Worthy or Unworthy?

Luke 7:1-10

18 November 2012

Crowthorne Baptist Church

Morning Service


What do you think—did this Roman centurion deserve to have Jesus work this miracle for him, or didn't he?

We seem to find two opposite views in this passage. Look at verse 4, the Jewish elders pleaded with Jesus saying, This man deserves to have you do thisref, or in the translation I usually use He is worthy to have you do this. Now look at the centurion's own view at the end of verse 6, I do not deserve to have you come under my roofref, verse 7, I did not even consider myself worthy to come to youref.

Which one is true? Is he worthy of Jesus' help, or is he unworthy of it? In other words, on what grounds is Jesus going to heal his servant? Is he going to perform this miracle because the centurion deserves it? Or is he going to refuse to help him because he doesn't deserve it? Or is something else going on?

If you need something from God, if you are desperately asking him for help, then this is is the kind of question you might be wrestling with. Are you worthy of his help? Or, will he refuse his help because you are so unworthy? On what grounds will he help you?

What I want to do over the next few minutes is unpack this question a little bit, and I hope we'll see that if our eyes are on ourselves, either on our own worth or on our lack of worth, then we are looking in completely the wrong direction.

Was the centurion worthy?

First, let's consider the question of whether this man deserved Jesus' help.

Luke introduces us to a Roman centurion. This man was a Gentile, meaning he was not a member of the Jewish people, and the Jews would ordinarily have considered him well beyond the pale. Jews did not associate with Gentiles; they considered Gentiles unclean; they would not normally help a Gentile in any way. What's more, this Gentile was a member of the occupying Roman army!

Still, some Jewish elders come to Jesus saying, He is worthy to have you help him. And in verse 4 we see why, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogueref. In other words, the centurion had paid for their synagogue to be built; he was a great benefactor, generous with his money, sympathetic to Jewish religion.

He also seems to be a kind man, doesn't he? We get the feeling in the story that he was genuinely concerned for his sick servant, not as a piece of valuable property—as a servant would have been—but out of human compassion.

This was a very good man, generous with what he had, no doubt religious: respectful of our God, even if he wasn't a fully signed up proselyte.

Surely he deserved a favour from Jesus. What do you think?

It is tempting to think along these lines, isn't it? Some of us believe we are good people: we are regulars at church; goodness knows, we've put plenty in the collection over the years; there are no obvious sins in our lives, well not like some people, anyway; we show up at church meetings; we try hard to be kind... surely God owes us something for all this!

Or we might fall into the related trap of thinking that, if only we tried a bit harder, God would finally answer our prayers: if I pray every day; if I read my Bible every morning; if I give a bit more; if I swear a bit less—then God will hear me; then God will answer me. He's just waiting for me to get enough stickers on the sticker chart and then he'll answer me.

You know what I mean by a sticker chart, don't you? I have two daughters, ten and eight, and sticker charts have been a big part of our lives for several years now. The elder one is currently collecting stickers for doing clarinet practice. When she has enough we'll get her a clarinet of her own and she can move on from my 30-year-old one. The younger one is a bit naughtier and seems to have at least four sticker charts on the go at any one time, covering everything from not arguing over doing homework to being helpful around the home.

The point is that we often think of our relationship with God like this, don't we? If only I can get enough stars for good behaviour, then he will help me. Then he will answer my prayers. Then he will work the miracle in my life that I'm longing for.

These Jewish elders certainly approached Jesus on this basis, This man deserves to have you do this. And Jesus goes with them.

Was the centurion unworthy?

Next we hear from the centurion himself, and it seems that he has a quite different view of things. Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to youref.

He may have been alarmed to hear that Jesus was on his way. He knew that Jesus, as a Jew, would be considered unclean if he entered the centurion's house, or even met with the centurion.

This is the other side of the coin. Far from considering himself worthy of Jesus' help, this man considered himself unworthy.

And this, of course, is a much more realistic viewpoint. Which of us deserves a favour from God? Every one of us is utterly unworthy of receiving anything from God, except the fires of hell. Why should Jesus do anything for us? That thing you are praying for, that thing you want so desperately—healing, reconciliation, a job, a child, the conversion of a loved one—whatever it is, you don't deserve it. I don't even know you, but I can tell you that now with one hundred percent confidence. You don't deserve it.

But there is a danger here, too. If we focus only on our own unworthiness, we're never going to ask, are we?

Perhaps you are deeply aware of your shortcomings, your sin. Perhaps you feel every single day that you have failed God. Perhaps you know all too well that your heart is dark and full of sin.

