The Centurion's Servant
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.That’s quite a thing for Jesus to say, there at the end. That he has never seen such faith, even in Israel. He said that about the centurion who asked him to heal his servant. - Luke 7:1-10
That’s quite a thing for Jesus to say, there at the end, that he has never seen such faith, even in Israel. He said that about the centurion who asked him to heal his servant.
By this point in the gospel story, a lot of people have come to Jesus and asked him for healing. Healing for themselves, or healing for somebody that they care about. Every one of those people must have been acting on faith, right? We certainly see in the text that their faith matters to Jesus.
There are several episodes in gospels, wherein people’s faith affects Jesus, and he speaks to it. A woman who has struggled with bleeding for years seeks Jesus out just to touch him in a crowd, and Jesus says to her, “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus heals a group of 10 people with skin diseases, from a distance; nine run away cheering but one comes back to Jesus to thank him, and Jesus says to this person, “Your faith has healed you.” A group of people brings their friend, who is paralyzed, to Jesus, but they can’t get in the house where Jesus is teaching, because it’s too crowded. So they climb up top and lower their friend down through a hole in the roof. The bible says that when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the friend, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ And he healed him.
People come to Jesus in faith, and he sees how sincere powerful their faith is. So what is it about the centurion’s faith, that leads Jesus to say he has never seen faith like this?
Well, let’s look at the story step by step. This episode appears in the gospel of Luke and the gospel of Matthew; it’s set in the city of Capernaum, on the northern coast of the sea of Galilee, which is where a lot of important Jesus stories take place. Jesus is beseeched for help by a centurion, whose servant is ill and dying, and the centurion is desperate for help.
A centurion was a Roman military leader. He commanded a unit of soldiers, called a ‘Century’, which I always assumed was a hundred soldiers, but having looked it up this week, apparently it was about 80. A high-ranking Centurion might command multiple centuries.
This character is a reminder to all of us, that the whole Jesus story takes place in the context of imperial domination. Jesus’ homeland was conquered and occupied by armies, and subjugated as part of the Roman empire. There was a military presence in the places where Jesus traveled and ministered.
Roman soldiers aren’t mentioned per se in a given gospel story, we know that the story took place in a country under military occupation. The Romans used violence and the threat of violence, to impose order, and extract resources from communities, in the form of taxes. Rebellions against Roman rule periodically, and they were always crushed, mercilessly.
It’s important for us to remember that when Jesus died, he was killed by the Romans. He was crucified, which was a Roman thing. Jews did not crucify people. In fact the only other time a centurion appears in the gospels, besides today’s reading, is at the crucifixion, when a centurion near the cross watches Jesus die, and says, “Surely this is God’s son.”
The presence of Romans in Israel during Jesus’ ministry, is of course relevant to current events in Ukraine. Putin wants to be like Caesar. He commands a fearsome fighting force, and has invaded a neighboring country with ferocious violence. His plan is to conquer the cities and people of Ukraine, and use the nation’s resources for his benefit. The Ukrainian people are fighting fiercely against the invaders, and their hatred for Putin and the Russian military grows every day.
If we can imagine how Ukrainians feel about the Russian military in their country, we can imagine how ordinary Jewish people in Galilee, would have felt about a centurion in their town, in Jesus’ day. He would have been hated, and feared. He would have been seen as the enemy and the oppressor.
With this in mind, it’s more and more compelling to consider that this is the person who Jesus says has a faith like he’s never seen before. Wow, this guy?
I mentioned that this story appears in both Matthew and Luke. One interesting difference between the two versions of this story is that, in Matthew, the centurion himself comes up to Jesus on the road, and asks for help. But in Luke, the centurion sends people on his behalf to speak to Jesus. In fact, in Luke, we never see the centurion, we only hear about his request.
And we can tell in Luke, that Roman soldiers were despised, because the centurion sends a group of Jewish elders to bring his request to Jesus. Their job is to make a case for the centurion, to convince Jesus that he should be help the centurion, assuming that Jesus’ natural inclination would be to not help a centurion, because centurions are the enemy. The elders say to Jesus, essentially, “We know you probably hate centurions, and so do we, but this centurion is a good person. He is righteous, and he actually loves our people. He’s not like the other centurions, he is worthy of help. In fact, he actually gave us money to build synagogue. So we vouch for this person.”
And Jesus goes with them. Did he go because the elders persuaded him? I don’t think so. I think Jesus healed people because he cared them, and certainly the servant’s life mattered more to Jesus than the centurion’s righteousness or unrighteousness. But it’s clear that the elders expected that Jesus would not want to help in this situation, and they thought they needed to persuade him.
Jesus goes with them, but before they get to the house, another group of messengers intercepts them bringing a second message from the centurion. “Please don’t come,” the centurion says, I’m not worthy to have you enter my house. In fact, I’m not worthy to come and speak to you, in person. Don’t come to my house. Just say the word, and I know my servant will be healed.
The next part of the centurion’s message is absolutely crucial. He says, I understand authority. I have authority. I have people around me do whatever I tell them to do. They come and go as I please.
For years, whenever I read this story, I thought the centurion was bragging, telling Jesus Christ how important and powerful he was. But at some point I realized this could not possibly be the case. I mean, if expressing his power was the centurion’s goal, he didn’t need to explain it. He could have sent his soldiers to Jesus.
We can imagine that, right? A military commander hears about a miracle worker traveling from town to town, and since his prized servant is gravely ill, he sends a detachment, brandishing swords and shields, to go arrest the miracle worker, bring him in, and procure a healing at the point of a spear.
Sure we can imagine that. After all, what is the point of having soldiers if you’re not going to use them to get the things that you want?
The centurion does not do that. Quite the contrary, he puts his tools of domination aside, and actually relies on the good graces of people he’s tasked with subjugating, to bring his petition for him. When he tells Jesus not to enter his home, he’s saying, ‘all of my power, all of my authority, is nothing compared to you. With all my wealth, and position and armament, I am still unworthy. I see in you an authority that I have never possessed.”
He said this to Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher, who had no money, no swords, no armies, didn’t even know if he’d have a bed to sleep in on any given night.
The centurion who asked Jesus for help, was an extremely powerful person who recognized that his power, despite the fear it bred in the people around him, was not proof of greatness. He perceived that greatness is in those who serve and heal, which is what he saw in Jesus. And so, from his position of power and authority he chose to humble himself.
This is something that Jesus urges his followers to do, all throughout his ministry, such as when he brought a small child to the front of a crowd of adults, and said, “you must become like this child to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like this child, will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is something Jesus himself demonstrated when, on the night he was betrayed, he knelt with a basin of water and washed his disciples’ feet.
Jesus urges us to humble ourselves, to let the last be first, to serve and care for the least among us. And it hard for us to relinquish whatever power or privilege or status or wealth we may have. Whether we’re low down or high up in the social or economic strata, we don’t want anyone who’s beneath us to be elevated, and we don’t want to be diminished, whatever our status might be.
When I played little league, I was the second-worst hitter on my team, and I thanked God for that other kid – because of him I knew I was better than at least somebody. Jesus wants me to throw that thinking away.
The centurion humbled himself. In reverence for Jesus and his compassion for his servant, he laid down his power, his authority, and any thoughts he was tempted to have about his own greatness. He laid these things down, so that somebody else could be raised. And Jesus said he had never before found someone with faith like that.
If the centurion was the first, he need not be the last. You and I can have faith like that, too.