Alton Sterling was selling CD’s outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana last Tuesday night. A 911 caller said a man at the store was threatening customers with a gun. Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II responded to the call, encountering Mr. Sterling in the parking lot. Store owner Abduallah Muflahi told reporters that Mr. Sterling was not the person causing trouble and had been a welcome presence at the store for years.
The officers tackled Mr. Sterling, forcing him to the ground. One of the officers then yelled, “He’s got a gun!” Video provided by Mr. Muflahi appears to show Mr. Sterling being repeatedly shot after he was pinned on the ground. The coroner later stated that Mr. Sterling died at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back.
The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting. Gov. John Bel Edwards stated, “I have very serious concerns. The video is disturbing, to say the least.” Protests are continuing today in Baton Rouge; both officers have been placed on paid administrative leave.
Racial tensions in the United States continue to make headlines. What would Jesus do? Here’s a good way to answer the question: What did Jesus do?
Meeting the centurion
Our text begins, “When Jesus had entered Capernaum” (Matt. 8:5). This was the fishing town on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee that became his home and base for the three years of his public ministry.
Ruins remain of a fourth-century synagogue built on the first-century foundations of the synagogue in Jesus’ day. We also have the remains of what first-century pilgrims believed to be Peter’s house. A Catholic church protects the structure today. In Jesus’ day, Capernaum was a thriving town, located on the main highway from Israel to points north.
Here “a centurion came to him, asking for help” (v. 5b). A “centurion” was a Roman officer with charge of 100 soldiers, enforcing the Empire’s rule over her enslaved subjects. Given the relatively small size of Capernaum (approximately 1,500 residents), this was likely the main Roman officer of the town. Why is his identity so significant?
Rome conquered Israel in 63 B.C. and enslaved her people. They were the Nazi Germany of the day, hated and despised by the nation of Israel. A revolt against Rome in just thirty years would lead to the destruction of the Temple; another revolt seventy years later would scatter the nation.
The Jews already hated Gentiles. Jewish rabbis forbade Jewish women from helping Gentile women in childbirth, as this would only bring another Gentile into the world. Every Jewish male began his day by thanking God that he was not a Gentile, slave, or woman. For their part, the Gentiles hated and enslaved the Jews as well.
So this centurion was not just a Gentile, a cursed pagan—he was also a Roman officer, probably the man most responsible for oppressing and enslaving the town of Capernaum, forcing them to pay taxes to the Emperor and subjugating their people.
But this man comes to Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, for help. He must have tried everything else without success. He calls him “Lord,” a title of respect that could be translated “master.” His “servant” [‘slave’] lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering,” he tells Jesus. Aristotle had stated that “a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.” This man’s compassion for his servant was noteworthy.
Jesus replies, “I will go and heal him” (v. 7). For this Jewish rabbi to enter a Gentile home was a great scandal, flying in the face of all social convention. Jews didn’t talk to Gentiles, eat their food, or step foot in their homes. But Jesus didn’t care.
Healing the slave
The centurion’s response indicates his understanding of Jewish culture: “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof” (v. 8a). He knew that he was asking Jesus to reject his culture and its standards. Nonetheless, he wanted his help: “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (vs. 8b–9). He clearly believed that Jesus could give the order that the servant be healed, and his command would be obeyed.
Jesus was “astonished” (v. 9a), the only time in Scripture he has this reaction to a person’s strong faith. (In Mark 6:6 he was just as “amazed” at Nazareth’s lack of faith, the only other use of the word in the Gospels.)
Then he said to his Jewish followers, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 10–12).
In other words, no one gets into heaven simply by being Jewish. Only those with faith such as the Centurion’s will receive eternal life from the Father.
Scripture teaches that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). He is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
At the same time, we must trust him for this salvation if we are to receive it: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).
And all who do “believe in him” are his children, whatever their race, region, or status. “Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.’ And his servant was healed at that very hour” (v. 13). What he did for the servant’s body, he does for our souls.
Billy Graham called Sunday morning “the most segregated hour in America.” How multi-cultural is your church? How many close friends can you name outside your own race?
Consider Jesus’ ministry in racial context. He befriended a Samaritan woman (John 4) and ministered repeatedly to Gentiles. He commended a Canaanite woman for her “great faith” (Matthew 15:28) and traveled through the Gentile region of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1).
Jesus came to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6), so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). His example moved Paul to ask, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too” (Romans 3:29).
In heaven there is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). The Bible says that “God so loved the world” that he gave his Son for us.
Paul told the Galatians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26–29).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
If it were up to you, would Dr. King be right?