You don't dare ask God for anything, because you fear what the answer will be. We all know that Father Christmas doesn't come for naughty children; why even bother writing a list?

Here are two equal and opposite and wrong attitudes: on the one hand believing that we are worthy, and that we deserve a favour from God, that we can earn his favour; on the other believing that we are so utterly worthless that we never dare come to him to ask.

What's the answer? Should we try to find a middle way, some balance between feeling worthy of a favour from God, and feeling unworthy of his help?

Well, no, that would just be silly; there is no middle ground.

The answer is to take our eyes off ourselves and our own worth or lack of it, and fix them instead on Jesus. This is the point: if you come to God with a need and you are asking yourself "do I deserve for him to help me?" , or you don't come to God with your needs because you don't feel you deserve his help, then you are not looking in the right direction. If you are concerned about your own worth, then you are looking at yourself—either way, you are putting your faith in yourself and your own performance, you see. What we need to do is what the centurion does next, and put our faith in Jesus.

Putting our faith in Jesus

The centurion knew he was not worthy of Jesus, yet he still dared to put his faith in him to heal his precious servant.

It's worth looking at how he does it. What is the content, what is the object of the centurion's faith?

What the centurion says to Jesus is this, verse 7, Say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it.ref

And Jesus was amazed, he marvelled at this man's faith, verse 9.

There is only one other place where Jesus is said to be amazed, which is in Mark chapter 6. Jesus had returned to his home town and preached in the synagogue, but the people did not recognise who he truly was. They said, "Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offence at him.ref

So, Mark 6 verse 6, Jesus was amazed at their lack of faithref.

In our passage in Luke 7, we find Jesus amazed by faith once again, but this time not by lack of it, but by the sheer quantity of it. Luke 7 verse 9, When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel"ref. This Gentile had expressed more faith in Jesus than anyone Jesus had met among God's own people.

So this is key if we want to understand faith. What is the essence of faith? How had this Roman centurion expressed faith? How can we express faith like this?

Let's unpack what he says. Basically, the centurion argues from the lesser to the greater: he takes an example in his own life, and says to Jesus, "how much more this must apply to you!"

And what he says about his own life is that he understands authority. As a Roman centurion, he has authority—it has been given to him by those above him—and his authority is unquestioned. He gives an order, and that order is carried out straight away. His sphere of authority is both the soldiers who are under him, and his servants who work for him.

What he is saying to Jesus is that he recognises that Jesus has authority as well. Yet Jesus' authority is of a different, greater magnitude. When the centurion says a word, soldiers jump into action. When Jesus says a word, the whole of creation obeys.

He says to Jesus, say the word, and my servant will be healedref. Jesus, you have authority over sickness. Jesus, you have authority over life and death. Just give the order and creation itself will obey.

And there is another aspect to all of this that we shouldn't miss. This centurion who loved the Jewish people, who had built their synagogue in Capernaum—surely he would also have known their scriptures. At least the first couple of chapters at a minimum, don't you think?

And what do we find in those first couple of chapters? Genesis 1 verse 3, And God saidref; verse 6, And God saidref; verse 9, And God saidref; verse 11, And it was soref. Again and again God simply speaks and creation obeys his voice.

Isn't that what this centurion is ascribing to Jesus? "Just speak, just say the word, Lord, and this sickness will be healed". No medicine necessary, no incantations, no contact, not even any prayer: just a word. Don't you think that, in Jesus, this Gentile centurion has recognised God himself among them? Isn't that why Jesus was amazed at his faith? None of the Jews had recognised it yet, but this man had realised: God himself was among them.


So here we see the essence of faith: faith is simply recognising who Jesus is and acting accordingly. It's not some kind of spiritual feeling that we need to work up inside ourselves, it is a simple recognition of who Jesus is—God himself—and putting our trust in him.

We've seen two enemies of faith, which both come from looking only at ourselves.

If you are thinking, if only I try harder, if only I can be a better person, if I give more, pray more, come to church more, am kinder to people, if only I were worthy then God will help me—if you are thinking like this you are not exercising faith. Well, you are exercising faith, but only faith in yourself. We need to learn from the centurion to put our faith in Jesus.

On the other had, if you are thinking, God will never help me, he's not interested in answering my prayers, I am no great saint, frankly I'm a spiritual failure, I am not worthy—then you are not exercising faith either. You may be right, but once again your eyes are on only on yourself and your own performance. It's not about you.

What we learn from the centurion is that we need to look at Jesus. If you need something from God, then stop looking at yourself and your own performance. There is only one place to look; fix your eyes there. Jesus' nature and Jesus' identity is the only grounds for believing that God will help us, that he will answer our prayers and give us the desires of our hearts.