I’m sure everyone is familiar with the phrase “the gift that keeps on giving.” It’s used in both sentimental and snarky ways. This catchphrase was copyrighted by RCA Victrola in the 1920’s and was used to sell phonographs. You know, record players. They were things many of us had before the invention of cassettes, CD’s and MP3 players!
The ads for the phonograph featured a nice white suburban family of four with expressions of glee on their faces. They’re staring joyfully at a big wooden console that holds a radio, record player, and built in speakers. There is a Christmas tree in the background. The family dog is in the foreground, wagging his tail joyfully.
The ad reads “Everybody’s Happy—With the Gift That Keeps On Giving.” The message this ad conveys is “Why give a Christmas present that only lasts for a moment when we can give our loved ones a gift they can use every day of the year?” And who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t want to give those closest to us a gift that conveys our love every time they use it?
I got one of those gifts for my birthday from Gary. It’s a fire pit and it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Gary could have simply slapped a bow on the box and left it at that. However, while I was working the night shift at Mission, Gary prepared a special area for it in our backyard. He even hauled in extra gravel to complete the project.
The next morning as I arrived at home and went to bed there was a birthday card on my pillow. When I opened it, the card instructed me to look out the window. And there it was! A complete and total surprise! If that’s not love, I don’t know what is! My fire pit is the gift that keeps on giving. Every time we use it I think about the love that went into creating this special birthday present.
You might find it surprising to know that Luke is trying to convey a similar message about Jesus in our gospel lesson. For Luke, Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving. If we miss this message, we’re likely to have a distorted understanding of who Jesus is.
The story is set in Capernaum which is home base for Jesus’ ministry. Capernaum is located on the shore of Lake Galilee. Peter’s home was there and Jesus stayed with Peter’s family so much that the gospel writers sometimes refer to Capernaum as Jesus’ “home.” [Mt 4:13; Mk 2:1, 9:33] Jesus was the house guest that never left! But as house guests go, I don’t think we can do any better than Jesus! So it’s safe to say that Jesus knew Capernaum very well, and Capernaum knew Jesus very well.
The town itself straddles one of the principal trade routes between Damascus and Jerusalem. Therefore, it featured toll booths as well as a modest Roman military garrison. [Isbouts, In the Footsteps of Jesus] This is where the Centurion in our story comes in. We know almost nothing about him. He was in charge of a hundred soldiers and served under the authority of Rome, the occupying power in Galilee. He was a Gentile, and would have been seen as an outsider by the Jews who lived there.
However, the Centurion was also credited with helping to build the temple in Capernaum. Because of this, Dr. Monte Luker, who was my tour guide in Israel, believes that the Centurion was probably a “God-fearer.” This specific Greek term means a Gentle who went to synagogue and believed in God, but did not actually convert to Judaism. This would have enabled him to hold public office as well as serve in the army. But it also put him in the awkward position of trying to straddle both Jewish and Roman society.
Luke tells us that the Centurion “had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.” When the Centurion “had heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.” Now the phrase “had heard about Jesus” could simply mean the Centurion knew that Jesus was in town. OR it could mean that he heard about Jesus’ reputation as a teacher, healer and exorcist. The story is not really clear here.
However, my suspicion is that the Centurion heard about Jesus’ reputation as a teacher, healer and exorcist. This is why he sent the Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and heal his slave. The term “Jewish elders” means they were community leaders and magistrates. They were men of extensive influence and were entitled to respect and reverence.
The interesting thing about these Jewish elders is what they say to Jesus which was probably not the message the Centurion asked them to convey. Luke says, “When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.'”
WOW! That’s certainly a mouthful! What I hear these Jewish elders saying is that Jesus owes the Centurion a favor. He has been supportive of the Jewish people, unlike many soldiers in the Roman army. Therefore God owes him a favor and Jesus should heal the Centurion’s servant. Bless their hearts! I know they meant well. But if we read their words carefully, we see that they are asking for a reward rather than a blessing. The Centurion is a good man, therefore, he deserves to be blessed.
This kind of thinking is toxic and leads to all sorts of misunderstandings about who Jesus is and how he works in our world: I’ve been good, so I deserve to be blessed. I’ve been good, so God should open the flood doors of blessing for me and my family. I’ve been good, and I expect my reward. If I don’t get it, I might start whining like a spoiled child who has never been told the word “no.”
