The Humble Centurion and other Oxymorons
We might call this the story of the Good Centurion
Question: What do the good Centurion and the (more famous) good Samaritan have in common?… Comments?
Both, by their placement in history, are enemies of Israel, by definition bad men… they are outsiders. The Samaritans were simply the racial enemy of all Jews. They were really a kind of second-cousin nation to the Jews, but because they were close they were the bitterest enemies. The Romans were the invading and oppressive empire. Romans ruled the world ‘with an iron fist’. The biblical writers don’t take the Empire on head first. In fact Luke’s gospel is all about avoiding that… But the biblical writers are under no illusions about Rome they use code names like ‘The Beast’ to refer to it. It is an idolatrous system.
It’s fascinating that Jesus should tell stories in which a Samaritan is the moral hero… and should reserve his highest praise for a Roman Centurion. What does that tell us about Jesus?
He saw things differently!
Lets talk a bit about the Centurion
This week a guy called Miroslav Volf facebooked this question.
“How is the ultimate sacrifice of a soldier similar/different from the sacrifice of Christ? Take up your cross and follow me, soldiers included.”
As you might imagine that prompted fairly intense debate in which one person commented
“I would ask that any of you who haven’t worn a uniform refrain from commenting. Having never done so, you’ll never know why we do what we do. Never forget that the first gentile for whom Christ performed a miracle was a Centurion. He didn’t tell him to stop being a Soldier. He didn’t demand that he turn his back on Rome. He didn’t tell him to renounce violence.”
It’s true Jesus didn’t. Perhaps this writer could have gone further. Not only was the Centurion a soldier in high authority in the Roman army, he was also a slave owner, and Jesus said nothing about that either.
Kavin Rowe, in a recent book called Upside Down World, says that Luke-Acts (Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, both written by Luke) takes the relationship between the Christian movement and the Roman Empire as a major theme. For Luke the movement is not fighting Rome at its own game, but it is nevertheless turning the world upside down from within. Everywhere the Apostles go in the book of Acts there is a riot, they are ruining the economy, they are upsetting the culture and the politics. And yet everywhere Rome declares them innocent of all crime. Pilate finds Jesus innocent. The Emperors find Paul innocent. In other words the Christian movement doesn’t take the state on at its own game. They are not anti-state. They don’t directly confront the powers that govern the world (in this case the Roman state with its system of violence and slavery). But everywhere they go they are politically subversive and they are killed because of it. [aside: history records how the first Christians refused military service, for the most part, in the first 300 years of the church’s life]. You might say the Jesus movement has its own very different kind of power and way of effecting change. The book by Kavin Rowe is called Upside Down World (I recommend it).
The Centurion was a powerful and wealthy representative of the Roman state.
Have you ever noticed, a kind of leftist righteousness that slips out sometimes (in people like me) which says that as Christians we love the poor and marginalized so it’s OK to hate the rich and powerful, perhaps even that God does.
If Kavin Rowe is right God doesn’t hate the rich and powerful, God hates oppression and injustice. And in the Gospel according to Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles… this system of oppression is threatened as people discover another way, another economy. No one is fighting the empire directly. Everywhere the empire is in trouble. God is coming in under the radar.
The good Centurion is a case in point. The people come to Jesus on his behalf and plead his case. In spite of being a Centurion he has been kind to the Jewish community, a philanthropist. In spite of being a slave owner he is treating this slave as a member of his household… he values the slave highly, he is desperate for help.
He demonstrates humility “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you under my roof”. This is more significant than first appears. Humility is a peculiarly Christian virtue. Augustine of Hippo wrote:
“The way to Christ is first through humility, second through humility, third through humility. If humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, if it is not before us to focus on, if it is not beside us to lean up, if it is not behind us to fence us in, pride will wrench from our hand any good deed we do at the very moment we do it.”
No Graeco-Roman list of moral virtues includes humility! The Centurion is being awfully un-roman. Rome made a virtue of pride… The Centurion in our story epitomizes humility….
And in the end Jesus turns to the crowd and says: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
The good Samaritan and the good Centurion tell us something about how Jesus saw the world and saw God at work in the world. Jesus pushes hard to challenge the ways we see things. That’s what parables are all about. Who our enemies are is already built-in to the way we see the world around us.
How do you see the world around you?
I wonder what sort of expectations hide from us the presence of God at work?
This week I am doing a funeral for a lady who was very ill after her husband died. At that point in her life she felt abandoned by the church community. People lost touch with her, and she struggled to get out. But a couple who had nothing to do with Christianity and had no time for it, befriended her. In fact their generosity and sacrifice surprised her. They would do anything for her.
Last week I did a funeral for a Bert Martin who died just before his 101st birthday. About 8 or 9 years ago this sprightly 90 something shifted to Port Chalmers. At his funeral a guy called Black Dog spoke about his arrival at Port Chalmers. Black Dog is a publican out at Port. One day (said Black Dog) this very very old gentleman turned up at his pub and ordered the first of his three 12oz glasses of Speights. The locals found him a stool and made him at home. And Bert declared after the first visit that this would be his ‘Local’. The folk at the pub became his second family. They would run out and ensure that no one parked in Bert’s space and they would celebrate his birthday every year with a cake and the usual three Speights. When Bert shifted to Omakau about three years ago, all his pub community hired a bus and went on a trip to visit him (and sample some of the local produce along the way).
Bert was away from his St Clair church which he loved. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether he didn’t experience at least as much Christian community at the Port Chalmers pub.
Where do you see God at work in the world?
We All have our blinkers … Prayer and worship are a way of seeking the ‘mind of Christ’ … putting on a new kind of spectacles, seeking the vision of Christ.
If we are going to follow Jesus and learn to love our enemies, we will also be learning to open our eyes to see the work of God and the way of Jesus in unexpected places.