Being powerless is a terrible feeling, isn’t it? Do you know what I mean? It’s that helpless feeling when life is bulldozing you and there’s nothing you can do about it. In today’s post we find out a very powerful man became powerless in order to access true power, and how we can learn from him to practice the same in our lives.
As we continue studying Honest Advent, week one is about vulnerability, and how it is a gift that Jesus really wants for Christmas. In the previous post, we met the powerful religious leader, Nicodemus, who allowed himself to be vulnerable to Jesus.
Turn to Matthew 8:5-13 where we meet another powerful person, but instead of an elite religious leader, this time it is a Roman centurion. At the time Jesus was alive, the Romans had a military vice-grip of control over Palestine. The Jews, therefore, were an occupied people, with Roman soldiers patrolling their streets and towns. They were forced to pay taxes to the Romans, to follow Roman law, to do basically whatever that Romans wanted them to do.
As you can imagine, the Jews did not like being subservient to the Romans. They hated the Romans, and they pleaded with God to keep his promise and send the promised Messiah to deliver them. Many Jews tried to be that Messiah. They raised up underground armies who would rebel and fight the Romans. Sometimes it worked, but never for long. The Romans were too strong.
When this Roman centurion comes to Jesus, therefore, an emotional cultural clash is taking place. Jesus, his friends and followers are Jews. The centurion is Roman. They are enemies of each other. Furthermore, the Roman centurion is in the position of power. At his command, soldiers could kick people out of their homes, steal their possessions, demand the people to do pretty much whatever they want. In power dynamics, we would call this the up position. The Roman centurion has all the power and position to do what he wants.
But this particular centurion has a problem that has placed him in the down position. His highly valued servant is on his deathbed. The powerful Roman centurion has no power to heal his servant. Or maybe he tried and failed at that. Maybe he sought out doctors and remedies, and nothing was working. All the benefits of being a centurion in the up position in that society have turned out to be meaningless when it comes to saving his friend.
So what does the centurion do? He can not longer rely on the power of his up position. Instead he embraces the reality of his situation by evaluating himself realistically. When it comes to saving his friend, the centurion is powerless, in the down position. He admits this, and he reaches out to one he knows is in the up position. Jesus.
See what the centurion has done? He has made himself vulnerable. Making yourself vulnerable is really hard to do when you are used to being in charge, when you are used to using your power to get what you want. It takes humility and teachability to lower yourself, to make yourself vulnerable and reach out saying, “I can’t do this. I need help.”
But that is exactly what Jesus taught us to say in John 15:4, when he told his disciples, “Apart from me, you can do nothing, so remain in me, and I will remain in you, and you will bear much fruit.” When we express our vulnerability to Jesus we are showing that we have a healthy evaluation of ourselves, that we’re not too proud or arrogant to reach out for Jesus’ help. It shows that we recognize who we are in Christ, and who he is.
Notice Jesus’ response to the Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus is elated! The centurion has given Jesus the gift of vulnerability, and Jesus loves it. In fact Jesus says he has not seen faith like this in all of Israel! That’s a bold statement considering what I mentioned above, that the Jews and Romans were enemies. Clearly, this centurion was not your typical Roman centurion, which Luke describes for us in his version of the account (Luke 7:1-10). There we read that not only was the centurion faithful in the moment of his powerlessness, but he had also, long before this moment, established a reputation for helping the Jewish community, including the building of their synagogue. Still, this powerful man correctly evaluated himself as powerless to help his servant, and when he reached out in vulnerable faith to Jesus, the centurion is a model for how we can give Jesus the gift of our vulnerability.
Like I said, Jesus is elated at the man’s vulnerable faith, responding by healing the servant instantly! This is not saying that if we are vulnerable to Jesus in our moment of weakness that he is somehow duty-bound to do whatever we wish. Displaying our vulnerability is not like saying, “I wish…” to a genie. But know this: even if we don’t receive the resolution to the situation that caused our vulnerability, our posture of faithful vulnerability is the gift Jesus delights in.
Consider what Jesus himself taught about this kind of vulnerability in his parable of the woman and the stubborn judge. Read Luke 18:1-17, where Jesus says we should pray and not give up, like a woman with a problem who keeps taking her problem to a judge, over and over, day after day, but the judge never wants to be bothered by her. Finally, though, the woman’s persistence pays off, and she gains a hearing before the judge. Jesus is not saying that God is like the judge, as if God doesn’t really want to hear from us, until we wear him down and he gives in. Jesus’ point is that we should bring our vulnerability to God, persistently, consistently, and we should not give up. Rather than being grumpy about this, Jesus reminds us that this delights him!