Jesus and the centurion: Luke 7, 1-10. click here to download text file
This is an example of a healing miracle performed by Jesus for someone outside the Jewish fold. There are other healing stories involving outsiders:
There’s the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter is possessed (Mark 7 26-30). There, Jesus himself draws attention to the woman’s outsider status: ‘it is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.’ The woman is described as Greek (indicating her cultural background, not her race), and Syro-Phoenician by race (genos). (The Canaanite woman from Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15.21-28) is the same sort of outsider—and she has the same argument with Jesus.) Like the centurion’s servant, her daughter is healed at a distance: Jesus doesn’t go to the house. There is one other example of healing at a distance: John 4.46-54: a royal official (basilikos) whose son is sick at Capernaum, and who seeks out Jesus at Cana. It doesn’t say he’s a Gentile, but some people think he was.
Then there is the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4.5-30). That’s not a healing miracle, but it’s interesting as an example of Jesus’ dealings with outsiders.
The closest parallel is Matt. 8.5: a centurion comes and tells Jesus his servant is paralysed. Jesus says he will come and cure him. The centurion says ‘Lord, I am not worthy...only say the word...I am under authority...’ and Jesus says ‘I have not found such great faith in Israel... Go, let it be as you have believed.’
Luke’s is a version of the same story, but it’s more complicated. We hear quite a lot about he centurion: he’s a friend to the Jewish community, and has built a synagogue. He doesn’t seek out Jesus himself; he sends some elders of the Jews, who recommend him to Jesus, saying he is their benefactor. Evidently the centurion thought this would be the right way to approach Jesus; he doesn’t seem to know much about the relations between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Although he’s a benefactor to the local Jews, he’s still a pagan, and probably doesn’t know much about Jewish affairs. Still, he knows that Jews are particular about visiting Gentile houses: that’s why he doesn’t think it right that Jesus should come under his roof. He doesn’t seem to know that Jesus is different from other Jews on this point.
Jesus doesn’t often have dealings with Romans—not since the decree from Caesar Augustus before his birth, till we get to Pilate. So the centurion story stands out, both in Luke’s and Matthew’s version.
It’s not clear why the slave’s health is so important to the centurion. Usually when people ask Jesus for cures it’s for themselves or a close relation. But a slave? It says he was valuable to him—entimos, usually meaning ‘honoured, respected’. Could he have been his lover? That would be fairly usual in the Roman army, but would be shocking to the Jewish elders.
But let’s look at the story in the wider context of Luke. As I said, Jesus doesn’t have much to do with the Romans; but Luke makes more of it than the other Gospel writers. He’s the one who introduces Jesus’s birth by telling us about the decree from Caesar Augustus, and Quirinius being governor in Syria. He seems anxious to give Jesus a frame in Roman history. (He gets the history wrong, but never mind.) Then he introduces the preaching of John the Baptist by placing it ‘in the fifth year of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea’ (Luke 3.1). And in the Acts of the Apostles, which is Luke’s sequel to his gospel, there’s lots about Romans. You couldn’t go travelling round the Mediterranean without dealing with them.
Another thing that Luke frames his gospel in is the Temple in Jerusalem. He starts with Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, a priest of the Temple. Then he has the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and if that wasn’t enough he has him in the Temple again, when he was twelve, discussing with the teachers, and telling his mother that’s where he belongs—not, it seems, with his Galilean family (Luke 2.49). The temptation in the wilderness involves the Temple (in Matthew also; the temptation isn’t in Mark or John). And in Acts, the Apostles start by hanging around the Temple, before going out all over the Roman world.
There’s also more about synagogues in Luke than in the other gospels. He announces his ministry by reading Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth. When commenting on the reading, he reminds his listeners that the Prophets ministered to outsiders: Elijah went to a widow in Sidon, not to any of the widows of Israel (Luke 4.25-6), and Elisha cleansed Naaman the Syrian, not any of the lepers of Israel (Luke 4. 27). So Jesus uses the synagogue and the Prophets to announce a mission to the Gentiles. Think again about the synagogue at Capernaum: it brings Jesus into contact with a Roman centurion.
But there’s something about the centurion story that’s different from the other stories of Jesus’ dealings with Gentiles. With the Samaritan woman, he talks theology: they give different views on the proper place to worship God. With the Syro-Phoenician woman or the Canaanite woman from Tyre and Sidon (two versions of the same story), he talks about Jewish exclusiveness. With the centurion, he just agrees to help. It’s the centurion himself who says Jesus shouldn’t come under his roof; Jesus doesn’t raise the matter of exclusiveness.
So in our dealings with our own outsiders: sometimes it’s right to talk theology, sometimes it may even be right to define our boundaries; but sometimes, let’s just see someone’s need, without enquiring why it’s important to them, and just help.
Dermot Killingley top^