Love Across the Lines

Luke 7:1-6“When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, 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.”

Ordinarily a wide gulf of class and status would have separated these two men. The Centurion was not only a citizen of Rome, the greatest world power of its time. He was also a highly regarded officer in the army. The Greek historian Polybius tells us that only the best men in the army were selected for this position.

His servant was really his slave. He had no money, no rights, no influence. Still, a great affection had developed between them. The Centurion urgently seeks a cure for his servant’s disease. The “high value” placed on him was more than a matter of losing a good worker. In verse 7, “my servant” might more literally be translated “my child,” or even “my son.” The Centurion genuinely loved this servant who was ill.

Apparently this was not an exceptional episode in his life. Listen to the words of the Jewish elders the man sent to Jesus. If you were a Gentile, and especially a Roman Gentile, it was difficult, if not impossible, to win the respect and friendship of the Jewish people. All Gentiles were unclean, but the Romans were the evil empire. Still, this Centurion had come to know the true God and love his people. He built them a synagogue out of his own pocketbook. Long before public opinion frowned on ethnic slurs and prejudices, this man was loving people who looked and sounded different from him, even at great financial cost to himself.

There is something appealing about that kind of selfless, big-hearted love, isn’t there? It won’t win you heaven. It won’t make you rich. But it can make for faithful friends. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, years of selfless love and sacrifice for others may seem to get us behind in the race for success. But when our great time of need comes, our investment of love is returned with interest. Isn’t that what happened to the Centurion here?

Why, then, don’t we find it more appealing? It is sad when we shrink back from offering our love to people because they are racially, culturally, economically, educationally, or even hygienically different. Years ago two families visited my church on the same Sunday. One of them fit the middle class mold. By their poor dress and appearance, it was obvious the other family did not. Later a member of the evangelism committee admitted it was hard to offer the poor family the same warm and loving welcome as the first family. Why should it make a difference? Do we find it hard to love across such artificial divides?

Why was the Centurion different? His love did not exist all by itself. It was the product of his amazing faith. Luke tells us that he “heard of Jesus.” Note that he had not witnessed Jesus’ miracles personally. He simply heard about Jesus. But what he heard, combined with what he knew of God’s promises, produced genuine faith, as Jesus points out later.

What we have heard of Jesus and his promises has the same effect on us. Jesus’ love has come to us across the very real divide of our sin. He has removed our sin with his life and death. He does not treat us like outsiders or second class citizens or unwanted pests. He embraces us brothers and sisters and full family members of God!

Such love begets faith. That in turn begets love in us for others. Later in Luke’s gospel Jesus states that when we are forgiven much, then we love much. It was faith in a loving and forgiving God that turned a hardened Roman soldier into a man of great love. The more we hear of Jesus’ love, the greater our faith will grow, and the more we will live a life of love.

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