Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Man Under Authority

Last time we looked at Jesus' encounter with the leprous man. It was actually the first in a trio of encounters that we are witness to in the period immediately following his midrash on the Mount. We now examine the second of these:

Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it. When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour. Matthew 8:5-13 (NKJV)

Jesus now returns to what has become his home town since his ministry began. I find it interesting that he chooses to live not in an exclusively Jewish community but in one with a mixture of cultures. Capernaum (formerly Kefar Nachum, "Nahum's hamlet") was a town that had been extensively rebuilt by the Romans. It was a garrison town, an administrative centre, and a customs station; a far more central location than the mountain village of Nazareth. Given the Roman tendency to use local labour in their construction, it is possible that Joseph the carpenter worked in Capernaum from time to time, maybe even bringing young Jesus with him.

Among the structures built under Roman direction is a synagogue; built, we are told by Luke, by the very centurion who approaches Jesus in this passage. Pictured at right is a 4th century synagogue in the ruins of Capernaum that stands on the same site as that synagogue. (This has been confirmed by Franciscan archaeologists who found the remains of a 1st century synagogue underneath it.) The centurion, it would seem, has experienced something that happens to many soldiers stationed in foreign lands. He has developed an appreciation for the local people, maybe even a love for them and their culture. He has found enough of a home here to be moved to invest in its spiritual well-being by erecting this place of worship for them. And they, Luke says, have developed something of a love for him.

In the light of this, it may be not quite so surprising that when his beloved servant falls ill, beyond the help of Roman medicine, that he turns to this remarkable Jewish rabbi. What is surprising however, is his recognition of Jesus' authority. A man keenly aware of his own place in the hierarchy of things, he instantly recognizes that Jesus, not unlike himself, not only answers to a higher power, but speaks for that power in the same breath. As surely as he knows the orders he gives his own men will be carried out, because his words bear all the authority of the Roman Empire, he knows what this rabbi commands will happen.

Like the leper before him, this man is a product of his circumstances. Finding himself in the military, possibly not even of his own accord, he has learned a lesson in humility that few people comprehend - humility is as much about knowing what you can control as it is about what you can't. He sees in Jesus a man who takes no more credit than he is due, who fully acknowledges his power and authority come from the Father. But at the same time he sees that Jesus wields the authority he has been given with absolute confidence; there is no doubt in Jesus' mind about his mission and what he is to accomplish. It is this authority the centurion understands and to which he readily submits.

And it is this man, this humble centurion, this Gentile, who catches Jesus unawares. This Jesus, who knows the hearts of the pharisees, who sees into the life of the woman at the well, marvels at the humility of this centurion, so much so that he credits it to him as faith.

I am reminded of the words of the writer of Hebrews, who tells us that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness. How do we know Abraham had faith? Becaus
e, we are told, he submitted himself to the authority of God and did not withhold his only son Issac. In short, he obeyed. Like Abraham, this centurion submits to the authority of Jesus, and in so doing demonstrates that while salvation is won by faith alone, faith has its roots in obedience, in submission to the authority of the Kingdom of God.

The result - healing - "as you have believed, so let it be done to you." But also, for those watching these events unfold - a warning. Don't think that just because you were born a Jew that your place in the Kingdom is assured. Others, from outside the tradition, will actually gain entrance before many who think of themselves as privileged. It is a warning to which many in the church should also pay heed.

A leper, and a centurion; one more member of the trio remains to be heard from - next time.


Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 15.


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