Jesus is hardly the hero in the story from Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels about the centurion (Roman army officer) in Capernaum who sends Jewish representatives to Jesus to seek healing for a favored slave. (See Luke 7:1-10 and Matthew 8:5-13.)
And Jesus admits as much. Yes, yes, Jesus pulls off the healing miracle, even at a distance. But Jesus is clearly impressed with the centurion because the centurion submits himself to the power of Jesus – that is, he places himself, as someone with significant authority, under the greater authority of Jesus.
Jesus comments: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
In fact, Jesus comes off pretty poorly in the story if it is read in the context of the previous chapter, which is Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Plain. There Jesus boldly proclaims that it is the poor, the hungry, the mournful, the hated, the excluded, the reviled and the defamed who will be blessed in God’s in-breaking domain, while it is the rich, the full, the laughing and the well-thought-of who will be condemned.
But when the Jewish ambassadors of the well-to-do and powerful and well-thought-of centurion come to Jesus and explain that the centurion is worthy because he loves the Jews and has even built a synagogue for them, Jesus seems to be impressed and ready to help.
Jesus seems to be taken in by the words that the centurion has directed his Jewish ambassadors to repeat to Jesus, which essentially are: “Look, Jesus, I know all about authority because I have it: when I tell my soldiers to come or go, they do exactly what I’ve told them; and when I tell my slaves to do something, they snap right to it. So now, being fully aware of what authority is, I’m placing myself under your authority because sickness and wellness aren’t under my authority but yours. You don’t even have to be a guest in my house; just say the healing words and I have faith that the healing that is so desperately needed will be accomplished.” Jesus falls for the whole line.
To my mind, at least, Jesus would have been a lot more impressive and consistent, given the lesson he delivered in the previous chapter, if he had expressed some concern for the sick slave or had done something to upset the institution that put the poor and sick slave under the authority of the centurion.
Maybe both Luke and Matthew relied on a common source that got the whole thing messed up in the original reporting and Jesus actually did something radical and revolutionary in this instance. But that’s not the way the story has come to us.
The point of the narrative clearly is that the centurion recognizes the limits of his own authority and has the good judgment to place himself under the authority of Jesus in order to get what he, the centurion, believes must be done.
I’ll accept the text and its meaning as presented and only wish that we had some centurions like that in public office today – leaders who recognize the limits of their own authority and are ready and willing to acknowledge and submit to a higher authority in order to accomplish what has to be done.
States like Illinois, California, New York and a number of others are in dire economic straits and find themselves with plenty of people – including sick people – who are suffering. But their leaders, executive and legislative, are unwilling to acknowledge any authority higher than themselves and unwilling to consider any remedy other than their own political survival.
So these contemporary centurions are perfectly willing to let the people they lead suffer and even die because their only concern is to keep being under their own authority. There is no recognition of a higher moral authority and no submission to the higher political authority of serving the common good, even if that is what they swore to uphold when they were inducted into office.
Jesus may not have been the hero of the story from the Gospels. But he clearly got it right when he admired and acted on behalf of a public official who knew the limits of her or his own authority and placed herself or himself under the authority of what would achieve the greater good.
That would seem to apply not just to political leaders but to religious ones as well. Citizens and lay persons, too.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.