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072  Flesh vs. Spirit, an Illustration

Last time I wrote, I explained how having one's mind set on the flesh does not necessarily produce a bunch of nasty sins, but does produce a life that can't please God. If you want to please God, I said, you have to do as Paul taught and focus your mind on things of God. That will direct you and transform you so that you do what God wants. (Here's the link, if you want to reread it.)

Many years ago God showed me an illustration from Luke's gospel that illuminates the point, showing us instances of actions led by the flesh and actions led by the Spirit. I didn't know what to do with it at the time so I sat on it for maybe 35 years without mentioning it to anybody. But recently I had to teach a small group and the Holy Spirit encouraged me to drag it out and dust it off, so I did. And now I'm repeating it here for you as well. 

Luke 7:1-10 tells a story about Jesus being invited by the leaders of the town of Capernaum to come and heal the servant of the local Centurion who oversaw the military garrison there. The Jewish elders pleaded with Jesus to do it, and He agreed to go with them. Jesus was on his way to fulfill their request when the Centurion sent a messenger saying, "You don't actually have to come all this way for me, just say the word from wherever you are and my servant will be healed." Jesus marveled at this, calling it "great faith," and did as the Centurion asked--He healed the servant from where He was.

The Elders of Capernaum were more important Jews than most of us realize. When we hear of Jesus making his headquarters in Capernaum, a lot of us think it was a rural outpost, as though Jesus were a country preacher from Keokuk, IA or Cecil, PA. In truth, it was more like He set up shop across from the gates of Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, half a mile from MIT. Capernaum was small--it had maybe 1500 residents in Jesus' day--but very important in the developing, Rabbinic form of the Jewish religion. Important thinking was being discussed there. Most of what became the Talmud, the book guiding Jewish legal interpretation to this day, came from the Rabbis of Galilee, and Capernaum was probably the most important center of Rabbinic learning in Galilee.

The Elders of the town were responsible for making sure that that continued unhindered. They were men who had some clout and a great deal of responsibility.

Corresponding to that, the Centurion was also somebody important. Centurions were the backbone of the Roman army the way that Master Sergeants are the backbone of the American army. Though most were not upper-crust citizens, they could make a good income; the Centurion in Luke 7 was wealthy enough to have built the Jews a synagogue out of his own means. And since it's unlikely that a town of 1500 people needed a military installation of 100 or more men to govern it, he was probably responsible for a wider area than just the immediate town.

The Elders of Capernaum were eager to keep the Centurion happy. They ruled a town under military occupation, but they were lucky to have friendly relations with the commander, which kept the town safe. This turned out to be important about 40 years later: when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem during the First Roman-Jewish War in 70 AD, the center of Judaism shifted northward to Galilee, and friendly relations with the military there probably saved many lives. 

So the elders came to Jesus and played politics. They argued that the Centurion was worthy (note the word, "worthy") of Jesus' attention because he had been helpful to the Jews. They wanted to keep his bread buttered, so they begged Jesus to come.

This brings up a point from my last memo. The Jewish leaders represent the flesh. What they were doing was not overt sin; they were not doing anything evil, they were simply doing their job. But their trust was not in YHWH, their trust was in politics. They were angling to make sure they kept good relations with the ruling military power. They expressed no real concern about the poor slave, who was dying, nor about Jesus, whom they were inconveniencing. Their concern was for the important man whose favor they needed, and that made him "worthy" of Jesus' attention. Ultimately, their concern was for themselves, and their trust was in their own ability to surf the waves of political fortune. (And as I said a moment ago, historically it turned out to be a good thing they did. Their trust wasn't in YHWH, but He apparently used them to save some lives nonetheless.)

By contrast, now look at the Centurion. We know that he was deeply concerned for the welfare of his slave. He is the one who initiated the call to Jesus through the Jewish Elders. That was extraordinary; apparently he had exhausted all cures within Roman medicine, and was willing to try even extreme approaches--like calling the healing Rabbi.

We also see that he was considerate of Jesus' needs. See what he says in vv. 6-7, telling Jesus not to inconvenience himself. He began by saying of himself the opposite of what the Elders had said: "I'm not worthy." That's humility. 

But he went further. There was no law in Judaism that stated that they were forbidden to enter a Gentile's house, though the House of Shammai actually taught that there was. But even among the less stringent Jews following the Houses of Hillel or Gamaliel, entering a Gentile's house could mean serious inconvenience. If they touched the Gentiles' cooking pots, food, or clothing they had to undergo some rituals of cleansing before they could do anything else of a religious nature. Plus, they would risk hostility from those Jews who hated the occupying army.

The Centurion, understanding this, applied some understanding of the Kingdom of God to spare Jesus the inconvenience. "I know how authority works. You have authority. You don't even have to be here to heal my servant."

No doubt Jesus was pleased not to have to deal with the consequences of rubbing shoulders with Gentiles, but he was most impressed by the Centurion's understanding. 

There are only a handful of places where Jesus spoke of Gentiles in the gospels, and where He did, the message was always the same: they don't know God. It shows up twice in Matthew 6. In verses 2, 5, and 16, Jesus warned his students not to be like religious hypocrites and do things to be noticed. But in verses 7-8 He said "Don't repeat yourselves like the Gentiles, who use many words because they don't know what God is really like" (my paraphrase). The Gentiles were not hypocrites; they were ignorant. He said the same in Matthew 6:32: "The Gentiles seek after material needs because they don't know that God will meet their needs" (my paraphrase). God had revealed Himself to the Jews, but the Gentiles were in the dark. Jesus did not chastise the Gentiles for their ignorance, nor did He hate them; He simply pointed out that they did not know, and taught His students, "Don't act like people who don't know what God is like."

The two places in the gospels where Jesus marveled at Gentiles, it was because contrary to His expectations, they did know what God was like. One instance is in Matthew 15:21-28, and the other is here in Luke 7, and paralleled in Matthew 8:5-13. That's why He was impressed; clearly they had some relationship with God despite the fact that they were not Jews, because they understood correctly how God would respond to their requests.

And what this says about the Centurion is that unlike the Jewish Elders of Capernaum, YHWH and His ways were in the front of his mind. It showed in his understanding of how authority would work in the Kingdom of God. It also showed in his unselfish concern, first for his slave and then for Jesus. The Centurion represents life in the Spirit. 

And the lesson remains for us all: we can be shrewd and savvy like the Elders, and play politics to protect ourselves. Or, we can be compassionate and considerate, and please God, like the Centurion. The difference lies in where we put our trust, on whom we count for our safety and provision, and in what thoughts usually fill our minds. 

Meditate on God. It will change you, and it will please Him. Ultimately, it will produce in you what we Protestants like to call "salvation," with benefits both now and in the world to come.

Welcome to 2020. I'll be back in a couple of weeks. 


Phil Weingart

You can find back issues of RfMemo on my web site, Click on the heading, "RF Memos Archive." They're all there. 

Also, if you haven't read my books, what are you waiting for? They're both pretty good. "The Rabbi on the Mount" gives you Jewish context to understand the Sermon on the Mount, and "He's Greater Than You Know" answers some tough questions about the faith. Click on the images and you'll be taken to Amazon dot com, where you can buy the books in trade paperback or Kindle format.


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