Luke 7:1-10 (NIV)
When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 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. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 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.”
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.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
A pastor is giving his Sunday morning sermon based on Jesus’ teachings about loving your enemies when he says, “I’ll bet that many of us feel as if we have enemies in our lives. So raise your hands if you have many enemies.” Quite a few people raise their hands.
“Now raise your hands if you have only a few enemies.” About half as many people raise their hands. “Now raise your hands if you have only one or two enemies.” Even fewer people raised their hands. “See,” says the pastor, “most of us feel like we have enemies.”
“Now raise your hands if you have no enemies at all.” The priest looks around, and looks around, and finally, way in the back, a very, very old man raises his hand. He stands up and says, “I have no enemies whatsoever!”
Delighted, the pastor invites the man to the front of the church. “What a blessing!” the pastor says. “How old are you?”
“I’m 98 years old, and I have no enemies.”
The pastor says, “What a wonderful Christian life you lead! And tell us all how it is that you have no enemies.”
“All the jerks have died!” (adapted from James Martin How to Love Your Enemies)
Today’s text is one that is often lifted up as an example of faith. Indeed, the faith of the centurion is something that we should all strive for as even Jesus was amazed by his faith. “I have not found such great faith even in Israel,” says Jesus (v.9).
Sure, the faith of the centurion is an important message, but what other nuggets of wisdom can we gain from this text? Today I want to investigate what it looks like to love your enemies in action, and why it is good to do so.
Before we get to the text I think that it would be helpful to remember who a centurion was. Centurions were commanders in the Roman army. Contrary to popular belief, the centurion did not have 100 soldiers serving under him. Centurion is not a reference to century, or 100 years. Rather, it comes from the Latin word “centuriae” which means tribe or company. A centurion would be the commander of anywhere between 80 and 6,000 soldiers, depending on their rank and seniority. Regardless of the exact count, a centurion was calling the shots and giving orders to a large number of other Roman soldiers.
Around the year 63 BC the Roman Army marched into Israel and took possession of the land. Oh, and it wasn’t just any land, this was the Promised Land, the territory that God had promised to Israel. And it wasn’t just that the Israelites didn’t like to share, it was that they didn’t like to be oppressed.
White Europeans born in the United States – like me — really cannot begin to understand what it must be like to live under the rule of another nation. The extreme taxes, the forced labor, and the loss of privacy alone would cause me to be rather infuriated. But the Romans took more than money and energy. They took freedoms and even the will to live from some in Israel. They even went as far as to take the very life of anyone who dared to speak out against the Roman government. Jesus wasn’t the only person to lose his life because he was considered a threat to the Roman occupation. The Romans killed thousands of enemies of the state. After one uprising, it is said that the Romans crucified 6,000 rebels, lining the road with crosses.
The message was clear: if you messed with Rome, you would pay. No enemy of Rome would go unpunished.
This was the organization employing the centurion. He worked for the blood-thirsty, power-hungry, land-stealing Roman Empire. And he had made a pledge to uphold their cause.
But this centurion wasn’t all bad. The Jewish elders speak out for him to Jesus in verse 5, where they say, “He loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”
The word translated there as “nation” is the word “ethnos,” which can also be translated as “people group,” and is where we get the word “ethnicity.”
So there is the struggle. On one hand, this is an enemy. This is not only a Roman soldier, but the leader of many Roman soldiers. But on the other hand, he did build the synagogue in Capernaum and cares for the people.
But let me ask you this: do you think anyone outside of Capernaum cared that this man built them a synagogue? I doubt it. To Jews in Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, he was the essence of all that was wrong with their world. He was the enemy.
When Jesus heals the centurion’s servant, you have to assume that this act did not make many people happy. Jesus was helping the enemy.
As Christians we must ask ourselves how we can follow the example of Jesus in our current context. I’ve never healed another person, so I guess that option is out. But how do I go about loving those that others believe should be my enemies? What can I do to show the love of God to others, even when it means my friends, neighbors, and relatives might not understand? Because enemy love isn’t fun, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t going to win you any popularity contests. But enemy love is being faithful to Jesus.
On April 15 there was a small explosion that shook our very large world. Multiple explosive devices were detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 260. And as I have noted before, a beautiful thing happened in the wake of this tragedy: the people of our country came together to support Boston. Prayers for Boston we being offered from around the world.
The people of the United States were outraged, and rightly so. There is no excuse for someone to target innocent people gathered at a sporting event. This act violated our sense of security and the people of Boston were even confined to their homes for a period of time because the police believed it wasn’t safe to be outside.
In the following days, two brothers from Chechnya were identified as the suspects of the bombings. The older brother was shot and killed when police forces attempted to arrest them. However, the younger brother, Dzhokhar, escaped and remained in hiding for a period of time.
It was during this time when I noticed a lot of ugliness coming across the internet. The prayers for the people of Boston soon turned to death wishes for Dzhokhar. Language that should not be used from the pulpit was thrown around, calling this young man every name in the book, especially ones with four letters.
