The Human Element
Texts: Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10
Normally I begin a sermon by reading the text and then moving on from there. Today, before we look at these texts, I wanted to give you a little bit of background information. First of all, as we read the texts a little later you will notice right away that these two texts tell approximately the same story. The story in Matthew is slightly different than the story in Luke, but the primary points of story, I think remain intact.
This is the story of the Centurion’s servant. You might remember the story from your own readings or have heard the text read at one time or the other. Essentially, what takes place is that a Roman Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus offers to come and see the servant, but the Centurion says that is not necessary, because he knows how being in command works. He simply wants Jesus to say the word, and his servant will be healed. This is a great story of faith and the power of the spoken word-but I don’t want to talk about either of those things today. These are also the main ideas of the story; the power of faith, the power of belief, the power of the spoken word. These primary concepts remain unchanged from one reading to the next.
These two texts, taken in tandem, are also a great example of what I call the human element when it comes to the Bible. You see, there are some who claim the Bible to be inerrant and infallible, that it is strictly the word of God without any human influence. I do not believe this to be true. You may have encountered relatives or acquaintances that seem to think if something is in the Bible, then the discussion is over. If you can quote a scripture about a topic, then you win the argument and no further discussion is required. I don’t believe this to be true either.
I do believe many of the writers of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament were truly inspired, that is, “in-spirited” and possessed a great connection with the Divine. But that connection does not prevent you from putting your own spin on a particular story. These two texts demonstrate a little of the ‘spin’ I am referring to. Further, I also believe that many times when scripture is quoted, the portion that is quoted is more spin than primary concept.
Before we can become fully aware of the spin, it is necessary to have a little background information concerning the texts and how they were written. Both authors of Matthew and Luke were not eye-witnesses to the events and stories of Jesus they were writing about. Written at about the same time, these two Gospels were written by authors that were separated geographically by a great distance and the belief among most scholars is that they did not communicate or cooperate in the writing of their Gospels. Both authors had to rely on other written sources and the oral tradition of the time. This helps to explain why there are a few differences. One of the sources both authors used was the Gospel of Mark; this Gospel is one of the oldest of all Gospels and was written about 50 or 60 years before Matthew and Luke were written.
Another possible source is what Bible scholars call “Q”, this source is assumed to have existed, because an actual copy of “Q” does not exist. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, it was hoped that the discovery would include this missing document. What they thought might be “Q” turned out to be what has become known as the Gospel of Thomas instead. The reason we believe “Q” actually existed is because of texts like these, and others, that are so similar (actually there are some that are identical) that appear in both Matthew and Luke, but do not appear in Mark. The assumption is that the authors of Luke and Matthew had to have another matching source to work from, and that source is what we refer to as “Q”.
All this is simply background information leading up to the conclusion that I am making regarding the author of Luke and his introduction of the human element into this particular story.
Let’s begin by reading the story as it is found in the Gospel of Matthew. (Matthew 8: 5-13)
5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” 8 The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 10 When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.
In the Matthew version of the text, the Centurion comes to Jesus. He admits that he is not worthy to have Jesus come to his house; therefore he just wants Jesus to speak the word. There is a lot of speculation around this idea of the Centurion not being worthy to entertain Jesus as a guest of his house, but the most widely accepted theory is that because of the tension between Jesus and Rome the Centurion would be better served to keep his distance from Jesus. The Roman soldier did not really want to be seen associating with the enemy is a simpler way of understanding what was going on here.
If we read the same story in Luke, we will notice a few differences; the primary differences in the story are how the Centurion communicates with Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus and the Roman guard speak face to face; Luke goes to great length to make certain the two never actually speak face to face, but rather through friends and mutual acquaintances. Let’s read:
Luke 7: 1-10…
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he 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; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Can you see the difference in the two texts? I don’t believe the value of the story is diminished in either telling of the story-the same message still gets through. But to think that both stories are inerrant and infallible is nonsense. You would have to be schizophrenic to believe that both stories are the absolute true inspired word of God.
I spoke earlier of the ‘spin’ of Luke’s telling of this story, and I think it may have something to do with who Luke was writing for. If you check at the beginning of both Luke and Acts, you will discover that Luke was commissioned to write these two books for a person named Theophilus. Now, the literal meaning of Theophilus is simply friend of God, and so it could be considered a generic greeting, but most scholars agree that Theophilus represents an actual person. It is also believed this person was a high ranking political figure prominent in the Roman government of the day. Perhaps even an older brother of a Roman governor according to some historians.
If this tension between Jesus and the Romans was still high when Luke was writing his Gospel, doesn’t it make sense that Luke would show the Roman Centurion in the best light possible and have the soldier make special effort to not actually associate with Jesus? It is just an idea, but it demonstrates how the human element can enter into the writing of our Bible. It is only natural to tell someone a story in the best way possible.
I think these two scriptures give us a glimpse of what I call the human element that is present in our Bible. It is the presence of the human element that is one of the reasons I do not believe in Biblical inerrancy and infallibility In the days to come you are likely to hear a lot of scripture quoted. I believe it is part of my responsibility to you to prepare you for that day. To prepare you to have some knowledge and background concerning the validity, the authority and the extent to which it is safe to rely on scripture alone to guide our way…I think it is valuable information and so now you have it too.
Go in peace, and go with God. Amen.