Sunday 29th May 2016, Trinity 1
by Revd Kate Tuckett
Sometimes it can seem as if the Bible is very hard to relate to. A lot has changed in the last 2,000 to 4,000 years, and I have no form of reference for life in rural Palestine. I don’t know what it’s like to live under Ceasar. Everything in me says that keeping slaves is wrong. I don’t know a single fisherman let alone a centurion and I guess I can’t speak for all of you but I’ve never felt the need to sacrifice a goat for my sins. Sometimes the context of the Bible can be so alien from our own that we miss the good news that it can offer us. Things have changed over the millennia. But what hasn’t changed are human beings and human nature.
This story, no less than others, may seem alien to us in 21st century South Wimbledon. So to place it in some sort of context: Jesus lived in an occupied territory. There’s a reason why he was crucified, a Roman style of execution rather than a Jewish one. Centurions were employed to keep the peace, by brute force if necessary. So this man was a Roman soldier. He worked for the enemy, for Rome, which meant that often he would have to oppress Jews and other cultures that Rome defeated. He would have been in charge of 100 men. He was a man of power and authority, one who could tell others what to do. He tells Jesus ‘I say to one ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘do this’ and my slave does it.’ He has been placed in a position by his commanding officer to give such orders. But today he has come to the limit of his power and authority. A slave who is dear to him, who is highly regards and values and unable to come or go or do as he wants. He is ill and close to death.
We no longer can own other people in the same way that the centurion owned this boy, and we thank God for that. And we might ask what this slave is for us --- it might be another person, but might be something else that has cared for us and made us comfortable and served us, that to which we have become attached, upon which we depend, that we have taken for granted but hold dear and cannot imagine life without. Whether it is our income, our lifestyle, our health, our job, or another person, that slave is our life, our existence, our being. Although we think we own it, there is a sense in which it owns us as well, because when this ‘slave’ is ill and dying the structure of our life starts to crumble, and in that moment whatever power and authority we have isn’t enough.
The centurion is a man of great power and authority. And he has come to the end of his rope. He cannot order his slave to be well or healed. And he recognises something about Jesus that amazes Jesus and causes him to exclaim that he has never seen such faith. He recognises something of himself in Jesus --- he recognises that Jesus is also a man under authority. So he recognises that Jesus is not healing solely on his own authority but is doing so under the authority of God. He recognises God working in and through him. The healing of the slave was tied up in the authority he granted to Jesus. He moves his allegiance from authority to the imperial to the authority of God.
It’s interesting in the story given the context of the centurion as an employee of the Roman army that the centurion sends some Jewish elders to fetch Jesus, and they are all for the healing, despite the fact that this officer would have been enforcing a regime that oppresses the people of Israel and expropriates their wealth. It seems that the officer has ingratiated himself with the local people, and generously so, they report that he loves them and has funded the building of their synagogue.
In other words, they perceive him as worthy. He has given generously to their religion. The local people has benefitted from collaborating with the occupation. The centurion is deserving of Jesus’ attention because he has power.
The irony of this story is that the centurion realises the truth that the Jewish religious leaders miss. He knows that he doesn’t deserve to approach Jesus. He knows Jesus wields a greater power – not the power to dominate but rather the power to heal and make new. He protests that he is not worthy, and Jesus says in effect, nonsense. Healing does not come to those who practice the right religion or to those who deserve it. Jesus hears from the elders who deliver the message of the centurion’s desire for healing, and without seeking any qualification he acknowledges that desire as the seedbed of faith and new possibility.
This is a story about healing. A healing does take place in the slave. But we all know plenty of stories where physical healing does not occur and I wonder if this is actually the greatest miracle in the story.
The centurion realises the end and the limits of the power he represents. He realises that the relationships that sustain and nurture life are truly worthwhile and he realises that relationships of genuine worth transcend class, ethnicity and religion. He realises that he is part of a reality that is much larger than himself. He realises how small and powerless he is in the scheme of things and he is willing to entrust himself and his slave to the care of God. God, not the Roman Empire is not the source of his security.
He is not worthy. He is a ritually unclean Gentile occupying Jewish land. He is the wrong ethnicity, the wrong relation, and the wrong nationality. But in the end, all this is beside the point. His needs draws Jesus to him and healing breaks out in all direction. The beloved slave is found to be in good health. But I suspect that it is the centurion himself who has been made new; it is his conversion that is the miracle of the story.
Jesus is amazed by this man’s faith. It’s a surprise to find faith in this kind of man and this is a lesson perhaps for all of us and for us as an inclusive church. We tend to think we know how God works in the world and how humans respond. Then, as now, we can find examples of great righteousness in unexpected places.
So there may be a question of whether we have the faith of the centurion, although perhaps unless we are at the limit of our resources we don’t know, and perhaps true faith really begins then. And this is a question that may simply make us feel inadequate and guilty and as if we are doing something wrong, and by being here at all, we are all in our own ways trying to open ourselves to Jesus.
And perhaps the question for us all is whether we are open to faith in unexpected places; in those who are from different backgrounds, or whose politics are different, or whose views or lifestyles we find in some ways challenging. In my experience the people who you sense are really holy are not necessarily the people who think they are. How can we be enriched by those modern-day centurions who may wander through our lives and through the door of the church?