However, there was also a minority voice that could be heard from within our Christian communities. These voices were inviting us to pray for Dzhokhar.
I’ll admit, when I first saw a post on Facebook inviting me to pray for the safety of Dzhokhar, I was taken aback. Why would I pray for the safety of someone who intentionally put the lives of so many in danger? And why would I pray for his safety when so many of my friends and neighbors are praying for his demise?
The answer is simple, though it is not easy. Because that is what Jesus would do.
The centurion was a foreigner in Jesus’ home land. Dzhokhar was a foreigner in my home land. The centurion was a part of a violent group seeking to gain power and control through whatever means necessary. Dzhokhar was a part of a violent group seeking to gain power and control through whatever means necessary. The people of Jesus’ religion came to him and asked for help for the centurion, even though the centurion himself didn’t directly ask Jesus for help. And now my fellow Christians were asking for my prayers for this young man.
No, Dzhokhar did not ask for my prayers. By many people’s assessments he deserved the worst that our society could throw at him. But as followers of Jesus, we do operate by the ways of this world. We live by a different standard. We live by Christ’s standards.
Matthew 5:43-47 tells us this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
When Jesus spoke these words and said “love your enemy” every person within earshot would have understood that Jesus was talking about the Roman soldiers in their town. This wasn’t some theoretical principle Jesus was trying to explain to his hearers. This was real to them! Then in the case of the centurion, Jesus had a chance to put his teachings into action.
If you are like my three-year-old son, you probably have one word that comes to your mind as we talk about loving your enemies: why. Why should we love our enemies? Perhaps the best answer is the same answer that I give my son after a series of inquiries, “Because I said so.” We need to love our enemies because Jesus said to. Not only that, we love our enemies because Jesus loved his enemies. And the case with the centurion wasn’t a one-time occurrence.
When Jesus was being arrested by the Romans Peter struck a guard with his sword and cut off the guy’s ear. Jesus didn’t say “Yeah, we aren’t going down without a fight!” No, he healed the ear of the man who was seeking arrest him.
As Jesus hung on the cross, breathing his last breaths, he said, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” We love and forgive our enemies not only because Jesus said to love and forgive our enemies. We love and forgive our enemies because Jesus loved and forgave his enemies.
Again, you might ask why Jesus loved and forgave his enemies. I think one reason is that not loving or forgiving our enemies isn’t helping anyone. We have all heard that not forgiving someone only hurts ourselves. But I would add that by not loving and forgiving your enemies and instead seeking to get back at them, you are only going to bring about more trouble.
Clergyman Douglas Horton once said, “While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself.”
I think that this quote can be either metaphorical or literal. Metaphorically you should dig a grave for yourself because you will become so consumed with revenge that you will cease to be the person that you were before you began to seek revenge. You won’t sleep well at night, you won’t eat well, you won’t be able to interact socially with others, even your family members. Seeking revenge ultimately kills the person that you are.
From a literal perspective seeking revenge may lead to your own demise. Someone takes your iPod, you take their television. They steal your car, so you burn down their home. Someone kills your loved one, and you seek revenge by taking the life of someone they love.
Revenge doesn’t solve anything. Love is the only answer.
I think it is helpful to turn to the most authoritative source that we have on matters philosophical. Of course, I am talking about novelty t-shirts.
I have recently come across a t-shirt that at first I thought was mocking this idea of enemy love and I was a bit offended. I still believe that was the point. But the more that I thought about it, the more I agreed with it. The t-shirt said, “Love your enemies, it messes with their minds.”
The premise of the shirt is that if you show love to someone that doesn’t like you, you are getting back at them in an unexpected way. You took my parking spot so I’m going to bring you coffee in the morning! Then you will drink the coffee and you won’t know if I did anything to it!
But when I thought about it a little more, even though the idea behind the t-shirt seems to be malicious in a passive/aggressive way, I think enemy love does mess with your enemy’s mind in a good way.
I come back to that example that I gave a few minutes ago of Jesus praying on the cross for those who were crucifying him. I like this simple line from Mark 15:39, “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’”
Here is the greatest manifestation of hatred: the crucifixion of an innocent man. And here is the greatest manifestation of love where that same innocent man prays to God to forgive the very people who nailed him to that piece of wood. Yes, you better believe that is going to mess with someone’s head.
This act of enemy love caused the centurion to rethink everything that he believed about Jesus and make a public profession of faith right then and there.
Jesus did not die cursing his enemies. He did not call out for his friends and followers to avenge his death. He loved his murders with his last breath.
It makes praying for safety for Dzhokhar seem like a pretty easy thing to do, doesn’t it? And we know that it is only by the grace of God that young man can turn his life around.
If we are honest, Jesus’ example makes loving any enemy in our life seem like a lot easier task to complete. Nobody has ever tried to crucify me. Nobody has ever tried to detonate a bomb in my path. The worst thing that anyone has ever done to me is say some bad things about me, maybe try to cheat me out of a little money. If Jesus can love his enemies, maybe I can love mine as well.
Let us love our enemies because this single act has the power to not only mess with people’s minds. It has the power to change the world.