Risk and Controversy – Part II

Black stones are from the 1st century synagogue in Capernaum.

Black stones are from the 1st century 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)

We have a stage full of actors (check out Risk and Controversy – Part I for the rest of the cast). Although never on the stage, the Centurion is both the initiator and the recipient of what transpires. The Centurion sends two delegations to speak to Jesus but never comes himself. Maybe that doesn’t surprise us – after all, he’s military elite. But it’s not from a place of pride and power that the Centurion fails to make an appearance – but rather from a posture of humble respect for Jesus.

The Centurion is likely a “God-fearer”: a Gentile who worships the Jewish God but has not completed the rites (such as circumcision) to become a Jew. This is supported by sending the Elders first – recognizing their authority in the community and the appropriate social custom that they would be the ones to approach a Jewish rabbi and miracle-worker. The Centurion’s humility is further demonstrated with the second delegation – for it was inappropriate for a Jew to enter a Gentile home.

By not coming himself, the Centurion reveals the high esteem he has for Jesus. If the Roman Centurion had approached Jesus on the street, it would have been impossible for Jesus not go with him. The Centurion couldn’t have made Jesus heal his slave, but he could have compelled Jesus to come to his house. By sending the two delegations, the Centurion places Jesus in the position of authority.

This drama is full of controversy. But the biggest controversy of all is in the Centurion’s own words, spoken by his Friends.

“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.”[1]

Controversy #1: “Lord” – The importance and power of the Centurion in Capernaum has been made clear, but yet he humbles himself by greeting Jesus as “lord,” which also translates as “master.” There are no bigger fish in Capernaum than the Centurion – but he calls Jesus master. Honestly, I’m amazed the Friends even included this. The fact that they repeat the Centurion’s words, emphasizes the power of the Centurion.

Controversy #2: “For I am also a man set under authority” – With this statement, the Centurion further elevates Jesus. The authority and command of the Roman Centurion came from Caesar. Caesar is not only his commander-in-chief but also a god to be worshipped. But in his words, if not his actions, the Centurion places himself below Jesus. And I believe he also places the Jesus and the authority Jesus is under as greater than that of Caesar.

Controversy #3: “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.” – There is power in words. The Centurion’s words cause soldiers and slaves to carry out the actions he orders. The Centurion is saying that Jesus’ words cause illness to leave the body.

No one has ever heard of this before.

While miracles had occurred before Jesus, there is no precedent of them being done without presence. For some reason, the Centurion believes that Jesus’ words have the authority to transcend time and space – and in doing so, eliminate the physical manifestation of illness in the body. And the Centurion is right, because before the Friends can return with Jesus’ response, the slave has already been restored to health.

We have no record that anyone is upset by all of this. The crowds and the Jewish Elders don’t try to stone anyone like they did in Nazareth or in later healing stories. We don’t hear that disciples fall away. We don’t even hear Jesus’ words of healing – only his pronouncement of the Centurion’s faith.

So why is this controversy?

Because of the Roman Centurion.

The Roman Centurion risks more than pride – he risks his life. I would be surprised if the leader of his cohort or legion would look favorably on the Centurion’s actions regarding the Jews. Granted his job was to maintain peace, but building their synagogue, “loving” the Jews, and humility are not on the list of characteristics for promotion in the Roman military machine. Further if he is a God-fearer and has now publicly called Jesus master, the Centurion has put himself in danger. Caesar might forgive what is done in private, but on this day, the Centurion has challenged the authority and divinity of Caesar in the open. The Centurion has committed public acts of treason and blasphemy. And he did it for a slave.

It is easy to forget the crowd who follows Jesus, hearing and seeing all that is going on.   The crowd is mostly Jewish, practicing and non-practicing. Given the broad spectrum of characters in this story, we can assume there were non-Jews as well. The crowd witnessed something amazing that day – not just a miracle but also a courageous act of faith.

As I’ve been reflecting on this passage over the last few weeks, certain questions have been following me around – just as the crowd followed Jesus.

  • Is there any controversy to my faith?
  • Am I willing to take a risk for my faith – and are they real risks?
  • What does my faith actually cost me?

What is the faith people see when they see your life?

[1] Luke 7:6b-8

One response to “Risk and Controversy – Part II

  1. Pingback: The Body | Life in the Labyrinth·

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