Weekly Meditation: 29th May 2016
1st Kings 18:20-21, 30-39
The story of the centurion’s servant is a well-known account of faith. The centurion must have been a remarkable man to be so concerned for his servant. At a time when Roman emperors were noted for being both cruel and capricious, this Roman valued his servant highly (7:1) and cared that he was sick. He was both humble – seeking not to offend Jewish sensibilities (7:7) – and confident of Jesus’ power to heal, even at a distance – “but say the word and my servant will be healed”. Jesus was amazed at his faith which was far greater than that of any of the Jews.
Besides faith, however, the centurion displayed extraordinary understanding. Comparing himself with Jesus he did not say, “We are both in authority”. Rather, he said, “For I myself am a man under authority” (7:8). He acknowledged that he was subordinate to others and that this qualified him to wield the authority given to him.
He went on to speak of his own considerable authority; “I tell this one, ‘Go’ and he goes…” but he had first acknowledged that his power was relative. Similarly, he saw Jesus as one who held great power and authority and yet was also “under authority”. The centurion recognised that there is nothing invidious about being under authority. It does not make one inferior; rather, it equips and empowers. Authority and humility should work hand in hand; when they do not, we have tyranny.
There is also a lesson here regarding the nature of God. Jesus, as God’s Son, is one with the Father. The three persons of the Godhead are in perfect unity, co-equal and co-eternal. They are different in function, however; the Father works through Jesus, by means of the Holy Spirit. In that sense, therefore, Jesus is subordinate to the Father, equipped and authorised to do his Father’s will.
In general, we have a dim view of authority, resenting the power of governments, tax-inspectors, police, teachers, parents, traffic-wardens…. We might feel disadvantaged and resentful. That, however, is the view of fallen humans. Authority in itself – provided it is not abused – is a positive good. Jesus, in his earthly life, demonstrated both how to accept and wield authority, and one man – a Roman centurion – gave him full recognition and followed his example.
Our OT reading shows Elijah revelling in the power and authority given him by God, fully confident that he can defeat the prophets of Baal. Even with his altar soaked with precious rainwater (there had been a drought for three years) he knew he could call down fire from heaven to consume both altar and sacrifice.
Perhaps Elijah overstepped the mark in heaping insults on the pagan prophets (18:27). Certainly his confidence deserted him soon after his episode, and he fled from the wrath of Queen Jezebel (19:1-3). Nevertheless, Elijah’s courage on Mount Carmel is impressive. Alone in facing 450 false prophets (18:22) he issued his challenge, “How long will you waver between two opinions?” (18:21). His proposed contest involved inviting the Lord and Baal each to respond with fire to burn their respective sacrifices. Baal’s prophets failed to evoke a response from their god. The Lord spectacularly answered Elijah with fire that burned not only the sacrifice but the altar-stones themselves (18:38). This demonstration of divine power was sufficient to draw the onlookers to worship, declaring, “The Lord – he is God” (18:39). Elijah’s motive had been to turn their hearts back to the Lord (18:37) and he had succeeded. Elijah could not have wielded such power or shown such courage without acknowledging the authority of his God.
Our psalm celebrates God’s power and authority, whose glory and “marvellous deeds” are to be declared “among the nations … and all peoples” (96:3). Now, as then, the nations have their idols, but it is “the Lord [who] made the heavens” (96:5) and who proves other gods worthless. Similarly, Paul writes of the salvation that God authorised through the Lord Jesus “to rescue us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:3-5). How could anyone reject God’s authority and seek another, man-made gospel (1:8, 11)? In Jesus, our God “gave himself for our sins” (1:4). Jesus accepted God’s authority in order to buy life for us, submitting even to death. It is a glimpse of that wonderful submission that the Roman centurion saw in Jesus, whose authority he called on to save his servant’s life.
By Susan Thorne