When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ 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. 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.’ 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. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 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.
The humble approach of the centurion contrasts with how others saw him. In Luke’s version the elders tell Jesus: “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us”. (Luke 7: 4-5) Clearly his military superiors considered him worthy of the rank of centurion. But in Jesus’ presence he does not pull rank. Despite being a respected Synagogue benefactor he pleads as one unworthy. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” His words have found their way into the liturgy of the Church; for centuries Christians have used these words just before receiving Communion. Until recently the words used were, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”. Since 2011 the Catholic liturgy changed to “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. The centurion’s words have been the inspiration for the Prayer of Humble Access from the Anglican liturgy: We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table … Sometimes it is others who convince us we’re unworthy; sometimes we convince ourselves by comparing ourselves unfavourably with others we deem to be more worthy. The centurion’s prayer is a great leveller – reminding us that no-one is worthy in their own right and yet, amazingly, thanks to God’s “manifold and great mercies”, each of us is welcomed at God’s banquet – God comes to us.
God, we come to you, trusting in your mercy and not in any worthiness or achievements of our own. We come, with the centurion, to plead for those who are paralysed by fear and guilt, distressed by sickness, anxiety and grief. May your love be known – under our rooves – and the beauty of your word silence the discord and unrest of our world. Only say the word and our souls shall be healed. Through Christ. Amen.
The Rev’d Geoffrey Clarke, Moderator, East Midlands Synod