Today in Sabbath School I had the lesson of the centurion’s servant being healed. I have long found this to be an interesting story . Before I discuss this story in greater detail I would like to put all of the Gospel accounts for this story. First, we have Matthew 8:5-13, which says: “Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour.” This story is also told in Luke 7:1-10, which gives a few additional details: “Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.” Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.”
Why does it matter that the person being healed is the servant of a centurion? Judea in the first century was a nation under military occupation. In our own day and age there is a considerable degree of discussion about the military occupations of nations like Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States and the legitimacy of those people who served in the armed forces of those nations abroad. We act like this is a new issue, that only our day and age has deep concerns about the troubled relationship between the restive people of an occupied region and those whose rule is enforced by coercion through military strength. A centurion was the leader of 100 soldiers in a Roman legion, similar to what a sergeant would be in the contemporary United States military, and so the situation of this miracle is that Jesus Christ, a Jew with known healing abilities, is being asked to heal the servant of an occupying Roman officer and that is a situation that is fraught with all kinds of awkwardness.
It is refreshing, therefore, that both Luke and Matthew highlight this awkwardness in ways that show the humanity of both Jesus and the centurion and show them going beyond the easy hatred that takes place between people in occupied regions and those who are doing the occupying. This awkward interaction takes place on both sides. On the Jewish side, leaders among the community in Capernaum appeal to Jesus to heal the Centurion’s servant by pointing out that this particular centurion, the leader of the Roman troops in the area, has been a generous patron of the Jewish community through endowing the town with its synagogue. One can read between the lines and see that Jesus didn’t need the appeal of the Jewish leadership to find the centurion worthy of help. It did help, though, that the centurion shows himself to be a decent guy himself, pointing out that he too was a man who was under authority and in authority over others, and that he saw the authority of Jesus Christ over illnesses to be a military authority itself that he could respect, with the reply that the centurion’s understanding and faith in this regard were far superior to many of those among Jesus’ own people.
Ultimately, then, this story is a happy one, showing that both Jesus and the centurion were able to come to a mutually respectful relationship despite the awkwardness of their identity as being part of two antagonistic peoples. Their shared generosity of spirit and their shared compassion for people on the other side of lines allowed them to have a positive interaction that continues to provide inspiration and material for us to reflect on in terms of its implications for our own lives and our own situations. Many of us, myself included, are at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to the imperialism that we find in this present evil world, but in hating imperialism we have to remember that the people involved on both sides of these awkward situations are people themselves who are often decent and praiseworthy individuals who deserve to be seen not merely as the hated “other” but as decent people in their own right, and this story encourages us to do so.
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