the sword to the bow to the chariot, but its greatest weapon was its legions. The legion was Rome’s army, and it was powerful, a centurion was an officer in that army, with around 80 soldiers under their command. This man was more than just a man, and more than just a gentile, to the Jewish audience of Matthews Gospel, this man was hated and terrifying, after all, when this gospel was written the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was only a few decades past, and Jesus holding him up as an example of faith, that would have been quite the jab. But Jesus was not above using a little sarcasm to make his point, he goes on from there. “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Again this was directed not at the man Jesus was technically speaking with, but was said with all those others listening in mind, and he wasn’t pulling any punches now. People will come from all around, he said, even our enemies, apparently, as he was speaking to the roman centurion, and they will personify the traditions and the beliefs of our ancestors so much more completely, that all those actual descendants of God’s chosen people, will be booted out for failure to live a life of such faith… ok so maybe Jesus was being a bit hyperbolic, exaggerating more than a little to make a point, but I do believe he wanted to get people thinking, and in this centurion he saw an opportunity.
So, what did this centurion do to become a teaching tool for Jesus in this moment? And what lessons specifically can we take from it today? Well let me ask you this, what do you treasure? What do you treasure, and how do you keep it safe? We have been thinking about that these past couple weeks, and it’s a helpful place to begin.
What would you give up? How about your power? How about control? Could you give those things up to keep your beloved safe? If my relatively minor experience behind the wheel is any sort of clue, then giving up those things, especially in moments of need, is harder than you might imagine, so consider the actions of the centurion again. This man came to Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, a man with no gold or silver to mention, no servants or slaves, no children or wives, no typical measure of wealth or power whatsoever, a man whose people were subject to roman rule, and he called himself unworthy. He went further than that though, he went on to give authority over creation itself to Jesus in his faith that Jesus could simply command it, and his beloved servant would be well again. Throughout the Gospels people are testing Jesus, questioning him, doubting him, and even outright persecuting him, but this man, this truly unlikely man, comes to Jesus not only without doubts, but with a willingness to relinquish control to him. But not control of his finances, or his correspondence, or his weekly meals, but of something truly amazing none the less, he relinquishes control over that thing that gnaws at him, and gnaws at all of us too, he relinquishes control of the uncontrollable, of those things that are always out of our hands. In effect, he relinquishes worry, anxiety, and so much of the weight of existence, by handing over control of all those uncontrollable parts of life to Jesus.
It seems like Jesus question to those listening that day, and to those of us reading along today is, could you relinquish control, even over those things you clutch and carry that you cannot control. Could you set down those things you carry because they scare you, or they confuse you, or because you have given them control, could you reach out for help when you need it, accepting that you are not in control, and that you need another’s help.
As we travel through lent with an eye on our brokenness this year, moving closer and closer to the miracle and the promise of Easter, we have to take stock of our treasures, and our cracked and chipped edges, if we are to begin the work of healing. That work is hard enough on its own, without also carrying the un-carriable burden of life and death, and the suffocating weight of regret, Jesus, in this brief interaction with the roman centurion, reminds us that in faith there is relief. To keep safe that which we treasure, to make our way closer to God, let us give over the burden of the un-carriable to Christ, in faith. Amen