Centurion and Friends

The story that follows is so remarkable that I have quoted it in full.  I have used the NRSV.

1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.  2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.  3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.  4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”  And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you.  But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.  8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith (people acting out of all that is best in human nature – people behaving in a truly human way).”   10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.  (Lk 7: 1 – 10)

Was this Jesus’ first visit to Capernaum?  Certainly not!  Lk 4: 29-30 tells us about Jesus’ very hostile reception from the people of his home town, Nazareth.  It was so unpleasant, that he moved to Capernaum, never to return.  What does “all these sayings” refer to?  The second half of chapter six contains the Sermon on the Plain. (Lk 6: 20-49)  The central saying is, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  The story about the centurion illustrates this beautifully.

Key to understanding this incident is Jesus’ statement, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  For most of us ‘faith’ means a set of theological beliefs.  In Scripture ‘faith’ means something quite different.  It is important to get a clear understanding of “faith” when used in the Bible. 

We will do this by examining the meaning of the Hebrew word, “mnh”.  This is the quality of behaving reliably according to one’s nature or commitments.  It is often translated as faithfulness.  It picks up the notions of reliable, secure, sure, certain and trustworthy.  God has this quality because God always acts according to who God is:

The Word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.  (Ps 33: 4)

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam 3: 22-23)

God is faithful because; he is upright; true to his covenant with us; his love and mercy never cease.

God always acts according to who God is.  He is love and can be depended on to act lovingly.  He is merciful and will always act mercifully.  He has made promises and can be depended upon to keep them.  God has ‘faith’ in its fullness.

“God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.”  (Gen 1: 27)  As sons and daughters of God we are called to be like God.  In his humanity Jesus perfectly reflected God.  By imitating him we will be truly human in the very best sense.  We will have ‘faith’ in its fullness.  Of us it will be justly said, “You are my beloved daughter / son; with you I am well pleased.”  (Mk 1: 11)

The characters in our story are; the centurion, the slave, the Jewish elders, Jesus and the centurion’s friends.  Each one behaves in an exemplary way.  The centurion, an officer in a conquering army, builds a synagogue for the community he would normally oppress.  The Jewish elders have forgotten their hatred of this soldier, who represents their conquerors.  They plead his cause.  Jesus does not hesitate, when responding to the request of a gentile.  Note the consideration of the centurion.  He knows that no Jew should enter the home of a pagan, so he sends his friends to save Jesus this embarrassment.  In the centurion’s friends, we have pagans acting with much consideration towards a Jew.  Every person in this story recognizes the dignity and humanity of others.  They behave in the most humane way.  They are faithful to the highest human values.

Choose life or choose death.  These people chose life.  How will I choose?