This is an amazing story. Even Jesus is amazed.
It is amazing because it involves a Roman centurion, who symbolizes occupying power. Luke’s readers, thirty to forty years later than the story itself, are probably amazed that the story’s central character is a Roman soldier. Rome, at that time, still occupied Israel, and Rome was emerging as a major antagonist of the new Christian movement.
Much about this person is intimidating within first century Palestine.
- Gentile—outsider to the Jewish community.
- Roman—represents imperial power.
- Career Soldier, a legionnaire—part of an oppressive occupying force.
- Ranked Soldier, a Centurion—the commander of a hundred soldiers whose primary role is to enforce imperial power
- Governmental Liaison—one who mediated problems and enforced imperial interests within the local village; he was probably he leading imperial authority in Capernaum.
There is no indication that he is a God-fearer, as Luke usually notes this in his stories. The lack of any such a designation probably indicates that he is not an active participant in the Jewish faith, certainly not a proselyte.
The previous chapter in Luke contains Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus said, “Love your enemies” because God is gracious and merciful (Luke 6:35-36). Now, in Capernaum where Jesus has encountered opposition, Jesus hears the request of a Roman Centurion, Israel’s enemy.
Yet, Luke offers a positive picture of this particular centurion. Note some of the positives we might enumerate:
- Generous—he funded the building of a Jewish synagogue
- Humble—he does not think himself worthy to address or invite Jesus into his home or even address him directly
- Open—he displays no bigotry or bias toward Jews
- Loving—he valued the life of his slave (doulos), whom he affectionately calls his “child” (pais)
- Intercessor—he pleads (even begs) for the life of his slave
- Culturally Sensitive—he did not intend for Jesus to enter his home
Perhaps this should remind us not to let stereotypes determine how we think about people. Roman? Bad, right? Centurions? Violent oppressors, right? Gentile? Unbelievers, right? Not necessarily, and apparently not in this case.
But the quality that Jesus identifies is faith. It is the punch line of the whole story, and it amazes Jesus!
It contrasts specifically with the Jewish elders of the local synagogue, but also with Capernaum itself, and with the nation of Israel as a whole.
In this case, the Jewish leaders think relationship is a matter of patronage and worth—the centurion is worthy because of his generosity toward and care for Jewish people in Capernaum. They do not request on the ground of kinship, shared faith, or shared religion. They ask because he is a benefactor, and they want to continue the good political-cultural relationship they have with this powerful centurion.
Patronage was built into the Greco-Roman system. Wealthy authority figures built or funded, for example, temples, altars, buildings, and roads as a way of securing loyalty, good relations, and a good reputation. This is how “authority” operated in Greco-Roman culture, and Jesus himself alludes to this (cf. Luke 22:25).
So, the Jewish elders, working within that system, want to keep a good relationship with this centurion. He has scratched their backs, and now they need to scratch his. This is a quid pro quo relationship, “I’ll do for you because you have done for me.” Consequently, the centurion is “worthy” of Jesus’s kind attention.
This is not, however, what the centurion himself thinks, as reported by his “friends” (not the Jewish elders). He does not feel worthy; he is not worthy in his own estimation (contra the Jewish elders). Healing—the inbreaking of redemptive wholeness—is not a matter adjudicated by patronage or by being a benefactor. The centurion recognizes that Jesus’s authority is not subject to such manipulations. Instead, he submits to Jesus’ authority, which though analogous to his own is quite unlike his own.
Jesus’s amazement at the centurion’s faith highlights the contrast between the Jewish elders (as well as the Jewish nation) and this Gentile centurion. The Jewish leaders approach Jesus in the context of the cultural values of honor and shame, but the centurion approaches Jesus in faith.
Worthiness is not required for healing; only a submissive trust, faith. Faith, in this context, is a trust in the authority or word of Jesus. He speaks, and it happens.
Centurions understand authority. Vegetius, a fourth century Roman military author, described centurions as leaders “more ready to do things ordered of him than speak” (Epitome of Military Science, quoted from Cotter, The Christ of Miracle Stories, p. 114). The whole military Roman camp is ordered by an authority structure. Josephus, for example, writes, “nothing is done without a word of command” from the “respective centurions” to “rank and file” (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 3.98, quoted from Cotter, The Christ of Miracle Stories, 106).
Faith is expressed in the centurion’s willingness to hear a word from Jesus, trust it, and act on it. He did not have to verify it or test it. He believed it, and he believed it because he knew that Jesus had authority, that a word from Jesus counted. A word from Jesus is a performative word; it enacts the reality it imagines.
This echoes the creation story. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The word is performed; it is enacted. When God speaks, something happens. When Jesus speaks, something happens.
The authority structure in the Roman army was one of control. The centurion controlled his soldiers, just as his own commanders controlled him. He could tell them what to do, and they did it. They obeyed without question and without hesitation.
But he was not always in control, and neither are we. He could not save his beloved slave, his “child.” And neither can we.
We all want to think we are in control; we want to have control. We fear because we know we are not in control. We could lose a job. We are powerless over addictions. We can do nothing in the face of cancer. Powerlessness stops us in our tracks, and instead of feeling in control, we feel fear.
But here is the point. The centurion did not rely on his own authority or control. Instead, he trusted Jesus. He believed. He trusted that the authority of Jesus was for the sake of the other, that Jesus would use his authority to heal, redeem, forgive, and love.
Jesus’s power is the authority to reverse the curse, to redeem what is broken, to heal the wounded. We do not submit to tyranny but to God’s redemptive authority. We trust God’s redemptive purposes in Jesus, and we trust that God has given authority to Jesus to heal a broken world and reconcile God and humanity.
I wonder if Jesus is amazed by the faith of a Roman centurion whether we might, too, be surprised at times. Perhaps it should not surprise us that we are sometimes surprised. Nevertheless, faith shows up in some unlikely places. God often—even regularly—shows up in unexpected ways and places, and when God shows up, God often surprises us!
- Faith shows up at funeral homes.
- Faith shows up in pediatric critical care units.
- Faith shows up in families with job losses.
- Faith shows up in abject poverty.
- Faith shows up in people with chronic pain.
Faith shows up in places where we don’t expect faith. God surprises us, and such faith amazes us.
May we never lose our sense of wonder and amazement!