We are studying Luke 7:1-10 for Sunday, October 20. (Also the kick-off day of our church’s bicentennial celebration! We have so much planned, it looks like we’ll be thoroughly exhausted and feeling 200 years old ourselves by the time it’s over.) This text tells the story of Jesus’s healing of a centurion’s slave, a story which has played a prominent role in Christian imagination over the centuries. Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: It’s Luke’s gospel, so Jesus does good things for Gentiles and Samaritans. This is an early example.
If we have been reading along in Luke’s gospel, by the time we get to this story we’ve heard the stories of Elizabeth and Mary, from annunciation to the birth of John the Baptist and then of Jesus, complete with angels and shepherds, and of Jesus’s presentation in the temple complete with songs of Simeon and Anna, and John’s proclamation and Jesus’s baptism, and then genealogy, in which Jesus is ultimately a descendant of Adam, “son of God,” Luke 3:38). We are still in the story of Jesus’s early ministry, in Galilee, Nazareth, Capernaum, and “Judea” (or else Galilee again) Luke 4:44[*]. He has been preaching, performing miracles, calling disciples and apostles, healing people on the sabbath, and preaching a long sermon to an audience that includes people from Tyre and Sidon (Luke 6), presumably Gentiles. That sermon is the “sayings” that Jesus “had finished” in the first verse of our text.
After this, Jesus will go on to do everything else in the gospel of Luke, which is about 2/3 of it. So, at this point, Jesus is just getting started. Even so, he’s already done more healing and exorcising than most of the rest of us will do in our whole lives.
Luke can be vague about place references. This story, however, is firmly set in Capernaum, a city on the north end of the Sea of Galilee, which Luke presents as something like a base of operations for Jesus’s ministry. Here’s an old, non-copyrighted map, that seems to have Capernaum, Nain, and the political boundaries in the same places as the newer, copyrighted and behind a subscription wall one:
Helen K. Bond at Bible Odyssey summarizes what we can know about the centurion: definitely a Gentile, probably not a Roman, “career military”. And there’s an interesting video of the structure of the military unit a centurion would have commanded here:
Recently, a lot of commentary and controversy has centered on the possible relationship of the centurion to this slave, because the centurion refers to him using a word that can mean a sexual partner, as it does in some Greek literature from more or less the same period. So some readers insist that this is definitely a story about a “gay centurion,” and other readers insist equally strongly that it isn’t and wouldn’t be. But the Greek word in question, pais, seems to be a very general term, with a wide range of meanings, including “son” or “child.” Although it does seem always to mean something about a person’s social status, it doesn’t allow us to presume a person’s specific age or family connection or much more about the relationship without context. [Think of all the ways we use the word “baby.” Or “boy.” Or “son.”] We don’t have enough of that context in this story, either to assert, or to rule out, any particular one of the roles a slave could have played in the ancient world. [But here’s a nice analysis of the overlap in social status of children and slaves that the use of the word pais indicates.]
CLOSER READING: V1 refers back to the preceding chapter, the entire “sermon on the plain” which includes blessings and woes, the instructions to love enemies, not to judge, and to know trees (or people) by their fruits, and to do what Jesus says to do, which is like building a house on a firm foundation.
Verse 2 establishes the situation: the centurion, whom we can assume is a Gentile, has a slave; the slave is important, but sick, and about to die. So the centurion hears about Jesus and “sends” people, “elders of the Jews,” – so they are made, literally, “apostles” – “asking” for Jesus to come cure the slave. This particular form of “asking” is sometimes translated “urging” or “begging;” it might have the sense of asking from a position of strength or special relationship; it’s definitely not an order, and it doesn’t seem to be impolite at all. Still, if that’s the sense, there’s some irony in it; Luke’s readers should know that it’s really Jesus who’s in a position to ask that way.
The elders act as advocates for the centurion; the verb the NRSV translates as “appealed” is related to the word paraclete, and it has a range of meanings that includes urging – making a strong case for something or someone. The centurion is “worthy, deserving”. This implies that just anyone wouldn’t be. The evidence of his worthiness is his love for the Jews, and his generosity in building the synagogue. They don’t expect Jesus to know this about the centurion – I assume because Jesus isn’t “from here.”
