The Good Centurion

Amy Epp
29 May 2016

This is Memorial Day Weekend.  And as a gift, the Lectionary gave us a story about a centurion so that we might remember a soldier.  Luke 10:1-7.  A recap: After a discourse, Jesus went to Capernaum, where a centurion who had heard about him sent messengers – Jewish leaders – to ask him to come and heal a particularly highly valued slave.  Jesus commends the centurion for his great faith and the slave is healed.

My big struggle with this story and my immediate reaction to is has been, over and over: Jesus, why are you saying that a Centurion – occupier, soldier, holder of power – is good?  You praise this man? Basically, WTF, Jesus?? I really got bogged down in this incredulity and disbelief this week.  It is a good thing that Jesus can handle my skepticism and righteous (or maybe self-righteous would be more accurate) anger because I’ve been growling at him in my head – and sometimes to other people – all week.  I am not often an external processor, but I can think of at least 4 settings in the past 10 days in which I complained about Jesus and about this story in particular.

Here are some of the things we know: the relationship between the Centurion and the Jewish people is a complicated one.  Yes, role and title are military.  He is a ranking officer.  And yes, he has a lot of power.  He openly and explicitly describes the way his command is immediately obeyed both by the soldiers and the slaves under him.  Yes, he is the occupier, a foreigner and who commands not only people but wealth and means.  Under his rule, the synagogue of Capernaum was built.

It is something of a complicated relationship, that of the centurion and the leaders which he commissions to Jesus.  Or even between the occupier and those under occupation.  This man is, if we take the story at face value, a friend to the Jews in Capernaum.  At the very least he is benevolent.  He has invested in their community by building their place of worship, the synagogue.  But in the custom of the time, there is a patron/client dynamic going on here.  He makes a good investment to keep the Jewish population happy and grateful.  Benevolent or not he is the one with the power and the Jewish leaders are beholden to him.  They may be truly appreciative and they may feel that they are obligated because of his position and theirs to praise him and commend him to Jesus.  “They appeal to him earnestly,” (NRSV) “’He is worthy of having you do this for him.’”  Perhaps their feelings are a little of both.

The man himself never ends up meeting Jesus face to face, because again messengers intercept Jesus, this time with the message, “Don’t come.”  And with the audacity (in my mind) to compare himself to Jesus.  In his understanding of being a man under authority of another and through that authority also in command himself.  He is a man with a rank, and this is his framework for thinking of Jesus – someone who commands authority over (over demons, over illness, over nature) because he is under the authority of another (God).

A few weeks ago I spent a meal in a restaurant staring at the back of a shirt in the booth opposite me that read, superimposed over a weathered American flag, “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you.  Jesus Christ & the veteran.”  And even now, as a pacifist Christian deeply steeped in the understanding that Jesus Christ’s death was one of non-violent love, that unmasked of the myth of redemptive violence, I cannot even tell you how wrong I think this is.  In that judgment I thought I knew all there was to know about the dude wearing that shirt – and none of it was good.  But I need to get over it.  Because the man who is wearing that shirt – the veteran (presumably) who was wearing that shirt – is a man who has great faith and whom Jesus loves.  There is no healing in my judgment.

The Centurion whose slave Jesus healed is a man who has great faith whom Jesus reaches out to in love and compassion.  If Jesus were writing a report card, and one of the subjects is ‘faith’, this guy gets an A+.  And A+ in worthiness, even if his self-evaluation in that regard is and F.

What I think of the centurion doesn’t matter.  Whatever else the Centurion is, or has done, or believes does not matter to Jesus.  The man had faith that a somewhat out-there Jewish rabbi had the power given to him by the God of Israel to heal a man in his household.  And to heal the slave without even being present, because the rabbi Jesus was under the power of God and was able to use that authority for healing.  Even at a distance.  Even though he hasn’t met him.

