A Study in Contrasts: The Centurion and the Widow of Nain–Luke 7:1-17

Preached at United Reformed Church, February 7, 2021

Our scripture lesson is a study in contrasts.  Professor Mark Vitalis Hoffman says

The first story, set in Capernaum, deals with people enjoying power and status both from the Roman realm and the Jewish hierarchy. We are fully engaged in the sphere of first century patronage with an authority figure dispatching representatives who broker the exchange of benefactions. How much is the life of a precious slave worth? About the cost of a synagogue and other demonstrations of love for the Jewish nation.

The scene in Nain is decidedly more rustic and lower class. There is a “large crowd,” but there are no dignitaries, no intermediaries, no prepared speeches. The contrast is clear, and, depending on your own social location, it is either surprising that Jesus is willing to help a Roman centurion or a nondescript Jewish widow. Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t bother with such distinctions.
(Working Preacher, February 3, 2014, Commentary on Luke 7:1-17 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary)

Let’s briefly consider each of these two people.

Who is this centurion?

He is a powerful man.  He is undoubtedly a Roman citizen with all the perks that citizenship brought with it. He is an officer; as a centurion, he is the equivalent of a captain in the modern military. He is also the representative of the Roman Empire in a land that the Romans have subjugated.  He is not someone you want to cross.

He is a rich man.  He has enough money that he can fund the building of synagogue all by himself.  But he is also a generous man, who is willing to use his power and money to help the people in his community.

He is a respected man.  He is honored by the local Jewish leader who are willing to carry his request for healing to Jesus.  When they come to Jesus they say, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.”

He is a kind man.  He is genuinely concerned for the welfare of his slave

With power, wealth and respect you might suspect that he was an entitled man.  Indeed, when the Jewish leaders first come to Jesus, it looks like he is playing his entitlement card.  “I built your synagogue,” he seems to say to the Jewish leaders.  “Now you owe me a favor.  Ask Jesus to heal my slave.”

But ultimately, he is a humble man.  After first playing his entitlement card he thinks better of it and sends a second group, this time his friends, who don’t owe him anything, but are just doing it out of love and care for him.  And now he says, “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. For I also am a man set under authority.” 

By making this statement the centurion is doing two things.  First he is recognizing that Jesus is higher up in the chain of command and therefore the centurion cannot claim any entitlement.  No private in the army will ever make a demand of his sergeant, let alone his commanding officer, and especially not from the commander in chief.  He can make a request, but not a demand.

Second, he is also acknowledging that Jesus has the power and authority to grant his request.  He puts himself in the same position as the leper we studied last week.  Do you remember what the leper said, “I know you are able, if you choose, you can make me clean.”  Commenting on the centurion’s faith Joel B. Green says,

This centurion seems to know more than he ought! Luke’s readers know that Jesus has been commissioned by God and that the power of the Spirit is operative in his ministry; the centurion seems to act on the basis of similar awareness. he recognizes Jesus’ authority and trusts that Jesus will exercise it on his behalf, even though, as a Gentile, even as one who had acted on behalf of Israel, he does not deserve such treatment. (Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke (p. 288). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997 )

Jesus is amazed by this man’s faith and commends his faith to all of us.  However, he does not heal the servant because of the centurion’s faith.  In the next episode, he raises the widow’s son from death and it says nothing about her faith.  That means that this passage is not primarily about the centurion and his faith.  Rather this story about Jesus and his purpose.  Jesus heals because that is why God sent him—Jesus came to save the whole world.

When Jesus heals this centurion’s servant he is fulfilling the prophecy that Simeon made when Jesus was only a new born child.  You remember Simeon, the old man to whom God had promised that he would not die before he had seen the messiah? We read about him only last month. When Simeon took Jesus up in his arms he prophesied that Jesus would be a light for revelation to the Gentiles.  (Luke 2:32). 

This centurion is the first in a long line of Gentiles who will become a part of God’s people, including the centurion at the foot of the cross who confessed the “Truly this man was the Son of God,” and the jailer in Philippi who asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?”  Luke includes this story to remind us that Jesus’ salvation is for everyone. What is hinted at here becomes the theme of the Book of Acts that the gospel will go from “Jerusalem and all Judea and Samar′ia and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8) and reaches its climax in the book of Revelation where John sees a countless multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes” of salvation (Revelation 7:9).  In this passage we see Jesus opening the door of salvation to everyone—and that includes you and me.

