By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — Jesus, a Roman military man and a household slave. This is another one of those odd Biblical mini-dramas: For starters, we never get all the actors in the same place at the same time. Somebody is always offstage. Then we have people who keep speaking for each other, almost like a Greek chorus comprised of an unlikely mix of Jewish religious leaders and friends of the centurion who were probably Roman soldiers themselves. Finally, the characters in the story are supporting people they don’t usually support: Jewish leaders speaking well of their archenemies, the repressive Roman Empire’s military; Roman centurions providing financial resources, religious devotion and emotional support of the Jewish community; a slave owner eager to help his nobody slave. Add to the mix: Jesus has been recently preaching about loving one’s enemies. Jews, gentile Romans, bottom-of-the-barrel slaves. Lots of cultural expectations being challenged and societal boundaries being crossed here.
The military officer has a problem: one of his slaves is seriously ill. We wouldn’t necessarily expect this to be of concern for someone of his rank and socio-economic status, as slaves were like any other physical property: If it breaks, you replace it. Slave gets sick and dies, you buy another one. Something unusual is going on here for the centurion to even bother with trying to get his slave fixed.
Jesus himself was known for breaking with convention. Boundaries of class, religion, gender and socio-economic status were permeable to him. In the name of God’s inclusive reign of justice and mercy for all, Jesus freely transgressed these divisions to heal marginalized people and to spiritually challenge the privileged. Word had reached Capernaum, the setting for this story, about Jesus’ forthright teachings, his healing powers, his outreach to those not valued by society. This particular centurion had heard about Jesus. As someone also reaching out across boundaries to the “foreigners” under his domain, the Jewish inhabitants of this region, perhaps the centurion recognized a kindred spirit in Jesus. What enables people to cross a boundary in a stratified society where some are considered worthy and some are clearly not? What enables someone to use his or her privilege of power, wealth, predominant skin color or heterosexual orientation to help someone who is marginalized? How might this story guide us here?
Jesus arrives in Capernaum, a town near the Sea of Galilee. A military officer sends word to Jesus that his slave is sick. Please, will Jesus heal him? Now the chorus of other characters chimes in to support the centurion’s plea. First the local religious leaders, who seem to fall all over themselves, praising this wealthy gentile. He has contributed to their synagogue building campaign and acts lovingly towards the Jewish people in his community. Are the leaders more interested in fawning over this military officer or do they also have the slave’s physical health in mind? The text is quiet on this point. But like religious leaders throughout time, they were constantly parsing the question: How far does God’s grace and mercy extend? How open can we be to those who seem to have little value or have little to give in society, in our house of worship? We don’t want to be seen as the “loser synagogue,” or the “gay church,” do we? We are always happy to welcome a young family with 2.5 children, husband and wife who look like they can support our budget. We may feel less welcoming of someone who appears to be living on the streets. What will it look if we welcome and associate with these people?
It’s always this way, isn’t it? For these first century religious leaders, the pull would be between the Jewish Law’s requirement to welcome and help the foreigner, the stranger in their midst…and the fact that all sorts of people were deemed unhealthy for their community. They were to avoid those who worshiped idols, people who were disfigured with illness or deformity, and people who were poor. The great sea of those deemed “unclean” would taint the community’s righteousness (being adherent to the rule of Law) and very well-being as a collective.
Perhaps we can relate. For us it is an ever-fluctuating mix of people-not-like-us. The list probably varies among us, but usually represents people in whose presence we feel most insecure, most wary and afraid. The Other who represents an unknown that covers the gamut of foreignness: strange cultures and mysterious or misrepresented religions, other skin colors, people of other sexual orientations than our own, people with dementia or mental illness, people with gender identities that are other than stated on their birth certificate. All perceived as the Other that we would rather avoid.
What is curious about this story is that the Roman centurion himself represents the Other: not just an “unclean Gentile,” but also the ruling group who will eventually torture and kill Jesus, the Roman Empire. Yet as always, our tendency to separate people out into binary categories of black and white, good and bad, is challenged by the Biblical narrative. In our current political climate, we are being urged to do this kind of moral separating, which is essentially contrary to Biblical principles. What are the cultural assumptions and distinctions that need challenging among us? Categories of good and bad, boundaries of who is included and excluded that we need to face as followers of Jesus? Cultural assumptions that no longer serve, be they about race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity?
This Roman military man was a non-Jew known as a God-fearer. He and other gentiles like him were drawn to Judaism’s moral precepts and worship of one God. They would attend temple services and follow Jewish law…everything except the distinctive marking of circumcision for men. I doubt the centurion’s support of the Jewish community played well in the barracks with his men, nor did it help his reputation with his military superiors. The centurion is part of Herod Antipas’ militia, part of the army that keeps the Jewish community under the repressive control of the occupying Roman Empire. But this particular officer appears to have an unusual relationship with the community under his jurisdiction. And Jesus will say that this man shows us what living faith is really like.
A servant in the centurion’s household is very sick and the centurion is convinced that Jesus will be able to heal him. The centurion has become the slave’s ally, and now he seeks to draw Jesus in as an ally of this marginalized human. But instead of coming to Jesus directly, the centurion makes his appeal through intermediaries in the community. Certainly, the centurion could have simply commanded Jesus’ presence. But the centurion knows and respects the customs of the Jewish tradition: mixing of Jews and Gentiles, in a private home, would render the honored teacher Jesus ritually unclean. This centurion is apparently well-known by the Jewish elders in the community. “He is worthy of you doing this,” the leaders assure Jesus, “…he loves our people.” There is a web of connection that has reached across boundaries and been built over time. Cultural assumptions and fears have begun to evaporate.
Jesus is intrigued and starts heading for the centurion’s home. But before he can arrive to heal the slave, another group approaches, this time the centurion’s friends. Fellow soldiers? Neighbors? Clearly this man has developed deep relationships in this community. And apparently the centurion has had second thoughts. His friends tell Jesus that the man is overwhelmed by his own sense of unworthiness. But the centurion’s reaction is also coupled with a peer-to-peer acknowledgement with Jesus of their mutual power and authority. The centurion’s realm of authority is over the men in his command. This is not a person who is used to asking for help. He tells people what to do. But he has chosen to use his own authority to be an ally for a marginalized and helpless person, his slave. And, the centurion humbly recognizes Jesus’ realm of authority is over a different and far larger sphere. “But speak only the word and let my servant be healed.” And Jesus heals the servant, a nobody slave who has been found to be of value by a whole community. “Jew and gentile, slave and free, all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord,” the apostle Paul would later write (Galatians 3:28).
The centurion acknowledges the privilege of his authoritative resources, and also is humble about God’s greater power through Jesus. This is the shape of faith that catches Jesus’ attention, and we need to follow suit. In the United Church of Christ, we are part of this brave centurion’s legacy. From the fight against slavery to early support of women in leadership, to the ongoing work for civil rights for people of color and for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, our denomination has served as an ally to the marginalized. One person, a Roman centurion with authority and wealth, steps forward as an ally. He connects with Jesus, he humbly partners with Jesus, for the well-being of someone one on the margins. This is the shape of faith, these are its contours, says Jesus. Let’s have some more conversation about how we, like the centurion, might become better allies to those on the margins. Amen.