He hasn’t met him but he has heard of him.  And he has heard about Jesus ‘sayings’.  Immediately before this story, Jesus has given a sermon.  In Matthew it’s called the Sermon on the Mount and that version is a little more famous.  In Luke it’s called the Sermon on the Plain.  Let me give you some highlights (I bet you know them):

Love your enemies.

Do to others what you would have them do to you.

Do not judge.

Whew.  Jesus nails it every time.  He certainly puts me in my place and marks me with a big ‘J’.  Judgy McJudgerson over here.  He finishes off this sermon with this, “I will show what someone is like who…hears my words and acts on them.  That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock.

When he heard about Jesus, the centurion acted on what he heard.  He heard a sermon about loving his enemy, the centurion is counting on Jesus doing exactly as he says and loving the one who is his purported enemy.  Indeed, without even a word.  Without a question or challenge, Jesus hears the summons and goes with the messengers on the way to the centurion’s house.  Luke’s story is all about the Gospel being for all people, not just for the insider.

I spoke a covenant in community with you all as follower of Jesus in Seattle Mennonite Church, a community of radical hospitality, an open table and unconditional welcome so I better check myself.  I was challenged by my spouse when we were in conversation about this story the other night, “Look at it this way.  If a soldier came to you for help, would you turn that person away?”

Well, of course I wouldn’t.  No!  Shame on me!  Jesus is not going to make this man jump through hoops and recite the correct creed.  It is an appeal for help.  And not even on his own behalf but of a slave.  In fact, our congregation, in partnering with Valor Housing have to some extent already made the same claim as Jesus.  Soldiers are beloved members of God’s kingdom.  We have faith that housing folks will offer opportunity to find healing from the trauma of homelessness.

I am tempted, as perhaps we humans are, to categorize: good/bad; right/wrong.  I like to think I have an open mind, but in this area, I categorized.  I recently heard from someone in this congregation not long ago how hard it is to get along with other Christians and how resentful they can feel toward people who are supposedly the same and yet who have profoundly different understanding of what being Christian means. I decided I knew what that man in the t-shirt was like.  I decided I knew what that centurion was like.

I have been listening to a podcast called Shmanners recently.  It’s present by a husband and wife team (Travis and Teresa McElroy) who tackle issues of etiquette by category based on their listeners’ questions. They begin with the history and move on to current conventions and expectations in N. American society. The most recent was about apologies.  So they talked about how and when to apologize, but what they seemed to come back to was how to get along with those with whom you disagree and emphasized: you don’t have to agree (and you don’t have to apologize for not agreeing) but basically don’t be a jerk and apologize when anything you’ve said is hurtful or mean-spirited.

So I think I owe the centurion an apology.  Even if he’s not here to hear it.  Officer, I am sorry.  I am sorry that I made assumptions about you based on your position.  I am sorry I judged your faithfulness in Jesus based on my bias.  I am truly grateful that Jesus intervened with healing in your life and the life of your servant.  I pray that your faith in Jesus will only grow and that each of us can be open to new understandings of what that faith means.

And you know what, I owe an apology to the anonymous veteran in the restaurant.  I am sorry.  I don’t know anything about you, or the experiences you’ve had or the authority that you’ve been under and the situations that you have been in.  And I am sorry that I judged you based on a t-shirt.  I am sorry that I made assumptions about you out of small-mindedness. I commend your faith.  And I pray that each of us can seek Jesus’ healing and the path of life.

Safwat Marzouk, an Egyptian American professor at AMBS approaches this near-encounter between Jesus and the Centurion as an intercultural/ecumenical encounter. Like Travis and Teresa of the Shmanners podcast he says, writing in Christian Century, “Tolerance should not depend on denying one’s own faith”.  He also suggests coming with ‘open…hands, hearts and minds to receive the gift of the other for who the other is, finding way to serve one another and with one another.”

Well, you all may be better people than me.  I suspect that is the case.  But may God bless us all with open hands, hearts and minds.  May our faith in Jesus also be great and may we seek to follow.