Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The surprises of the centurion

In Luke 7.1-10, we find the story of Jesus healing the son of a centurion in Capernaum. This is a fantastic healing story, but there are also a number of other important lessons to be drawn from the passage. More than anything, we will find that we can be surprised at the goodness in the hearts of others, even in the hearts of persons we might have expected to be hateful.

A centurion in Capernaum had a slave whom he valued highly, and went he learned that Jesus was in Capernaum, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to convince him to come and heal the servant. The elders themselves tell Jesus: He is worthy of having you do this for him (v. 4). It is amazing that the Jews should hold a centurion of the oppressive Roman army in such high esteem, considering that other Jews were ready to commit murder against members of the Roman army at any moment! They hold him in high esteem because he had done so much good for the Jewish people: he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us (v. 5).

This in itself had to have been a surprise! The Romans, being the oppressors and imperialists, did not hold human persons of other ethnic groups in very high regard. It is obvious that they thought them sub-human or at least seriously inferior, since they violated their autonomy and personal freedom in order to draw taxes from them. If you are a first-century Palestinian, on the other hand, you could very quickly grow to hate the Romans for treating you as an animal and taking away your freedom. Every human person wants to be free to lead the life he finds good, and oppression and imperialism steps in the way of that through violence. It quickly and effectively breeds hate and xenophobia of the extremest sort.

Yet here was one of the enemy, a filthy Roman centurion who not only did not oppress the Palestinians, but instead built a synagogue for them and won the respect of the people. The elders of the Jews in Capernaum, the leaders of the group, highly respected him and considered him worthy of the attention of a great prophet and man of God such as Jesus of Nazareth. This is the first surprise: that there can exist good, genuine good, even among the dreaded strangers of groups we've grown to hate.

But notice the language of the centurion, when he sends friends to meet Jesus on the way to his house: Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof (v. 6). Whereas the Jewish elders considered him worthy -- perhaps in contradistinction to other recipients of Christ's grace, e.g. the sinful woman in vv. 36ff. of the same chapter -- the centurion himself claims to be unworthy.

This is one of those recognizable traits of true goodness in a person: the truly good person doesn't acknowledge his own goodness so much as his own unworthiness. A person who doesn't call attention to himself, who is aware of his faults even as others praise him and esteem him highly -- that is a recognizably good person. It sounds strange and paradoxical, but it would seem that the better a person is, the better they can recognize and acknowledge their own faults.

Notice now, too, the explanation the centurion gives as to why he does not insist that Christ come all the way to his house: But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 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 slave, "Do this,' and the slave does it (v. 7-8). Jesus is so amazed at the faith in this response that he exclaims to the crowd following him: I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith (v. 9).

Now what is this centurions faith, except a recognition of the utter authority of Christ? He doesn't work by magic, he doesn't work by psychosomatic suggestion and trickery -- he has authority over the very earth and course of nature itself. This is a very fine recognition of the close connection between God and Christ, even if it comes short of the specific details of say a Chalcedonian definition of the Incarnation. The centurion recognizes that a mere word from Christ -- recall to mind, at this juncture, that God created the world by his speech in Gen 1 -- and the servant can be healed.

This is a sort of faith that Christ had not even found among the Israelites. When he declared the forgiveness of sins of the paralytic man, the scribes and Pharisees began to question, Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone? (Luke 5.21). They question him later, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? (5.30). From many of the Jews, he received only questions and opposition and unbelief in spite of all the signs he had performed. But in this pagan oppressor of the evil empire, he found a faith that recognized Christ's true nature and authority. This was a greater faith than anyone in Israel had expressed until then!

What can we learn from this, then? That we may be heartily surprised by the goodness we find in other persons; it may be the person we previously thought to be so terrible is actually quite good, better even than we are. It may just be that God works outside the borders of our own circle of friends or coreligionists or kinsmen. We ought to learn that we cannot judge another person before knowing him; each of us has a life of our own, a walk with God of our own, and we may be surprised in what we find in the other person.