Sunday 14 February 2010

Jesus heals the Centurion's slave

An address given at Templederry on 14th February 2010, the Sunday before Lent.

Luke tells us a fascinating, vivid little story in today’s NT reading (Luke 7:1-10), about Jesus healing the Centurion’s slave in Capernaum.
Matthew gives a slightly different version of what is clearly the same episode (Matt 8:5-13). Scholars tell us that most likely both Luke and Matthew took this story, with others, from a collection of stories about Jesus written down before either of their Gospels were written. In this story we may have an eye-witness account at just one remove of a real incident in the ministry of Jesus.

Let’s look at the story a little more closely and then see what we might still learn from it in 2010.

The scene is set in Capernaum, a fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus was well known in Capernaum. He settled there after leaving Nazareth, Matthew tells us. Peter and Andrew, and James and John, lived there, and it was there that Jesus called them to be his first four disciples. And Jesus himself taught on the Sabbath in the Capernaum synagogue, exorcising a man who was being disruptive, according to Luke.

Jesus is returning home after a day spent preaching to the crowds outdoors in the countryside. We now call what he said that day the Sermon on the Mount, since Matthew places it on a mountain, though Luke merely refers to Jesus standing on a level place. That was the day he taught the Beatitudes – ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…’

Jesus is met by some Jewish elders as he gets back to Capernaum. They have been sent by a Centurion living there, to ask Jesus to come to his house to heal a slave he valued highly, who was seriously ill. They tell Jesus that the Centurion, ‘is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’

When Jesus heard the Centurion’s plea, he would surely have remembered today’s OT reading (1Kings 8:22-23, 41-43), in which Solomon prays as he dedicates the 1st Temple, ‘When a foreigner comes and prays towards this house … do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.’ So Jesus heads for the Centurion’s house.

The Centurion must have been a remarkable person.
He was a career officer in the Roman army, commanding around 100 professional soldiers. He would have been a man able to command respect or he would never have held the rank that he did. As he says of himself, ‘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.’

As a representative of an imperial power on colonial service, you might think that he would despise the natives. But not so - he loved the Jewish people, we are told, and even paid for a synagogue to be built where he was stationed. I wonder if he was one of those gentiles called God-fearers, who were attracted by Jewish faith and ethics and attended the synagogue, but had not formally converted or been circumcised. The Acts of the Apostles tells us of another God-fearing Centurion Cornelius, whom Peter baptised with all his family (Acts 10).

For all his high social status, the Centurion was considerate, even humble, in his approach to Jesus for help. He would have known that Jesus might be embarrassed to visit his home, because a strict Jew was forbidden by law to enter the house of a gentile. Rather than command Jesus to attend, when Jesus responds to his plea through the Jewish elders, he sends other friends with a message, to say, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’

We often echo his words today when we say, after the consecration in the Communion service, ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.’

The Centurion also had an unusual attitude to his slave.

In Roman law a slave was defined as just a tool of production, with no human rights. His master could ill-treat or even kill him if he chose - and often did, if the slave was no longer able to work. Yet this Centurion highly valued his slave and would go to any trouble to cure him. He was compassionate, a good master.

But the Centurion may have been more than compassionate – he may have loved his slave. Luke uses the Greek word παῖς ‘pais’ translated here as servant, and Matthew uses the same word throughout his version of the story, not the Greek word δοῦλος ‘doulos’ meaning slave. Scholars say that in Greek παῖς ‘paissometimes means the young male lover of an older man, rather than a plain servant.

Gay Christians take comfort from the idea that this text shows Jesus accepting homosexual relationships, and so accepting them. This interpretation is controversial and uncertain. Many reject it. But I would be slow to dismiss it myself. There is ambiguity in the translation, and nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus explicitly reject homosexual relationships – in fact he has nothing to say about them at all.

Rather, what Jesus is concerned about – is amazed by – is the Centurion’s faith.
He says, ‘Not even in Israel have I found such faith.’

The Centurion’s faith is not I think the same sort of faith that we have been raised in. Our faith is mediated by 2000 years of Christian teaching and recitation of carefully crafted scripture and creeds. His is a much simpler faith. Through his Jewish friends he has heard about Jesus, this charismatic wandering healer and teacher, who can cast out the demons then believed to cause disease. And he trusts him. He trusts that Jesus will respond to his plea, and he trusts that with a single word Jesus can heal his highly valued servant. And his trust is rewarded: because of his simple faith – his trust in Jesus – his servant is healed.

I wonder, too, about the faith of the servant. Had he too heard of Jesus? Had he asked his master to seek help for him from Jesus? Did the servant’s simple faith and trust in Jesus contribute to his cure?

Jesus uses this example of a gentile’s simple faith and trust to publicly challenge the smug self-satisfaction of many of his fellow Jews. Their faith had been formed by millennia of Jewish teaching and ancient scriptures. But they could not respond to Jesus with simple faith and trust, in him and in his healing message.

So finally, what can we learn from this little story?
Among lessons just as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago are these, I think:

  1. Jesus will respond to us today, if we trust him and ask for his help, just as he did then.
  2. We must not let the complex faith we have inherited get in the way of our personal relationship with Jesus.
  3. The structures of religious institutions, their buildings, their creeds and doctrines, are only of value to the extent that they bring us closer to Jesus.
May God grant us, like the Centurion, a simple faith and trust in Jesus Christ, our healing saviour - for that is what it means to be a Christian.


Dave Wilson said...

Then again perhaps the centurion had been listening to Jesus teaching to love his neighbour as his self.

Joc Sanders said...

Indeed, perhaps he had been - there must have been a good reason for the trust he showed in Jesus.