Read Scripture: Luke 7:1-10
Faith of the Centurion
Our passage begins, "when Jesus had finished saying all this to the people," tying this episode to Jesus' Sermon on the Plain in the chapter before. This teaching is similar to Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, except it is set on level land--Jesus having come down from a mountaintop experience--rather than on elevated ground. Two major movements in Jesus' teaching in the plain are a version of the Beatitudes ("blessed are the") and a challenge to his followers to love their enemies. The geography of the plain, the upside down values of the Beatitudes, and the call to love one's enemies all point to a motif of humility. For Luke's Jesus, authority and power move from the bottom up. Faith and Kingdom discipleship involve lowering oneself under and against the culture of power led by those who are rich, who are well fed, and who are popular.
The Centurion is the epitome of power and status, as well as the very visible arm of the occupying enemy, Gentile and Roman military. He would have been in charge of enforcing tax collection and commanding the troops who maintained order in Capernaum on behalf of Herod Antipas. But our story is odd because everything about the Centurion is not as expected. His posture and his relationships are upside down. In this community Jesus enters, in the Centurion's sphere of influence, we pick up on an air of honor, humility, and mutual respect across cultural/ethnic/class/religious divides. Jewish religious elders approach Jesus, pleading on behalf of the Centurion. They respect him. They honor him, recognizing the Centurion as someone who is deserving of Jesus' visitation, and one who loves their nation and donated to the building of the synagogue. The Centurion is a powerful military man of authority who nonetheless highly values his servant so much as to send this delegation of Jews to plead for the servant's life. He also does not make demands of Jesus, but rather views himself as unworthy of having Jesus as a guest in his home. And though Jesus is a rabbi living simply in poverty, wandering the lands with fishermen, the Centurion recognizes, honors, and believes in the authority and power in Jesus' very word. It is through this man's humble, compassionate, cross-cultural befriending, and self-lowering disposition--in spite of the power of his position--that Jesus declares the Centurion's as a great faith he has not found in all of Israel. Jesus performs a healing of the servant from a distance, and makes a teaching point on faith to the crowds. The Centurion's humble love for his servant, the Jewish elders' honoring of him, his honoring and self-deprecation before Jesus, and his trust in the Authority and power of Jesus' very word become the faith exemplar and demonstration of the modeling of Kingdom discipleship Jesus had just preached in his Sermon on the Plain.