I have been drawn to the gospel of Luke, partly because we will be studying it, but also because Luke seems to be a gospel addressed to those interested in a universal perspective and in communication with culture. As it happens, my reading for the day came from Chapter 7, the healing of the centurion's slave.
After reading the passage twice just to get the facts down, I closed my eyes and waited to see how my mind would make sense of the story. Sometimes in my imagination I will have Jesus, whom I address as Golden-heart, tell me about what kind of day he had in ministry; we sit and talk about how our experiences parallel each other. Today, this was not the method. I simply re-entered the scene trying to observe as much as I can and to form a back story to each of the elements in the text.
Jesus, while not exhausting the wealth of his wisdom, had completed his mission in the southern part of Galilee. His habit was to speak to the fringe; Galilee was the fringe of Jewish spirituality. He now decides to move to the fringe of the fringe, to Capernaum. This was a city where Jews mingled not just with their cousins the Samaritans but also with Gentiles. It was a risk situation for them in terms of their purity laws and in terms of their esteem in the eyes of their southern brothers from Jerusalem.
Luke's first story from this area concerns the Centurion, a leader of it least a hundred Roman troops. This Centurion becomes the emblem of faith for Luke's readers, who were likely Gentiles themselves or leftward leaning Jews. It is primarily a story about what it means to trust other people, to be loyal to them, and to expect good things for them. It is a story about faith in community at the boundaries.
The Centurion must have been what is called a god-fearer, one of those Gentiles who, not wanting to go under the knife so to speak, were attracted to the spirituality of Judaism as an alternative to the common Roman magical piety. The Centurion was noted for his love of Jewish spirituality. He contributed his troops for the building of a community center to enhancement of Jewish education (Asper Center), a synagogue. The Jewish elders who pleaded with Jesus to come and heal the centurion's slave knew him and appreciated him and recognized that he had a basic goodness. In short, they had faith in him.
The Jewish elder’s faith was reciprocated since the Centurion must have gone to them with his concerns about his sick slave. It is likely that he reached out beyond his own comfort and ask for help from those whom he was not directly related to. The centurion also expressed faith or at least admiration for his slave. The text says the Slave was valued. I wonder if this only means valued as a commodity or was the slave valued by the Centurion as a person? Maybe it was a combination, regardless, the Centurion honored the slave by actively seeking his health. He had faith in his slave's ability to be productive and loyal.
It is in the context of this faith between diverse people, in a patchwork community, that an even greater faith is expressed. Once again intrusting himself to other people the centurion asks his friends to communicate a message to Jesus. He trusts them to deliver this message accurately and authentically. He tells Jesus that it is not necessary for him to actually come to his house in order to heal the slave. It seems the Centurion does not need the external physical sign of Jesus presence - in order to trust. (Just like Luke’s readers and us.) He might also have been seeking to preserve Jesus reputation through not having him associate with regional Roman authority.
Because the centurion knows that in order to have command you must have faith in your troops, he transfers this knowledge to the spiritual realm and anticipates that Jesus has power of command over illnesses. Just as the Centurion will trust his troops in slaves, Jesus will trust whatever powers he has to vanquish the enemy illness. The Centurion’s faith elicits Jesus admiration. Jesus heals the slave thus expressing his loyalty to the Centurions trust and faith in him.
Looked at from a vantage point of interpretation, we have gone from the literal story - to its meaningfulness. We have seen that at its center the story is about faith at the fringe and how faith in one another begets faith in Christ. I was quite excited to read this because I had just finished reading Richard Niebuhr on how valuing something or someone brings about a special kind of knowledge.
Interpretation however does not stop with translation but must move us to transformative actions. At the deeper level, this text tells us that when we pray for one another with the spirit of trust and goodwill, Christ will reward that faith with answered prayer. It means that instead of speaking of the Centurion the text could have spoken about a librarian, a teacher, a mentor, a tradesperson, a postal worker, or a secretary. It means that the text could come alive in a new setting filled with people completely different from one another and different from those in the text.
The text is asking us to form communities of trust and loyalty to one another, to standing behind others instead of mistrusting in gossiping about them in the office coffee klatch; we are asked to promote other people's health and best interests. If we learn to do this with people with whom we've established loyalty, how much more, would trust and loyalty be able to be expressed toward our enemies. We would be taking the first step in fulfilling Jesus commanded to be loyal even to those who are mistrustful. Herein lies the application step, pray loyal prayers for each other, fully expecting that God will be loyal in bringing about the healing of a variety of situations.
I have only just begun to understand this passage, since the same archetypes and metaphors could be applied to various components within my own psyche. I'm absolutely sure that I have a pagan Centurion living within, a group of elders willing to vouch for him, and a living Lord willing to heal those around him whom he values.