I have something to show you: (take out of a bag one at a time a large round rock, a sheet of white paper and large sharp scissors.)
Each one of these items is inert – they have no power on their own.It takes a creative force to put each one into action for positive or destructive purposes. For example:
* A heavy flat-bottomed rock such as this one could be used as a tool like a hammer to create something positive. It could also be used as a weapon to destroy something.
A blank piece of paper can be used as a foundation for beautiful artwork or it could be used to carry a threatening message or hate-filled literature.
Scissors can be a very useful tool with many helpful applications or they could be used as a weapon.
Any power these items have to create or destroy is through human intervention and the way in which each is utilized.
Do you remember the game Rock, Paper, Scissors? (Show anexample of the game.) None of these items has ultimate power. It is only in the relationship between each other and with human intervention that one of these items has the ability to have power over another.
All of this got me thinking about the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant that is our story from Luke’s Gospel today. This story seems strange and convoluted unless you understand some of the social, cultural and religious issues with respect to power and authority that lay behind it.
The setting for the story is the town of Capernaum located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum, during the time of Jesus, had a population of approximately 1,500. Capernaum was the town at the centre of Jesus’ activities in Galilee. Galilee, and all the areas surrounding it, was under the control of Roman Imperial Empire.
We know from Luke’s account that there was a centurion of the Roman Imperial Army that lived in Capernaum and was a benefactor of the Jewish people there. The centurion, whose name we do not know, was sympathetic to the Jewish people and had procured the funding to build a synagogue in Capernaum. He was a person with a great deal of social, political and military power and authority. As a high-ranking officer in the Roman army he was an elite within the Roman Empire who had absolute power over the population of the area in which he was stationed. That he had a servant was not surprising (he would have had many) but that he cared about the servant and valued him beyond the service he provided was unusual given the historical and social context.
Roman centurions lived and worked within a strict military hierarchy. They were the “cream of the crop” chosen for their size, strength, military prowess, courage, and leadership skills. Centurions were strict in keeping a high level of discipline in their troops and depending on the rank of the centurion they could be the commander of one hundred to many hundreds of soldiers. The Roman military occupation was noted for its Pax Romana or Roman Peace that kept occupied nations and citizens in line through repressive violence. Any person, or group, who even hinted at stirring up the people with talk of rights or rebellion against the military occupation were quickly and violently crushed.
It was in this context that Jesus wandered the countryside sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God in which everyone was equal, welcome and beloved. His reputation as a wise teacher and healer was well known in the area as was his willingness to eat and share in communal activities with anyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, social, economic, or religious status.
In the story that we heard today (Luke 7:1-10), Jesus has just arrived in Capernaum after having delivered his “Sermon on the Plain” (Matthew’s Gospel calls it the Sermon on the Mount). You may remember that Luke’s version of this sermon begins with Jesus saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:20b-21) Jesus goes on to say, “But woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:24-25) To someone in a position of wealth, power and authority these things could easily be construed as being subversive.
So, when Jesus enters Capernaum, where Roman soldiers are stationed and a centurion resides, he is more vulnerable than when he is in the countryside. Luke tells us that the centurion heard that Jesus was in town. The centurion had a servant, whom he valued, who was ill and close to death. The centurion, with all his money, power and prestige was powerless to save the life of his servant. Knowing Jesus’ reputation as a healer and holy man the centurion sent some Jewish elders, he thought would have credibility with Jesus, to convince Jesus the centurion was worthy of having this request granted.
Even though this could easily have been a trap, to get Jesus away from the crowd that followed him, Jesus hastened without delay toward the centurion’s house. And, when Jesus was close to the house, the centurion sent some of his friends (his peers) to tell him that the centurion was not worthy of having Jesus come into his house and would he please heal the servant from a distance.
The central importance of this story is not as a healing story. In fact, Luke does not speak about the actual healing other than to say, almost in passing, that, “When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant in good health.” (Luke 7:10)
This story is about relationships that inspire faith and trust. Love and respect are motivating factors that cause the characters in the story to act boldly and with commitment. It seems clear that the centurion cares for his servant beyond the usefulness of the service that this person could offer. Servants were easily replaced and a master that was callous to the value of a servant as a person would not have bothered to seek help for him.
The relationship that the centurion had with the Jewish elders seems to have been strengthened through the support the centurion gave to the Jewish community by arranging funding for a synagogue. The elders tell Jesus that the centurion, “loves our people” (Luke 7:5) and that he is sympathetic to their culture and beliefs. The centurion’s friends speak about the centurion’s humility and his respect and reverence for Jesus.
It is significant that someone with a great deal of power, socially and politically, acknowledges a greater divine authority that transcends the status endowed to him by the power structures of the day. That the centurion, who has the power and status to order anyone he chooses to do his bidding, would send others to vouch for his good character is amazing and a testament to his belief that Jesus was the one who had the kind of authority that matters.
I am amazed when I think of all the active participants in this story. There is Jesus, the centurion (who we never see first-hand), the Jewish elders, the centurion’s friends, the crowd that followed Jesus, and the servant whose relationship with the centurion motivates the type of devotion that moves a man of power to humble himself. The biblical commentary, Feasting on the Word says that, “The centurion fears the loss of a valued interpersonal relationship. …[Luke 7, verses 2-6] describe a man who is hospitable, generous to those around him, compassionate toward those weaker than him, and kind toward those of different ethnic groups – thus fulfilling…[Jewish] law and Jesus’ ethical commands in the Sermon on the Plain…” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 94, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) It is amazing, to me, this could be said of a Roman centurion. This affirms my belief that faith and love are more powerfully motivating factors than is the authority manifest in the structures of power that are created by human design.
Jesus did, and still does, have a way of turning expected behaviours and social conventions upside down. He transcends social and political boundaries and tears down barriers between people and invites all to come together as equals in God’s commonwealth of love and justice.
On this day, when we celebrate communion together where all are welcome to a feast of Christ’s bidding, let us join our hearts and minds in the spirit of prayer…
Gracious God, we give thanks for this time and space
to gather and recognize the power
of your presence in our lives.
In the life and ministry of Jesus Christ
your love was made manifest in ways
that transformed the people around him.
The spirit of Christ, and the message he proclaimed,
still lives and breathes in our lives
and we give thanks for this gift.
We recognize that we are required to respond
to Christ’s call to us with faith-filled action
and we give thanks that we are not alone in this pursuit.
With faith and hope, in Christ’s name, we pray. Amen