Sunday, 31 October 2010

Jesus and the Centurion

This morning in church we read the story of Jesus healing the centurion's slave from Luke 7:1-10.  I found it hard to listen to the sermon because I kept being distracted by the story.  Here's what was distracting me.

This story takes place in the village of Capernaum and has three main characters - the centurion's slave, the centurion himself, and Jesus. 

The slave is the trigger for the story:

...a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die.

Other translations say that the slave "was dear to him".  There's some ambiguity here - was the slave a loved member of his household, or a valuable piece of property?  Either way, what follows in the story indicates that when Jesus is asked to heal this slave it is not seen as an act of service towards the slave, but towards the centurion himself.

This is not surprising when you think of who the centurion was.  He was a Roman army officer, roughly equivalent to a captain in our modern armies.  Not a very important man in the grand sceme of things, but if there was a Roman garrison in Capernaum he would probably have been its commander. 

This was an army of occupation, and the foreign troops would have been resented by the local people.  On the other hand, the army doubled as the police force in the Roman Empire and carried out various civil functions in what was essentially a military regime.  The centurion was an important local official, perhaps the most senior official in the village.  This makes the encounter a very delicate and politically important one.

Naturally Roman officials varied.  There was a lot of corruption in the empire and many officials used their positions ruthlessly.  However, there were also diligent, ethical officials who tried to do well.  In this story we are hearing about one of the latter sort.

The centurion could have easily sent a couple of soldiers to fetch Jesus.  However, this would have amounted to an official summons, and could even have looked like an arrest.  It would have shamed Jesus and angered his followers.  Instead, the message is courteously sent via Jewish elders.  This makes it a request, not a command.  The concrete outcome would not be much different - no-one could really refuse such a summons - but it sets up a context of mutual respect.

Reinforcing this is what the elders say.

This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.

This could indicate that the officer has some level of devotion to the Jewish God, as a gentile worshipper or perhaps just paying respect to the local god in accordance with his polytheistic world view.  On the other hand it could simply indicate that he is an enlightened governor, trying to win local cooperation by diplomacy rather than by force.  If it was the latter, it was obviously working.

And now for the bit that was distracting me the most.  Jesus agrees to go, and sets out for the centurion's house, only to be met on the way by another set of messengers, who bear the following message.

Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.... But 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.

I think perhaps this story is so familiar that we don't notice how strange it is.  We understand what the officer is saying about himself, but what is he saying about Jesus?   He is saying that he, too, is a man who has the power of command.  But over whom?  Plainly not the disciples, because there is no suggestion that he should send one of them in his place. 

I concluded he must be referring to the army of spirits who lurk in the background of the gospels.  As Western materialists, we only notice the most obvious of them, like the story a little earlier in Luke (4:31-37) when a man possessed by an evil spirit calls out to Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue and Jesus commands the spirit to be quiet and come out of him. 

When we hear that the slave is ill, we assume he has a virus or an infection of some sort.  A first century reader would immediately conclude that he too was being attacked by an evil spirit which would need to be driven out in order to heal him.  These spirits, the centurion is saying, are under Jesus' command just as the soldiers are under his own.  It could be simply that he thinks Jesus can command this particular spirit from wherever he is.  However, a more symmetrical way of understanding the story is that just as the officer sends messengers to Jesus and he obeys, so Jesus can summon a spirit ("Come!") and then send this spirit with a command to the one oppressing the slave ("Go!") which this spirit will have no choice but to obey.

When the messengers arrive back at the centurion's house they find the slave healed.  Jesus' messenger has gone on ahead of them, delivered his command and been obeyed.  No doubt the slave would have been just as happy and grateful as his master, and both would have had their faith in Jesus confirmed. 

For myself, though, I'm reminded again of the breadth and depth of the mental gulf dividing us from the writers of the gospels.  It requires a huge effort to bridge that gap - and there is another still to go, as I try to climb back from there and ask, "What does this mean for me, in the age of the germ theory of disease?"

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