The early cowboy films may have been short on camera trickery but at least you knew how to tell the good guys from the bad. There was a simple code. The good guys wore the white Stetsons. The bad guys were usually in black.
This simplified good/ bad classification may seem naive, yet when you think about the stereotypes humans have traditionally accepted in the past, it is not much sillier than the standard beliefs many communities seem to have held about themselves and others from the dawn of recorded history. Think for example of Athenians versus Spartans, Rome versus Carthage, the English versus the French, the Roundheads versus the Cavaliers, the British, Russians and Americans versus the Germans and Japanese, Communists versus Capitalists. …the list is endless.
Religion is no different. Those like us we see as the white hats. The rest are varying shades of grey or even black. Christianity versus Islam, Catholics versus Protestants, Liberals versus traditionalists, everybody versus the Jews…… and so on and so forth.
A casual reading of the New Testament and some popular histories of the day illustrates this picture. There we get an impression the really bad guys were the Romans, those like Pilate and those generals who put down the Jewish rebellions with mass crucifixions and imposed crushing taxes on the conquered people. The Romans after all were the ones who actually crucified Jesus. What is more, from the Roman writing of the day we know that even then anti-Semitism was alive and well. The Jews were referred to as a filthy race and accused of all sorts of weird practices in their worship.
For the casual reader of the New Testament, next in the list of bad hats came the Jewish hierarchy. When we think of corrupt Temple practices which culminated in the reports of Jesus clearing the Temple of the money lenders and sacrifice sellers, or reading of Pharisees engaged in ostentatious displays of praying in public or pushing themselves forward to the place of honour at the feasts or at worship – or perhaps the Pharisees walking by on the other side when they encounter the beaten man on the side of the road, we can identify the corrupt simply by their position…or can we?
All societies appear to set up their own sociological structures so that we know who are in and who are out.
Yet today’s passage cuts right across the sort of barriers encountered in virtually every community. In this instance the Roman Centurion is expected to be the heavy handed invader, instead he is the thoughtful, community spirited and caring master. The Jewish leaders are expected to be opposing Jesus yet here they are interceding to Jesus on behalf of the Centurion.
Let’s look at the Centurion a little more closely. No hard hearted arrogant soldier this one. First he cares enough about a mere slave as to invite Jewish elders to seek out Jesus for help. Since slaves to the Roman citizens were regarded as the equivalent of living tools, the slave owners had freedom to use or abuse them in any way they chose. William Barclay cites an example of a Roman document on land management which recommended that each year the estate owner should check his tools and throw away any which were worn or broken. Having done that, the manual goes on to suggest doing exactly the same with the slaves. The old or sick slave was totally dispensable and should be killed with impunity. In that setting, a Centurion seeking a cure for a slave was clearly atypical.
If we try to think ourselves into the position of an army officer in charge of a sizable group of occupation troops in unfriendly territory we can see how easy it might be to play the part of a typical invader treating the locals with suspicion and contempt. There is evidence that this is not a fair description of our centurion. We learn that the reason why the Jewish elders intercede on his behalf is because he has helped the locals build a synagogue. When I suggest that this is unexpected, remember this is the equivalent of Jews building a Mosque for the Palestinians in Jerusalem, or the Muslim Palestinians building a synagogue for the Jews. And lest I am tempted to think that Christians in my community would be any better in this respect, I am reminded that some time ago when a local Jehovah’s Witness Church sought permission to build a meeting hall in my home City, the local residents in the neighbourhood, many of whom were Church goers in other denominations, lodged protests with the Council. Finding the potential for good in other faiths is not an automatic given.
I want to suggest that in this story we might learn more from the Centurion than we do from Jesus. Of course before we can learn from the centurion we may have to do some honest self reflection. Have we for example reached the stage of spiritual development where we are comfortable finding truth in other religious settings?
