Formations 05.29.2016: Asking and Listening

Matthew 8:5-13

Paolo Veronese, “Jesus healing the servant of a Centurion” (Wikimedia Commons).

Paolo Veronese, “Jesus healing the servant of a Centurion” (Wikimedia Commons).

Ernesto Sirolli is widely renowned throughout the world as an expert in economic development. He has led successful International Aid efforts in communities in Zambia, Kenya, Algeria, and other African countries to develop sustainable economies. But he attributes his passion for economic development to some of his failed aid projects as a young man in Zambia.

Sirolli went from his home in Italy to Zambia when he was 21 years old, on a project to teach the Zambian people how to grow their own food. He and his team surveyed the fertile valley alongside the Zambezi River and were shocked that the Zambian community wasn’t already using the land to cultivate agriculture. The team immediately brought in seeds and taught the Zambian people how to plant and take care of the crops. When none of the locals were interested in farming, the foreign aid team offered the locals payment to take on the job. Still, only a few were interested. But as far as Sirolli and his team could tell, the crops were growing very well in the fertile soil, and they had brought new jobs to the community.

But, as Sirolli explains in his TED Talk: “When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came out from the river and they ate everything. And we said to the Zambians, ‘My God, the hippos!’ And the Zambians said, ‘Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.’”

All of the crops were destroyed. The jobs were gone. Suddenly, the team had accomplished nothing and helped no one.

When Sirolli’s team wanted to know why the Zambians never mentioned the hippos before, they responded, “You never asked.”

This experience led Sirolli to develop a system for zero-infrastructure international aid in which a person does nothing but meet with people in a community and listen to them. As Sirolli puts it, “…you never motivate anybody, but you become a servant of the local passion, the servant of local people who have a dream to become a better person.” His system has helped 300 communities around the world and helped to start 40,000 businesses. By simply building a relationship of trust and honesty, wonderful changes can take place.

In other words, the best way to help people is not by insisting that you know what’s best for them. It’s by letting people tell you what they need, and helping them meet that need when they ask. And the best way to get help is simply by asking the right person.

This is the approach Jesus takes to help the centurion in this week’s Scripture text. The centurion, a man who would be used to holding an authoritative status over the Jewish people, begs Jesus for help. In this encounter, Jesus does not approach the centurion first. Jesus waits to be asked. And when the centurion refuses Jesus’ initial offer to come to his home, Jesus doesn’t push the issue. Jesus doesn’t insist on coming over anyway. Instead, Jesus listens to the centurion, does exactly what the centurion has asked him to do, and commends the centurion for his faith. Similarly, the centurion doesn’t assume that he deserves Jesus’ help. The centurion asks for help out of humility and trust.

Ernesto Sirolli, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!”, filmed: September 2012,


• What surprises you about Ernesto Sirolli’s methods for international aid? Why?
• Foreign aid experts frequently notice that most foreigners do not listen well enough to the local people they are trying to help. When have you noticed or experienced this pattern of behavior in you or your church’s mission work?
• How can this pattern of behavior be avoided?
• How can we be more like Jesus when we listen to others who ask for help?
• How can we be more like the centurion when we ask for help?

Reference Shelf

Miracle Stories in the New Testament

Although form critics often divide them into several types, miracle stories usually consist of three parts. Firs the situation is described, giving an account of some need. For example, in stories of healing, the condition of the patient is described, emphasizing the seriousness or the length of the illness and the inability of others to help. Often the story also tells of the skepticism of others regarding Jesus’s ability to help.

In the second part, the miracle is recounted. The NT miracle story differs from others of the period in that it gives few details at this point, possibly because it was believed human language was no capable of expressing such a divine mystery. Likewise, when healing words are spoken, they are sometimes given in an unknown or foreign tongue. Occasionally no one is allowed to be present. However, in demon possession, often the demon senses the presence of one who has power over him and disputes with him before coming out.

Finally, the response is indicated. A person healed often gives some indication of the fact, such as walking. Demons that have been expelled sometimes engage in spiteful or destructive acts. And witnesses express wonder or approval.

The miracle story forms an essential part of the gospel tradition, being a part of the missionary teaching of the early church. Its interest is more theological than historical, for it seeks to deepen the understanding of Jesus as one who has power and authority over nature, the demonic, sin, and death, and to set forth the implications for the life of those who choose to follow him. Although it has similarities with other miracle stories of the period, the NT miracle story is distinct, for it reflects the faith of the early church that the power of god had decisively broken into the world in Jesus Christ.

G. Thomas Halbrooks, “Miracle Story,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 577.

Michelle Meredith is a graduate of Mercer University, where she was the editor for literary and arts magazine The Dulcimer. She taught third and fourth grade in Mississippi for two years with Teach for America and became even more obsessed with live music and southern food (don’t even get her started on Delta tamales). She loves comedy, board games, roller derby, and hanging out with her dog. She is happy to be back in Macon, Georgia as the associate editor of Formations.


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