by Michael UseyLuke 7.1-10, NRSV
Jesus had a terrible reputation. He spent time with the wrong kind of people. He ate with the grungy and despised of the world. He hung out with the worst among us. He reached out to the poor, the broken, the marginalized. In this expansive vision of hope, the gospel reaches full flower. But Jesus also found himself among the powerful of his time. He associated with people of means and influence. He even drew near to the purported enemies of Israel and dared to praise them. Here too the gospel reaches full flower.
Centurions show up rather frequently in the Gospels and in Acts. Centurions had a middling role in the hierarchy of the Roman army, put in charge of 100 soldiers, but situated below those who commanded cohorts (consisting of 600) and legions (consisting of ten cohorts or 6000). Their presence in our NT in itself is not surprising, since centurions would have been a part of the Roman occupation force in Judea and Galilee in the first century. What is surprising is that these representatives of Roman occupation are portrayed in quite positive ways in the NT. They end up responding to Jesus and his message with a recognition of his identity and, sometimes, with faith.
The centurion in Luke 7 fits this surprising profile. This has always been one of my favorite Jesus stories. He is a Gentile (and likely Roman, although not all members of the Roman army were ethnically Roman); he seeks Jesus out for the healing of his pais. The Greek word pais is multifaceted: it can mean child, son, boy, servant, lover, one enslaved, or young man. It’s akin to our words, dude or guy, words with only contextual meanings. We might say, “I have a guy who does my lawn,” and that guy could be 12 yo or 60. I intended the title of my sermon to be a provocative question: Did Jesus heal a centurion’s boyfriend? Well, perhaps.
Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, though female and male lovers of all ages were common. Homosexuality was permitted in Roman society. Given the attitude of the Jewish faith, it might explain the centurion’s reluctance to have Jesus come to his home. But there is no definitive evidence that this was the relationship in place here; if it were, the role of the Jewish elders might be somewhat difficult to explain. While the precise nature of the relationship is blurry, what is clear is that the centurion has a deep concern and love for this young man. Whatever the relationship the centurion has with the ill young man, the story’s focus is on this centurion’’s relationship with Jesus. I have translated pais as guy or young man in this sermon so as not to prejudice the translation.
So think of the passage this way: this oppressor of the Jewish people initiates a conversation with a Jewish healer. He sends Jewish elders to speak on his behalf to Jesus to prove that he has been a patron of the Jewish people. Even in those days, making a contribution to the building fund was a good way to win friends and influence people. Then he sends his friends to keep Jesus from coming to his house, expressing confidently and with an analogy from his own role in the Roman army that this Jewish healer, Jesus, is able to heal from a distance.
Jesus is cast in the unlikely role of responder and not initiator in this passage. When asked to heal the guy, Jesus does not say anything but goes with the Jewish elders. He responds in amazement at the centurion’s confidence that Jesus needn’t actually come to his house to heal his guy: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And finally, Jesus heals the guy, although this is not narrated explicitly.
Yet Luke’s reader has been prepared for this surprising portrait of one from the Roman occupation army coming in faith to Jesus for healing. In Luke’s introduction to Jesus’ ministry, Jesus preached from Isaiah about restoration, which references Elisha’s healing of Naaman. Jesus speaks of hometown rejection that leads Hebrew prophet Elisha to heal, not the many people in Israel who had leprosy, but instead an army commander of Aram, a country hostile to Israel. Because Elisha heals this Gentile military enemy, Naaman comes to acknowledge, “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
In Luke 7, Luke portrays this enemy of Israel as having faith that surpasses what Jesus has seen in Israel. The centurion’s faith is apparent in his understanding of Jesus’ divine authority to heal and to do so even from a distance. “For I also am a man set 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 servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.” The inclusion of “also” in verse 8 suggests an analogy between the authority of the centurion and Jesus’ authority. As the centurion is given authority from above to command those under him, so the implication is that Jesus has an authority from God that he can enact by simply by saying the word. The centurion’s faith in Jesus’ authority proves to be well placed when Jesus heals his guy without even visiting his home.
In this surprising story, Jesus himself is surprised and amazed at the trust this centurion demonstrates. He is surprised to find faith in a centurion that surpasses what he has seen in anyone from Israel. And we might learn something from Jesus’ own surprise at the specter of an enemy soldier proving to be a model of faith for the people of God. Maybe we should not be surprised by the unlikely places that faith shows up in our own world. It could even show up in our enemies.
Jesus cares about, ministers to, and wants to bless our enemies. Moreover, according to this story, God can use our enemies to teach us about true faith. In the end, this story echoes Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.” Maybe this is a good text to consider as the likelihood of Russia invading Ukraine increases dangerously.
In either case, faith shows up in unexpected ways. In Luke 7, Jesus is approached by a centurion seeking his help. He had a deeply cherished guy who was ravaged by illness. This centurion sees something in Jesus. He believes that somehow, someway, this Galilean subject of Rome, this mere peasant, might be able to do the impossible: that Jesus might be able to heal the sick and stave off the forces of death.
Oddly, the centurion and Jesus never meet face-to-face. All their interactions occur through the means of intermediaries. First, it is the local Jewish leaders who ask for Jesus’ help. The centurion, they say, “is worthy of having you do this for him.” Hearing this, Jesus sets out apparently without much hesitation. Now, no one would have blamed him for having some suspicions. After all, entering the house of a Gentile could potentially make Jesus unclean.