The reason why I think we can learn from the Centurion is that he has place set for him by his title and expected role yet he is engaged in seeking the best possible outcome in a less than ideal situation. If we reflect on our own situation outside the walls of the places of worship it is blindingly obvious that there is an enormous gulf between the Christian ideal and our daily realities. There is unnecessary suffering in many places precisely because a good part of the human race is reluctant to get too heavily involved in ensuring kind treatment, fairness and justice for all. Because, like the Centurion, we too have to live surrounded by people who will not necessarily share our faith and fortune we always have the choice of passively accepting what life deals us, or like the Centurion, attempting as best we can to make a positive difference.
Before delving too deeply into the story we need to acknowledge that the details are a wee bit fuzzy in that the Matthew version calls the sick man a servant rather than a slave and has Jesus actually going to the Centurion’s house rather than healing by a word. But which account is the most accurate is hardly the point. The pages of scripture might inspire us to constructive action but the focus should not stay on the words themselves. I am reminded of the … “Emperor Menelik II, the dynamic and resourceful creator of modern Ethiopia, who was in the habit of nibbling a few pages of the Bible whenever he became ill. In December 1913, while recovering from a stroke, he ate the entire Book of Kings and died” (Michael Mayne, A Year Lost and Found London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987, P17) Consuming or for that matter casually reading the words wont lift us out of our situation.
Nevertheless the Luke account draws us to reflect on some interesting ethical issues. We might also note that at different times in history passages such as this one can and have been misused. During the American civil war for example, the Southern States used this story to support slavery, in that Jesus cures the slave rather than insists that he be freed.
How Jesus affected a cure in this account is well beyond any experience most of us are ever likely to experience for ourselves. Even if it were an accurately reported event, we can only speculate what form of illness was affecting the slave and as a consequence can have no idea what role what we might now claim to be a miracle might have played in his healing. On the other hand we all live in communities where prejudice and inappropriate attitudes can and do poison relationships. Many supply chains in the garment industry for example still benefit from the equivalent of modern slavery. Our shops sell goods made in third world countries by those working for a pittance. The recent structural collapse of a garment manufacture sweat shop in Bangladesh with the loss of a thousand lives, and similarly the appalling conditions for the Bangladesh ship breaking yards servicing the international shipping lines, should remind us that shutting our eyes to suffering is not intended to be the Christian way. It would be a shame if we too had to wait for some foreigner from some foreign faith to show the way in helping these slaves.
Another dimension of the Centurion’s character is the way in which he refuses to take advantage of his position. There is a sense in which the humility of the Centurion marks him out as a special man. I remember once of reading about Frederick the Great visiting a prison. He listened with mounting irritation to prisoner after prisoner protesting their innocence and wrongful imprisonment before the Emperor. Finally at last he encountered a man who simply said. “I am guilty and deserve my punishment.” “Release this man instantly”, said Frederick. “If you allow him to stay repeating this message he will contaminate the other prisoners”. Genuine humility and acknowledgement of personal shortcomings would indeed set a person apart.
The last feature of the Centurion’s character that may well inspire us was his extraordinary faith. His reported acknowledgement of the healing skill of Jesus is not the likely point of difference with ourselves. Rather it was that he was prepared to risk his status and in effect let his heart guide him.
Knowing that Christ’s way can be at the heart of a cure is not necessarily a demonstration of faith. It was only when the Centurion entrusted Jesus with the well-being of his slave that his private beliefs became a public expression of faith. Can it be any different for us as individuals? We may privately think we believe all sorts of things about our relationship with who we believe Jesus to be, with our neighbours, and with those who depend on our goodwill. But believing these things will have no meaning until they start to affect our day-to-day decisions. It is only when we ourselves act on our belief that genuine faith is demonstrated.
So yes, Luke records Jesus being impressed with the Centurion’s faith, but note it was not admiration for a belief system, but rather the Centurion’s actions of trust, care for his slave and demonstration of humility that brought about this response. As far as others are concerned, whatever we claim to be our beliefs will only be elevated to a tested faith when our actions proclaim these thoughts to others. Stay tuned….