Who is this widow?

Let’s turn now to the next person in our scripture lesson, the widow of Nain. 

Michal Beth Dinkler, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School helps to set the dramatic scene for us.

The story depicts a meeting of two processions: one represents life (Jesus, his disciples, and a “large crowd” who have just witnessed and celebrated a miraculous healing in Capernaum), and the other is a procession of death (the widow, her dead son, and the mourning crowd). Commentary on Luke 7:1-17 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, February 5, 2017

The city of Nain is 25 miles from Capernaum.  So Jesus, and the crowd that followed, must have been walking all day before they encountered the funeral procession. 

It was also the custom in those days to bury a person as soon as possible. Msgr. Charles Pope tells us

In Jesus’ day, the custom was for the body to be wrapped elaborately in a shroud and the face covered with a special cloth called a sudarium. The hands and feet were tied with strips of cloth.

Once the body and been prepared, relatives and friends could come to the home to say goodbye for the last time. All of this happened quickly and burial usually followed within eight hours of death. In the hot climate, burial could not be delayed. (Death and Burial at the Time of Jesus, Msgr Charles Pope

Taken together this means that the young man must have died earlier in the day while Jesus was still on the way.  So when the two processions collided, the mother would still be in a state of shock, while Jesus would have been tired, not only from the walk, but also from the press of the crowd around him.  It would have been perfectly reasonable for him to be sad but to walk on by.  He could have sent her “thoughts and prayers,” but instead he lays his hand on the bier to stop the procession.

It’s interesting to note the contrasts between the centurion and the widow

  • male vs. female. In a time and place when the odds were stacked against women
  • Centurion vs. widow.  He commanded troops, she kept a home.
  • Wealthy vs. poor.  He lived luxuriously and could afford to build a synagogue.  She lived hand to mouth and now was doubly poor—first deprived of the support by the death of her husband  and now robbed of any financial security or future by the death of her only son.
  • Position of status vs. position of little or no status.  He hobnobbed with the wealthy and spiritually elite and commanded the respect of all.  She lived in anonymity and obscurity
  • Honored slave vs. only son.  He was concerned by the health of an employee, she was deprived of her own flesh and blood, the grief so much deeper than the centurion would ever know.
  • Deathly sick vs. dead.  There seemed to be hope for the centurion’s slave, but no hope whatsoever for the widow’s son.
  • Gentile vs. Jew.  This was the only plus on her side.  She could at least say that she was a part of God’s chosen people. (adapted from Brian P. Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke7x11.htm)

In his inaugural sermon Jesus had defined his mission as being “preach good news to the poor.  If ever anyone was poor, if ever anyone could use some good news, it was this woman.  This is precisely the kind of person for whom Jesus came.

Once Jesus stops the procession all the attention is focussed on the widow.  Joel B. Green comments

Surprisingly in a social context in which females are typically identified in relation to males, this dead man is presented as “his mother’s only son.” Following this, the focus of attention is on her: she was a widow, the crowd was with her; Jesus saw her; had compassion on her; spoke to her; and, finally, gave the dead man brought back to life to her. She who is husbandless and sonless and in mourning, she who epitomizes the “poor” to whom Jesus has come to bring good news, 25 is the real recipient of Jesus’ compassionate ministry. In fact, it is not too much to say that “healing” in this instance, although it entails the miraculous raising of this young man from the dead, should be interpreted as the restoration of this woman within her community. (Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke (pp. 289-290), 1997, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing )

Jesus resurrects not only the dead man, he also resurrects the woman’s hope and future. She who had no future now has a bright future.  She who lost all security now once again is safe.  She who was weeping is now laughing.  

Can you hear the woman now laughing with tears of joy?  Sobbing laughing and hugging. Blessed are those who weep, for they shall laugh.

Once again we see Jesus fulfilling his calling and changing the lives of those around him. And that’s what Luke is trying to do. In these early chapters he is trying to illustrate how Jesus preaches Good News and brings Good News.

That Good News is for everyone. It is for rich, entitled centurions, who are willing to humble themselves and bow at the Lord Jesus’ feet. It is for poor broken widows who have no hope. And its for you. No matter how broken you are.  Each of us needs Jesus and Jesus wants to be there for you.  

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