Even more, a centurion is not your typically friendly neighbor. Centurions are the sharp edge of Rome’s power, a cruel force that has dominated the people of Israel. Later, this same empire will order the execution of Jesus. Jesus has a number of reasons to resist helping this centurion even when he is commended by the local leaders. From the perspective of many of Jesus’ fellow Jews and neighbors, this centurion represents everything that is wrong about the world.
And yet, Jesus accompanies them. He is willing to see this centurion. We don’t learn why Jesus is so eager to help this Roman soldier; we only learn that Jesus does not hesitate in the slightest to head toward his house. But on his way, another set of intermediaries enters the scene.
The centurion sends friends to stop Jesus from coming into his house. He recognizes that he is unworthy to host Jesus. This is a rather extraordinary display of humility and submission for a Roman military leader used to having his orders followed, not questioned.
Humility and power usually don’t mix well, as we know. Most of our political leaders are proof positive of this. Most people endowed with power are not used to taking on postures of humility. Jesus is dazzled by this centurion’s faith, marveling that such faith is not even found among God’s chosen people. This is shocking. Why would Jesus praise a foreigner, a Gentile, a centurion so highly?
Imagine if Jesus were to walk into College Park and declare our enemies more faithful than us. Imagine for a moment if Jesus were to declare our fundamentalist neighbors more faithful than us. Imagine for a moment if Jesus declared a terrorist more faithful than us, a criminal more faithful than us. This is how shocking Jesus’ declaration would have been.
But if we’ve been paying attention to the Gospel of Luke, we might not be so surprised. The foreigner and the stranger and our worst enemy are as welcome at God’s table as anyone else is. After all, it was mere shepherds, not the kings of the world, who welcomed Jesus at his birth. When corrupt tax collectors ask John what they should do, how they should repent, John does not tell them to stop being tax collectors. He tells them to stop taking advantage of their neighbors. When Roman soldiers come to John right after and ask him the same question, he tells them not to lay down their swords but to execute their duties with honor. When Jesus preached his first sermon, he pointed out that God sent God’s prophet beyond the boundaries of Israel when hungry widows at home could use Elijah’s help. He also reminded us that it was a foreign soldier named Naaman who was cleansed of leprosy by Elisha.
This has happened before. God will not be restrained by the boundaries we draw around one another. God will surprise us; God will even enrage us when God’s grace extends even over those we deem unworthy of such a gift. This has happened before, and it will happen again.
What then was the content of the centurion’s faith? What exactly did the centurion believe? What faith did Jesus see in him? I don’t know, really. But I think it’s clear that the centurion believed and recognized Jesus’ power over the forces of death. As a military officer, he likely understood well how powerful raw force could be. He knows how swords and masses of trained men can create massive destruction in their wake. He recognizes such power in Jesus, but there is a difference in Jesus’ power, a difference the centurion believes can make all the difference in the world.
Military-might cannot heal the sick or raise the dead. An army can’t heal his faithful friend, his young man. Imperial power cannot gain the affections of a people, but only their fear. Jesus’ power is unlike that wielded by Rome or any other empire. Jesus’ power heals peoples and communities; it brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. Jesus’ power turns the world upside down, inside out. That a centurion would recognize this power is the essence of faith; faith is seeing the world with God’s eyes, to see the possibilities of a world renewed by God’s love and God’s grace.
The relationship between the centurion and Jesus is astounding in this regard. The centurion’s only reference is one of power. In the story, he described what discipline and obedience meant in his realm. He orders his men to do this or that and they do it. Submission was a critical attitude in order to maintain one’s rank. Yet, his guy is, through the illness and his apparent closeness to death, disobedient. The centurion exercised enormous power, he knew its efficacy, yet, in this situation, confronted with the violence of death, he was powerless. This powerlessness, symbolized by his absence from the text as someone who speaks directly, now seeks another power. Yet the reference here remains one of power. The centurion has heard that Jesus has a power (even over death), a power he does not possess.
The centurion summons the Jewish elders as he summons his soldiers. He sends them to Jesus, asking that Jesus come and heal. There is no middle ground. It is not an invitation to come and dine, to come and take a look, to come and see what might be done – but to come and heal. And Jesus surprisingly obeys. He sets out on the road towards boundary crossings and ritual impurity. But on his way, another word comes from the centurion: I am not worthy. Do not come to my house. Only say the word! And again, perhaps even more surprisingly, Jesus obeys the centurion.
The Messiah, even without physically crossing any boundaries, has allowed himself to be shaped, ordered by the word of a Gentile. This obedience on Jesus’ part has far deeper consequences than had he simply crossed the threshold of the centurion’s house. God-in-Christ listens to the cry from the outsider, even in the form of a command, and changes his itinerary.
In the word coming from the centurion, Jesus witnesses faith. Faith calls to faith. The faith of the centurion is not based on his good works; his faith is grounded in the recognition that Jesus conquers death. His faith calls to the source of faith, Jesus. It is a bold and daring faith, not afraid of blurring lines of cultural and religious identity. And, Jesus exclaims, this faith is greater than anything he has found in the expected places or usual definitions of identity, greater than any he has found in his own people.
Faith propels communities and people forward onto paths untrodden, into places unheard of, across many culturally and religiously imposed boundaries, and in that movement, faith is also discovered, the faith of others, and together, ways of reconciliation and peace are created.
The Elders say, “He deserves it.” The Centurion says, “I don’t deserve it, but say the word.” Jesus says, “Now, that’s faith!”