A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities

A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities


The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 2C (Proper 4) - May 29, 2016
Luke 7:1-10
“When [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking
him to come and heal his slave.” (Luke 7:3, NRSV)
It’s a familiar story, one which is repeated in some way or another throughout the
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ early ministry. Someone from outside of Jesus’ inner circle of
hears about what he’s been up to, and asks for his help. Jesus’ fame has grown
exponentially at this early stage of his public ministry, thanks in no small part to the people
he’s fed and healed, and the sermons he’s preached. It seems like everyone wants a piece of
him. The centurion, whom we never meet face-to-face, is not all that different from anyone
else who seeks Jesus’ attention. His method is much less direct than those who threw
themselves across Jesus’ path and begged for mercy. He first sends some of the Jewish
elders with whom he’s been working, and then, when Jesus gets close to his house, he sends
some of his friends to ask for him. And all of them give the same glowing recommendations
about this centurion’s character and why he deserves Jesus’ help.
I have to admit, his indirect way of going about it reminds me a little bit of being in
middle school and how boys would try to approach girls whom they liked. (For context, this
was in the late 1980s in the South, so attempting to ask anyone of the same gender to go for
ice cream or to the school dance was an absolute no-no.) You can probably picture how it
went: the boy sends one of his friends, and/or one of her friends, to ask her, instead of
doing it himself. Maybe it’s because he’s too scared she’ll say no, or blow him off in some
way, or otherwise reject him, and to have his trusted friends deliver that blow is easier. I
don’t know. But I do remember how it happened to one of my best friends… and she said
no, to a soft-spoken boy a year older than she who was in her band class and played the
trumpet. The boy, to my knowledge, never risked talking to her again, and life went on. She
didn’t give it another thought until recently, and messaged me on Facebook with a, “hey, do
you remember that time when I told that kid I wouldn’t go with him because I didn’t know
who he was?” She’d heard through the grapevine recently that he was doing well, and was
wondering if maybe she’d missed out on a shot at being friends with a really great person
all those years ago.
Our centurion wasn’t exactly in search of a dinner date, nor are we told whether he
had the same what-if type questions after this encounter with Jesus. We don’t even know
the fate of the slave, other than that the centurion’s emissaries found him in good health
when they got back to the house afterward. However, a happy ending for the characters
themselves isn’t the point of this episode. That someone can possess – and act on – faith in
God while falling clearly outside of the socially acceptable parameters for that faith, is. This
was a huge issue in the early Church. There was a faction known as the “Judaizers” which
held that one had to be Jewish in order to have a proper faith in Christ. If one wasn’t, full
conversion, including circumcision for males, was required before one could be baptized.
There was another faction, whose leaders included Paul and likely the writer of Luke and
Acts, which said that no, God’s grace and a person’s faith in Christ were more than adequate
prerequisites for inclusion in the Church.
This passage is one of the places where the tension between the two groups shows
up – along with a challenge to push the boundaries of the community outward. For a while,
the Judaizers’ somewhat narrow point of view prevailed. It would have been a shock to
them that someone decidedly outside of the boundaries of the Jewish community could
possibly have the kind of deeply authentic faith which would lead him or her to ask Jesus
for help – and get it.
The centurion was probably what we’d call a “lifer.” A career enlisted man, his rank
in the Roman army was roughly the equivalent of a master sergeant. He commanded a
group of 80-100 other soldiers, known as a cohort, but was also accountable to those
officers higher up in the chain of command. He’s one of the good Romans, who gets along
really well with the Jewish elders. He even built a synagogue for them. His respect also
extends to observing parts of the Law. He doesn’t dare to risk inviting Jesus into his home
because of the risk of Jesus’ becoming ritually unclean. Hence the multiple emissaries and
their request that Jesus not trouble himself on the centurion’s behalf.
Yes, this centurion clearly has clues about how to work within the prevailing
cultural norms where he serves. The one thing we might find a bit offensive about him is
the fact he owns at least one slave. While our modern sensibilities might question him for
it, it would not have been unusual for a man of his standing to have at least one or two
slaves as part of his household. Most of Luke’s original readers would probably shrug it off
as a normal part of life. That is, as long as the slaves were treated well, which it seems that
this particular one is. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t wonder about the
centurion’s motives in seeking out Jesus’ assistance in healing him of his illness in the first
place. Does he only want to ensure his property will keep producing income on his behalf
for a long time? Does he regard the slave as an equal, and wants to help him out as friends
do for each other? Does he want to test Jesus on behalf of his Roman superiors? Or is it
something else?1
Regardless of his motives, it’s clear that the centurion has a great deal of respect for
Jesus. As one who is both under authority and possesses it over others, the centurion is
able to acknowledge Jesus as someone who operates under similar circumstances.2 This is
in direct contrast to the people at his home synagogue in Nazareth, who had all but run him
out of town on a rail a few chapters back when he tried to tell them who he really was. It is
also one of the first hints we receive from Luke about the universality of Jesus’ nature and
message. Faith in him, and its benefits, are not limited to a select few. He’s for everyone,
regardless of whether they have Jewish heritage or not. His willingness to engage with the
centurion serves to push the boundaries defining the community of faith outward. In giving
voice to the marginalized – in this case, the slave, and possibly the centurion as well – he
drives home the point that our connections to one another are far more important than
strictly adhering to the rules which produce sharp definitions around who’s “in” and who’s
“out.” They are the key to our shared, lived reality. We need each other, to put it simply.
And despite what our stiff-upper-lip New England culture tells us, it is not a source of
failure or shame to admit it. We require the the larger community, including the
community of faith, to speak with and for us, and to help us name what is just and hold us
accountable.3
1 Verlee A. Copeland, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost
and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 95.
2 David Lose, “Unexpected Faith.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2592.
3 M. Jan Holton, “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and
Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 96.
This is exactly the point which the evil King Ahab in today’s Old Testament lesson,
and the community St. Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians, have missed. Both Jesus
and the Roman centurion understand it completely. We can’t go it alone. Nor can we simply
dismiss someone out of hand because they don’t fit within our preconceived notions of
who’s properly included. We too run the very real risk of missing out on something
fantastic, when we fail to stop and consider the unexpected possibilities when they’re
presented to us. We don’t just miss the possibility for new relationships like the one my
friend short-circuited all those year ago. We lose out on the chance for God to work in and
through us, and for lives to be changed as as a result. It’s precisely this kind of openness to
new possibilities which allows for the slave’s healing, as well as for Jesus to turn the tables
on society. His actions clearly say to them that even this slave, and his master, who is
unable to come talk to Jesus himself, are worthy of the love he is shown. “I tell you, not even
in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9, NRSV)