Do you see the danger in this kind of thinking? It leads to all sorts of horrible theology about Jesus. Jesus becomes the first international bank of blessing. We make deposits in this bank through all the good deeds we do. We expect a return on our investment. We pray for healing and trust that Jesus will heal us because we’ve been “good, little Christians.”
The problem with this kind of thinking is that when Jesus does not answer our prayers, we come to the conclusion that he is punishing us. If we view Jesus as the reward-giver, he also has to be the punisher. They are two sides of the same coin.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “Why is God doing this to me.” What they mean by this is “Why is God punishing me? I’ve been a good person and I don’t deserve this kind of treatment from God.”
Seeing Jesus as a reward-giver and punisher, leads to even more dangerous theology when it’s applied to healing. If we are the ones who are “good,” then there has to be someone who is “bad.” If we are the ones who deserve to be blessed, then there has to be someone who needs to be punished.
This kind of thinking has reared its ugly head in spectacularly brazen ways over the past couple of years. Christians of many different denominations, including our own, have been quick to label someone else as the “other,” the one who deserves to be punished by God. Consequently, they also deserve to be treated poorly by those who see themselves as the true keepers of the faith.
This kind of hatred and condemnation has most recently been heaped upon the transgender community. Much of the vitriol I’ve heard is done in the name of Jesus. Some Christians feel completely justified in acting in ways that are contrary to how Jesus told us to behave. We’ve also seen this kind of hate speech aimed at lesbians and gays, illegal and legal immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, the homeless, and the hate list goes on and on.
The reason why I bring this up is that Jesus is the not a reward-giver and punisher. The Jewish elders get this completely wrong. Thankfully, the Centurion himself understands who Jesus is. His words speak volumes as we continue the gospel story.
For whatever reason, Jesus decides to accompany The Jewish elders and pay a visit to the Centurion. I suspect it’s NOT because of what they said. I suspect it’s because of who Jesus is! Luke says that when Jesus “was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
What I hear the Centurion saying is “I am no more deserving than anyone else to receive a blessing from you. In fact, I’m considered an outsider by the Jewish elders no matter how generous I am to them. But what I do know about you is this: You have the power and authority to heal. You’ve healed not only Jews but Gentiles as well. So, I leave my beloved servant in your hands. Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
When Jesus heard what the Centurion said, he told the crowd who was following him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When the Jewish elders returned to the Centurion’s house, they found the slave in good health.
The Centurion’s attitude, and Jesus response to it, is quite different from the Jewish elders. The Centurion sees Jesus as one who blesses, rather than as a reward-giver and punisher. Jesus’ blessing is not limited to those who think of themselves as “righteous” and deserving of a favor from God. Jesus’ grace overflows in abundance and is poured out into the whole world, Jews and Gentile alike.
He is the gift that keeps on giving to feed a crowd of over 5,000 people with no pre-qualifications. He is the one who gave a drink of living water to a Samaritan woman at the well. He is the one who went into the synagogue in his hometown, unrolled the scroll of Isaiah, and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Lk 4:18-19]
The Centurion rightly understood that Jesus is one who blesses because his love has no limitations. It’s not given out on a merit-based system. The Jewish elders who approached Jesus got this wrong, but this Centurion, a Roman, a Gentile, got this right! This is what prompted Jesus to say “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” It appears those whom society sees as unrighteous, the outsiders, the rejected, have a thing or two to teach us about Jesus.
The good news of our gospel is that Jesus is NOT a reward-giver and punisher. He is a savior, a rescuer, a liberator, a deliverer, an emancipator. Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving whether we deserve it or not. Like the Centurion, we need to open ourselves up to receiving this gift with humility and gratitude. Jesus will bless us in whatever ways Jesus desires to bless us. When illness persists, when tragedies happen, when death knocks on our door, Jesus tells us “Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Mt 28:20]
If you remember anything from my words today, I hope it is that Jesus is not a reward-giver and punisher. He is the gift that keeps on giving. He is one who desires to bless us because he loves us, NOT because we are “good.” That is a Savior I can follow! AMEN