Season 7 - Week 3
“I thought this guy deserved a miracle?!”
Every week that I can, I make my way to Skagit County Jail to lead Bible studies with the inmates, a ministry that we have led for many years now.
It’s a drab, tan-colored cinderblock space with a wall of bookshelves filled with tattered paperbacks where we gather in a circle with inmates to read and discuss the Bible and to pray— always under surveillance.
We’re looking at Luke’s Gospel, where we see Jesus ministering primarily in public, non-religious places to people mostly labelled as unworthy by religious leaders. Reading the Gospels regularly with inmates sheds fresh light on these familiar stories—because inmates often find themselves in awkward, inhospitable, or even adversarial circumstances that parallel those of people Jesus helped.
We read the story of the Roman centurion in Capernaum, whose beloved slave is about to die. I briefly describe to the inmates how Roman soldiers were an occupying force that controlled and dominated ordinary Jewish people in Israel in Jesus’ day, and that they were feared and hated because of their brutality. I ask the men to identify contemporary Roman centurions, and they mention prison wardens, sheriffs, prosecutors, drug task force chiefs, gang leaders, and drug cartel higher-ups.
We read about how the centurion sends some Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and save his slave’s life – and how the elders insist on the centurion’s worthiness to be helped.
I know from years of experience that people in crisis often try to make themselves as worthy as possible when they really need God’s help. I find myself doing the same. There seems to be a deep-seated assumption in most people’s thinking that God is like a probation officer or judge, looking to see if people are complying with requirements, evaluating evidence proving innocence or signs of measuring up to demands. Does Jesus buy into this theology?
An older, grey-bearded inmate missing half his teeth is ecstatic. He has been reading ahead and wants us all to know that he doesn’t think that the Roman centurion told the Jewish elders to tell Jesus about how worthy he was. He thinks that was the Jewish elders’ own agenda playing out - that they want the centurion’s ongoing help for their projects, and they want Jesus to help them “pay him back” by healing his slave.
Everyone wants to know what Jesus will do.
The centurion’s friends arrive next, and they tell Jesus what the centurion has actually said: “Lord, do not trouble yourself further, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you” (Luke 7:6-7a).
“Does the centurion’s confession of his unworthiness keep Jesus from healing his slave?” I ask the men. “Does Jesus say to the centurion’s friends, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I thought this guy deserved a miracle? Tell him to forget it!’?’”
The men laugh, in part, because it’s dawning on them that this is not the case.
I find myself amazed that the centurion doesn’t present his best self to Jesus through his friends, in contrast to the Jewish elders’ advocacy. He doesn’t hide who is, or use it to coerce Jesus into doing anything for him. He simply trusts in Jesus’ mercy and his power.
We are all amazed at his humility. And we notice Jesus’ humility too. He does not publically ‘pronounce’ healing from a distance to impress the crowd. Jesus doesn’t model the authority that the centurion exemplifies. The centurion’s friends find the slave well, without Jesus having taken any credit for the miracle. Instead, Jesus gives the “enemy” centurion credit for modelling something he calls faith, which we try to get our minds around in the final minutes of our jail Bible study before the guards come.
“How does this story speak to you guys today?” I ask the men. “What do you hear God saying to you as we’ve been reading and discussing?”
“The centurion knows he’s unworthy, but asks Jesus for a miracle anyway,” someone says. “We can do that now here in jail, and this gives me hope that Jesus will answer even when I don’t have my life together and don’t deserve help.”
“Jesus is willing to go where the centurion lives, whether he is worthy or unworthy,” someone else says.
We spend the last few minutes in prayer, thanking Jesus that he’s already on his way towards us, whether others are praying for us, or we are asking for help ourselves. I invite the men to dare to make their requests known to Jesus, regardless of their current situation. On a weekly basis, men share stories of God answering their prayers in ways that bring them into an increasingly expectant faith.
When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “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 you. But 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.”
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.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
Do you have a friend who isn't a Christian who you think might be willing to read a gospel story with you? Or a group of young people who might be interested? It's an amazing opportunity for you to listen and learn from people who bring a different perspective and probably don't see things the same way. It can also be an exercise of faith and humility to trust that Jesus speaks to people without us having to translate or control the exercise.
Perhaps you can think of key theologians, authors or church leades who shape how you approach and understand the Bible. Perhaps those figures have changed over the years. But Jesus claimed that God had hidden things from the "wise and learned" and instead revealed them to "the childlike" (Matthew 11:25), so perhaps we also have plenty to learn from less seemingly qualified people. Can you think of anyone who hasn't held any particualr authority or qualification who has helped you to encounter Jesus - through the Bible, or any other way?