In college, I thought I had earned a good grade because I knew I was a good student and thought my work was better than most of my classmates. So I thought I'd backdoor my way into a good grade. I got a "C." After discussion with the professor, I had to change my attitude. He wanted me to put in my best effort, to learn, and to do what was right.
Have you had experiences in your life where you thought you had earned something, only to find out it wasn't the case at all? Maybe a job promotion you thought was in the bag? Maybe a job itself? Perhaps you did something nice for your family and expected a certain response but received a cold shoulder instead. Or possibly you feel as though you've earned a certain level of respect at church, but you fail to receive it...and you become bitter.
We often apply this way of earning something to our spiritual lives. Although we acknowledge that we believe we are saved by grace, we do things, or talk about things, in such a way that we belie that we still think we *earn* our salvation: attendance at sanctioned meetings becomes a driving force, more important than what somebody does on their own, away from the building, an external thing becoming a measurement of something that can only be known internally and inwardly; when things go wrong in our lives, we look back at what we failed to do religiously, whether neglecting our Bible reading or not praying enough, or whatever, as a possible reason for why that happened; we don't receive from God the life we think we've earned and we feel guilt over it, that somehow it is our fault we have not received, perhaps because we didn't pray for the right thing, or in the right words, or that we didn't pray *enough*. And we feel guilt.
But we are bound to feel guilt in our spiritual lives until we allow faith to take over, and the love of God through Christ to fill our lives, so that we live for him with a full expression of faith. Guilt is a reminder that we have not fully understood and applied the gospel, that we can approach God and have relationship with him only through Jesus, not through our efforts. We do not earn our way toward God's favor.
For the centurion, faith was a recognition of Jesus' authority that affected how he lived his life.
This is not only a contemporary problem, however. In Luke 7, we see a similar situation: a centurion lives in Capernaum. A centurion was a Roman military official, meaning he was a Gentile, not a Jew. And he had a problem: a servant whom he highly valued was sick and at the point of death. What would he do about? It happened that he heard about Jesus, so he sent some Jewish leaders to Jesus. And not just any Jewish leader, but elders of the Jews, those who should have known the ways of God
So the Jewish elders approach Jesus to enlist his help for the centurion's servant. But they take a different approach. Rather than simply ask, they create a case for the centurion about why he *deserves* for Jesus to "do this for him," why he is "worthy" of it--he loves our nation; he built our synagogue.
And therein we find the problem of trying to be "worthy enough" to earn help from God. It just doesn't work, because God doesn't work that way. He works through Jesus, and to do otherwise opens us to frustration and guilt. Instead of building a synagogue and being a friend to the Jews, we score perfect attendance at worship services and Bible studies; we gain points by clocking in pages with our Bible reading; we pray, asking for things, sure that we have the faith to carry us through; we serve others hoping, or even thinking, that we earn reciprocity from God. When in reality, all God wants from us is a faith that acknowledges the lordship of Jesus and his authority and places our lives under his leadership as we follow him
So Jesus heads to see the centurion. But on the way, an envoy arrives, sent by the centurion with a startling word: the centurion, who was declared "worthy" by others proclaims to Jesus his utter *unworthiness* before Jesus. And yet he declares his faith--he knows how it works, he knows how the game is played. He knows that he has the authority to tell one person "Go" and he goes, and to tell another "Stay," and he stays. And if he has such authority, then he knows that the authority of the Lord Jesus is even that much more
So he asks Jesus to simply say the word, and his servant will be healed. He comes to Jesus with faith, not a merit badge; he has loyalty to Jesus, not a membership card in God's rewards program; he has worth, not of his own, but his worthiness is through his faith, in his abandoning of his own self-worth to find it in Jesus
Rather than "crowding around" Jesus, we need faith in Jesus in order to follow him.
In contrast to the centurion are the crowds. These people were "following" Jesus, but they did not have the faith required to truly follow Jesus. So Jesus turns to the crowd and presents the centurion to them as an example of faith. But he does it in a way that reminds them, once again, that you cannot gain godliness or the gospel through merit or by trying to earn anything!
The key is that Jesus said he has not found such faith in Israel. But wasn't the centurion "in" Israel, geographically? So what did Jesus mean? Well, he meant that among the Israelites he has not found this kind of faith; it took an "outsider," a Gentile, to demonstrate the kind of faith Jesus was looking for. This is a simple reminder: your status, your work, your effort, your merits, cannot *earn* you the favor from God you seek! It is only by faith!
So how do we cultivate this kind of faith? We have to change the way we think about faith, from trying to please God to realizing that we do please God through Jesus; recognize Jesus' authority and power; and submit ourselves to him. The centurion did not need his own power or worthiness; he subjected himself to Jesus and subverted his own power. Will you let go of your pride and ego and submit to Jesus in faith? And if you do, will you then follow him?