This story of Jesus and the centurion is unusual, confounding, complex. If we attempt to simplify the characters (especially the centurion) into precise categories, it just doesn’t work.
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for 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; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For 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 the slave does it.’ When 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.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. [from Luke 7]
If I were Jesus, I’m sure I would’ve said things like, “If a healing is so important to this centurion, let him come talk to me himself.” Or, “Are you sure you elders aren’t just sucking up because this guy is rich?” And, as always, I’m disappointed that the story teller doesn’t include more about the person with the least social and economic clout—the slave who’s the reason for all the activity.
What strikes me about this story is how, in a few sentences, we hear so many complexities and are left with so many questions, especially regarding the centurion. He is wealthy, powerful, generous, used to getting his way and ordering people around. Probably he is a God-fearer—a gentile who has close ties to Judaism without being a convert. He’s a financial supporter but not really a worshiper. He’s faithful, but completely outside the structures (both physical and social) of the faith. He’s used to being in charge, but he isn’t afraid to beg a healing from a lowly rabbi. He cares about (“values”) a slave, but is it because this particular slave is economically valuable, or is there a personal attachment? Or both?
This is the person to whom Jesus goes. The person Jesus never meets. The person whose faith Jesus praises.
Faithful people are complex. They are rich or poor, generous or stingy, regular attendees or always absent. They think too much or too little of themselves, or of others. They make requests that take others out of their way, or they are too timid to make any request at all. They do not fit any mold.
And yet Jesus still moves toward them, loves and appreciates them, and recognizes in them—in us—a faithfulness hidden among the flaws.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier