Does God Want To Help You?
Dr. Jim Denison
Meeting Billy Graham was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was my privilege to lead the delegation which invited Dr. Graham to Texas Stadium for the Metroplex Mission in 2002.
He was preaching a Mission in Fresno, California when we were ushered in to meet with him. He had broken a bone in his foot the night before, and had a walking cast on it. He was sipping water and looking over his sermon notes when our group was brought to sit with him.
I’ve never seen eyes like his—piercing, gracious, holy. We presented him with 700 letters of invitation from across the Metroplex, and I explained our reasons for wanting him to come. He listened to each of us, then turned to me and asked, “Why do you think I can help you?” I misunderstood his question, thinking he was asking about the need for such an evangelistic meeting in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and proceeded to describe the number of lost people in our community and our other spiritual needs.
He listened politely, then asked, “But why do you think I can help?” He was not sure that, at 83 years of age, he could be relevant to our needs. He received our letters and promised to pray. And he did—for more than six weeks, longer than he took to accept any invitation in the history of his ministry, we were told.
His humility was the single most impressive part of the entire experience.
It was an awe-some experience in every way. I felt unworthy to be in the presence of the man who has preached to more people than any person in human history. Most of us know the feeling of being unworthy to be with someone greater than ourselves. I’ve been privileged to meet presidents and governors and felt that way. I’ve been with great ministers and missionaries and scholars and felt that way. There are times when I feel that way especially with God. He knows my mistakes and failures and guilt better than I know them. There are times when I don’t feel worthy to pray to him, to ask for his help, to seek his grace. We’ve all been there and we’ll all be there. Today’s story is for us.
To understand the true significance of this week’s story, we need to know something of the cultural history behind the text.
We have a “centurion” in Capernaum. Who and what was he? The Roman army was divided into legions of 6,000 soldiers, which were further divided into “centuries” of 100, each commanded by a “centurion.” These were the sergeants, the men on the ground; historians call them the “backbone of the Roman military.”
In a city the size of Capernaum, he would be the presiding officer, the military leader of the occupied city. Thus the most hated man in Capernaum. Why? Because the Jews hated the Romans, and even more, the Gentile world they represented.
The story goes back 800 years, to the time when the Assyrians (roughly Syria today) destroyed and annihilated the ten northern tribes of Israel. They burned their cities, enslaved their women and children, and killed most of the men. Some stripped their skin to use for wallpaper. They are called the “lost tribes of Israel” to this day.
Then, in the sixth century before Christ, the Babylonians did the same thing to the southern kingdom of Judah. They destroyed their temple, enslaved their people, destroyed their nation.
The Persians eventually overthrew the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their ruined homeland, but under Persian dominance.
That’s how the Old Testament closes. Then the Greek empire under Alexander overthrew the Persians and enslaved the Jews. One of their generals, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, tried to force the Jews to worship Greek gods. He slaughtered a pig on the altar of the Holy of Holies and erected a statue of Zeus in the temple. The Jews revolted in 166 B.C. under the Maccabees and gained their independence for 103 years.
Then, as their leaders were fighting each other, in 63 B.C. the Romans under Pompey captured Israel and made it theirs. And that’s how the New Testament opens.
You can see why the Jews hated the Gentiles. They said that God made Gentiles so there would be firewood in hell. They forbade their women from helping a Gentile woman in childbirth, for that would only bring another Gentile into the world. They wouldn’t eat Gentile food, go into Gentile homes, or speak to Gentiles in public. One famous prayer repeated by men across Israel each morning was, “Lord, I thank you that you did not make me a woman, a slave, or a Gentile.”
And this man was not only a Gentile, he was a Roman; and not only a Roman, but the man presiding over the Roman occupation of their city. Archaeologists have discovered the military barracks where he lived, just east of Capernaum. This is the background Matthew assumes we know when he tells us that “a centurion” in Capernaum came to Jesus.
But against all odds, he “came to him, asking for help.” Capernaum was Jesus’ ministry center in Galilee; this man had heard our Lord teach and preach and heal. Now he came to him for help.
He called him “Lord,” a remarkable statement. “Lord” translates Kurios, a title reserved for Caesar. Each year every Roman citizen was required to burn a pinch of incense before a bust of Caesar and say Caesar Kuriou, Caesar is Lord. In decads to come Christians would refuse, saying instead Iesou Kuriou, Jesus is Lord. For this more than a million were slaughtered by the Empire.
Now this man came to Jesus, calling the itinerant Jewish carpenter his Lord, his Caesar. And bringing him a very special request: “My servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Again we see his remarkable character, in caring so deeply for a “servant,” a slave, an attendant.