Risk and Controversy – Part I

The synagogue in Capernaum.
The synagogue in Capernaum.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. 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.”

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:1-10, NRSV)

Stage Left, Jesus’ enters with his disciples and a crowd following him. Luke tells us this is Jesus’ second visit to Capernaum. Jesus’ initial visit was quite eventful: on one Sabbath day, he taught in the synagogue, healed a man with an unclean spirit, healed Peter’s mother-in-law from her illness, and then went on to heal everyone with all kinds of diseases and demons[1]. We aren’t surprised that from this time on great crowds followed Jesus. And we aren’t surprised that the news of Jesus’ return to Capernaum has travelled fast.

Immediately, the narrator reveals the dilemma: there is a Roman centurion in town with a sick slave. This is the first century, so I imagine there were a lot of sick slaves around. This doesn’t seem like a big deal until we see who enters next.

Stage Right: the Jewish Elders. This is first century, Roman-occupied Israel. Roman centurions and Jewish Elders are not BFF’s. They don’t hang out together or invite each other over for dinner. For the Jews, nothing good is going to come from talking to a Roman, especially a Roman centurion. Dr. Glen Thompson tells us this about the centurions:

The most important officers [of a legion] from a military standpoint were the sixty centurions…. Each had full responsibility over his century—command in battle, administration, training and discipline…. Centurions received double the pay of the ordinary soldier and were regularly posted from legion to legion over great distances, often remaining in the army until death…. It often took fifteen to twenty years for a soldier to work his way up to centurion rank. A centurion who was not a harsh, haughty man was an exception.[2]

In the first century, Caesar had 25 legions comprised of 4,800 men each. That’s 120,000 in military service of which only 1,500[3] were centurions. He had power and authority recognized throughout the world. While Roman senators may have been gentlemen, Roman centurions were not.

It would have been scandalous – and frightening – for the Centurion to go to Jesus himself. Therefore, it may not shock us that the Centurion sent the Jewish Elders out to meet Jesus.

The Jewish Elders allow themselves to be sent by the Gentile Centurion as message-bearers to Jesus. But they don’t carry the message begrudgingly – they “appealed to [Jesus] earnestly” to come and heal the Centurion’s slave. There isn’t any indication that they do this out of fear or coercion.

The Elders say that “[the Centurion] loves (αγαπη) our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” (v. 5) The Elders tell Jesus that through the Centurion’s actions, they have deemed him worthy not only for them to speak to Jesus on his behalf – but he is worthy enough that the Elders do not modify the Centurion’s request that Jesus come to his house to heal. The Centurion has established himself as a respecter of the Jewish faith.

Through Jesus’ actions – remembering that Jesus has already taught and healed in Capernaum – the Elders have deemed Jesus worthy to receive the request for a miracle. The actions and words of the Elders are based on the evidence they have already seen.

Jesus agrees to their request and goes with them to the Centurion’s house. But before they get too far (Capernaum is not a very big place), they are greeted by another set of messengers.

Enter Stage Right: the Friends. These friends are probably not fellow soldiers but Gentile friends of the Centurion. They could be wealthy benefactors; they could be common merchants or fisherman. We don’t know if they are active worshippers of the pagan gods or see religion as nothing more than social ritual. Whatever their social or religious position, they, too, allow themselves to be sent by the Centurion to Jesus. To these friends, the Centurion entrusts a very specific message.

I don’t know why the Centurion sends these friends. Maybe he thinks the Jewish Elders won’t be able to get the job done. The Centurion’s a military man – so maybe it’s just that he believes in reinforcements. But I also wonder whether the Centurion had thought a little more about his request.

It seems the Centurion understood the Jewish concerns over purity and cleanliness – by entering a Gentile house, Jesus risked becoming unclean (for example, see Acts 10:28). We know the least about the Friends, but they are vital to the unfolding drama and serve as witnesses to the miracle.

While the Elders’ message initiates the encounter, the Friends’ message will lead to Jesus’ pronouncement – and eventually the healing miracle.

We have Jesus, the disciples and the crowd; the Jewish Elders; and the Centurion’s Friends. The stage is full – but we are missing the lead actor. The Centurion (and his slave) remain “off stage.”

What happens next?  Part II is coming soon…

[1] Luke 4:31-42

[2] IVP-NT Background, Roman Military (2.2)

[3] 6x10x25 = 1,500 centurions out of an army of 120,000 men (1.25%)

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3 Thoughts to “Risk and Controversy – Part I”

  1. […] Risk and Controversy I and II, I reflected on Jesus’ healing of a Centurion’s slave – specifically on the people […]

  2. Eddy Huffman

    What a cogent re-telling of this very familiar story. Thank you; I look forward to part II.

    1. Thanks Eddy – I really enjoyed digging deep into this one. I’m exegeting the next passage (the widow at Nain) right now.

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