The Centurion

This is another of my Gospel meditations. This one is based on the story recorded in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. The key thought that prompted it was the difference between being “in authority” and being “under authority”. So many people today want to be in authority, which is sad, because the more powerful position is to be under the right authority!

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Roman Centurion (Re-enactment), Wikipedia

Roman Centurion (Re-enactment), Wikipedia

Very few people understand power and authority, it seems to me.  Even in Rome one might be hard put to find more than a handful who truly understand.  Here, in Galilee, well, one might as well give up!  At least, that’s what I used to think.

There are plenty of people here, as everywhere, who think they understand.  Take the brigands in the mountains: A man is bigger, stronger, wilier than his fellows and sets himself up as some sort of robber-king.  But its all hollow, of course.  It only lasts until someone bigger, stronger, wilier comes along.  He may wield some measure of power, but he will always lack true authority until he understands.

I like it here, in these gentle green hills, with these devout and simple people.  I’ve made my home here for most of my adult life and hope to continue here once I retire from active duty.  Something about their devotion to a single God who delights in goodness is very appealing.  I find myself drawn to it and have for years been a “friend”.  Not a proselyte, at least not yet—that whole circumcision thing is a big barrier—but I keep as much of their laws as I can given my position and I attend their synagogue whenever I can.  Indeed, I helped them pay for it to be rebuilt after the old one began to fall down.  As a result the people of Capernaum look kindly on me and honour me, even if I am a Roman.

I tell you that so that you will understand what happened, and why I did what I did.

It was late spring when my chief and favourite servant fell ill.  It was clearly not just a minor fever, but something serious.  I called in the local doctor, such as he was, but he could do nothing except confirm that it was, indeed, very serious and that he didn’t expect the man to live.  Next I turned to a couple of the older women in the town who were midwives/healers, but they could not help either.  In despair, I went to the synagogue to pray and to see the rabbi.

Rabbi Jonathan is a good, wise old man.  I have spent many long hours learning from him and debating points quite loudly with him (which is what passes for advanced learning around here).  We knew each other well and were as much friends as any Israelite can ever be with a gentile.  After we prayed for my man, we sat and talked for a while.

“Have you thought about seeing this new teacher who is beginning to make a name for himself locally?” He asked me.

“No, not really.  I’ve heard a few rumours about him—isn’t he one of that family of carpenters who moved here recently?”

“Yes, that is him.  I mention him because there are rumours beginning to go around that he has the ability to heal.  It is hard to know for sure, rumours get wild and repeated and soon no-one remembers who it was who was supposed to have been healed.  Nevertheless I have been listening and watching and I think there may be something to the rumours.  Certainly he doesn’t seem to be spreading them himself, like the charlatans who pass through every so often.  In fact, he seems to be trying to downplay it all.  But something is happening, and you may do well to seek him out.”

Well, that certainly started me thinking.  If there was any hope at all I knew I would pursue it, but the question was how?  I suppose many in my position would have gone up to him boldly and demanded help—after all I was a Roman centurion and he was just a peasant carpenter, but I knew I could not do that.  As an Israelite, he would surely regard any close contact with a gentile as unclean.  The rabbi was clearly impressed with this man and I respected his judgement.  I needed a way to approach him that would not offend him, that would not be seen as a gentile lording it over the locals.

I gave it a lot of thought.  I had a couple of days to do so—days in which my servant sank slowly deeper into his sickness and away from us—as the new carpenter/rabbi was away on a tour of the surrounding towns.  By the time the news reached me that he was on his way back, I thought I knew what I should do.

I hurried to the synagogue and sought out my friend the rabbi.

“Please, Rabbi, might I ask that you and the elders would go to meet this preacher and ask him on my behalf to heal my servant?  Tell him he is our last hope and that I value this man very much.”

“Certainly we will go!  You have done so much for us, how could we refuse such a simple, and merciful, request.  Leave it to us.”

I went home, both relieved and anxious.  Would he agree?  Could he do it?  How long would it take?  I paced around my home like a caged beast, the other servants giving me room, seeing I was not angry but concerned for their fellow servant.  Then one of them came in and rushed up to me.

“My lord, he is coming!”

“What!” I exploded.  “Coming….here?”

“Yes, my lord.  The elders asked him to help and he replied right away that he would come and see him.”

“No, no, no, this is all wrong!”  I moaned.  “I did not mean for him to come here, not into a gentile house, he should not do that.”  Then it hit me: Despite my careful planning, the rabbi had misunderstood, or he had, and they had taken it as a summons.  They thought I was using my position to require his assistance.  Quickly, knowing I had only a few minutes, I sent the servant to call my friend who lived nearby.  He arrived with two others at a run.

“You must help me: The new teacher has agreed to help my servant, and is coming here.”

“That is good, isn’t it?”

“No…well, yes, it is good that he will help, but he must not come here.  I cannot ask that he contaminate himself by entering a gentile house.”

“But if he doesn’t come, how can he help?  Your servant is far too sick to move.”

“Tell him that I thank him for his concern, but that I am not worthy for him to enter my house.  Tell him I know it is not needed, that he can heal without being here himself.  After all, as a centurion I understand authority—that it is not because I am powerful that people obey me, but because I am under authority myself, that if they disobey me they disobey Rome and the Emperor and will have to deal with them.  That is why when I tell a soldier to go or come, he does, that is why my servants obey me.  Tell him this…if he is as wise as the rabbi thinks, he will understand, and if he is truly here under God’s authority then he will heal my servant without sullying himself.”

They went off, hurrying to prevent his approach.  The minutes passed by slowly as I fretted and paced.  Nothing…nothing…nothing.

Then, suddenly, a shout from within: “Master! Master, come quickly!”

I ran back to the room where my servant had been lying for so long, only to find him sitting up for the first time in days.  He was weak and had a lost sort of expression on his face as though he didn’t know where he was, but even as I watched, it faded away.  It was clear that something wonderful had happened, hope was renewed and it seemed as if his health improved minute by minute.  It had to be the teacher’s doing.

Not long after that my friends returned.  I was so full of what had happened that  I just burst into my account, not noticing that they, too, seemed full of news.  Finally I ground to a stop and let them speak.

“We did as you asked.  Told him all that stuff about authority and sending people (though I admit it was a bit above me).  He stood and thought about it for a moment and then…you won’t believe this, but it is true!…he turned to the large crowd around him and declared ‘I have not found such great faith even in Israel!’  Can you imagine!  A teacher of Israel commending to so many the faith of a gentile!  It shocked the crowd, I can tell you that.  If they hadn’t known you so well, there would have been a riot, I think, but fortunately your love of these people and sympathy for their religion is well known and they accepted it.  Then he sent us back to you to tell you that you had your wish, but you already knew that.”

So it all ended well.  But one day soon I am going to have to find a way to meet this man, to listen to his teaching.  Anyone who can grasp the true meaning of authority like he did and who can move as easily as he did within it is someone I must meet.  My duty calls for now, but I will find the time when I can.  I only hope I can do it before he gets too  widely recognised and disappears into the temple in Jerusalem with all the other great teachers.

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