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The centurion.

In Jesus' time Israel was an occupied territory, subject to imperial, often brutal, Roman rule. But then, as now, the line between good and evil did not run between Rome and Jerusalem, nor between nationalities, not even between ruler and ruled. The line between good and evil ran down the centre of each and every human heart. So there were good Romans as well as bad ones. In the 7th chapter of Luke's Gospel we meet a good Roman, a centurion who had endeared himself to the Jews by building them a synagogue, a Roman upon whom the Jewish elders had bestowed the honorific title "friend of our nation" (Luke 7;5). When this Roman centurion's servant fell ill, "sick and near to death" (v.2), the elders sent for Jesus, the miracle-worker from Galilee.

But before Jesus ever got to the centurion's house, he was met by the centurion's emissaries. The centurion had sent a very peculiar message: "I did not think myself worthy to come unto thee....Do not trouble yourself, Sir, to come under my roof;... speak the word only and my servant will be healed" (v.6-8).

Here is the first surprise of the story. A Roman centurion, a man of power and influence and wealth, did not think himself worthy to confront a wandering Jew, an itinerant rabbi of no power or wealth or influence whatsoever, indeed a vagrant who had nowhere to lay his head. The centurion, who is looking for a miracle to heal his servant, sent emissaries. But to whom? To a suffering servant, Jesus of Nazareth, who was Himself an emissary, an emissary from God. Jesus never healed in His own name, but in God's. So the emissaries from the Roman centurion come face to face With the divine emissary from God.

Now Scripture rarely reports that Jesus was taken aback, for He knew what was in the hearts of men. But this time Jesus was surprised. Usually people clamoured to have Him come under their roof, particularly if someone sick lay within. But the centurion went on to explain: "I too am a man under authority...I give the order and it is carried out...So only speak the word and my servant will be cured" (v.7-8). So full of admiration was Jesus at hearing these words that He turned to the crowd who were standing about and He said: "Nowhere, even in Israel, have I found faith like this" (v.10).

Now what did the centurion mean by his almost blasphemous comparison of himself to Jesus, as both being men "under authority"? He meant, I think, three things.

First, that as a Roman soldier he knew what it was to give and to receive orders. The Roman army, indeed all armies (except, perhaps, the Canadian army where the operative principle seems to be affirmative action) operate on one basic principle: orders, once given, must be obeyed. The structure is deliberately hierarchical. So the centurion knew that if Jesus but gave the order, though yet geographically distant, his servant would be healed. And so it was, for the emissaries returned to the centurion's house to find the servant restored to health.

Second, the centurion recognized that Jesus too was under authority. Jesus never claimed otherwise. The most extravagant claim that Jesus ever made about Himself was that He was utterly derived. Everything He did and said was derived from God. He was under God's authority. Unlike the Greek philosophers who were always seeking to expound "some new thing", Jesus did not even claim to be original. "Who has seen me has seen the Father", He said; and "I and the Father am one". If Jesus, a man whom even the winds and the waters obeyed, was a man under God's authority, what grotesque hubris is it for us at the dawn of the 21st century to imagine that we are masters of our own ship, captains of our own destiny?

Finally, I think that the centurion meant that authority and freedom are compatible. It was the man "under authority", Jesus, who was free to heal the centurion's servant, a man also under authority. Throughout scripture Jesus referred to Himself as a servant; he washed the feet of the disciples to drive home the point. Jesus was the suffering servant by whose stripes Israel, and the world, are healed.

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario;
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Title Annotation:divinity and obedience of Jesus Christ as illustrated by gospel story
Author:Hunter, Ian
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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