So Jesus goes with them, back to the centurion’s house.
Now the centurion “sends” – not the way he “sent” the elders, but the way he might have sent a letter or note – some “friends” – which might tell us the elders were not exactly friends, though they were associates or acquaintances – with the message in v6. They address Jesus as “Lord”, and tell him he neen’t go to all this effort, the centurion is not “fit” for Jesus to come into the house.
I used to wonder whether this was about the centurion being embarrassed to have a local come into the house; I wondered if it was a status-maintaining response on the centurion’s part.
But now I suspect: the centurion reacts the way I might if the sink were full of dirty dishes and the floor hadn’t been vacuumed – “oh, don’t bother, just stay in the car, I’ll run that whatever-it-is out to you …” I suspect he’s thinking about the shrimp on the barbie and that there’s no good place for Jesus to sit and the purity gradient that segregates Jews and Gentiles, and is maybe also thinking something like “oh my gosh, I didn’t mean for them to bring him all the way out here!” A simple request that could have been handled remotely turned into a big imposition, and on the new celebrity healer, of all people.
I don’t know whether a response like that would have been typical or thinkable for a centurion. But assuming the centurion’s message is sincere, that’s how it comes across.
And he backs it up with an explanation of his world-view, his vision of the chain of command. He follows orders all the time. He issues orders all the time, and soldiers and slaves follow them. He just assumed Jesus had the same kind of arrangement, with whatever powers are responsible for health and sickness.
Jesus “wondered” at this – that is, it’s a wonder, a remarkable thing – and then says “even in Israel” he hasn’t encountered such faith. The implication is that he’d expect faith to be stronger in Israel or among the people of Israel than elsewhere. But where else has Jesus been observing people’s faith? Maybe he is thinking of other Gentiles.
I have a “personal” response to the text this week, more than usual.
The centurion’s response provides the text for part of the liturgy of the mass: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” The faithful say these words before partaking in the eucharist. I learned this a long time ago, from going to a wedding. Because I knew it, I understood the plaintive description of some long-ago author’s description of her Catholic girlhood. She wrote about how she sat in the pew, so aware of sin and guilt, of never being good or good enough, week after week, “waiting for Jesus to say the word.”
I don’t remember who wrote those words, or where I read them; I have the sinking feeling it was a student. But I have never forgotten them, or the haunting image of the author as a girl, waiting for the word she never heard, never felt.
Then today, in the process of looking things up, I came across this song, in effect that heartbreaking experience’s musical antithesis: “Greater,” by the artist MercyMe.
Now I can’t help thinking: what makes that difference? Why does one person hear that voice calling them “redeemed,” while another waits in silence?
What can we, what can I, do to help?
[*] The scare quotes around “Judea” are because this has suddenly struck me as unclear. What does Luke mean by “Judea”? This turns out to be not an easy question to answer. First, because maybe the text should read “Galilee.” Then, because it turns out the political geography is complicated. Maybe “Judea” refers to a southern portion of a 1st century Roman administrative district, which doesn’t actually make a lot of sense geographically; or maybe it refers to the whole Roman district, which makes a little more sense; or – my own thinking – it might be a vague term that refers to anywhere in the general vicinity, which works for readers who are outside the area, the way “I’m from Los Angeles” works when I tell people from Indiana where I’m from, people who have never heard of San Gabriel or Temple City, which is where I’m actually from, and which is actually not Los Angeles at all, which they’d know if they were from there, but which they’ve never even heard of since they’re not, so I’d have to tell them “near Los Angeles” eventually anyway to get that nod of “oh, yeah, I know,” so I might as well just start with that … I think that could be what Luke is doing in chapter 4, especially assuming he is writing for a mainly Gentile audience who are not “from there.” Although he does identify individual towns (Capernaum, Nain, Bethsaida, etc.), which those outlanders have presumably never heard of either, so this thought does not fully convince me, but it’s the best one I’ve had so far.