On Good Authority

Luke 7:1-10 | Second Sunday after Pentecost

On Good Authority

For a Roman centurion to take an interest in local religious observances was not strange. Rome worshiped many gods, a pantheon, and Roman soldiers came from all over the empire. We don’t know this man’s place of origin. It is possible that he was already familiar with the Jews before he ever became a soldier.

Whatever gods Roman had given him, he also recognized the God of the Jews, either instead of the gods of Rome or in addition to them. Luke’s Gospel does not make the claim that the centurion was Jewish. More likely he fit the category of ‘God-fearer’, a gentile who acknowledged the Jewish God and followed some manner of observance of Jewish custom. He was an outsider looking into the faith community.

Stars - Hubble image
Stars – Hubble image

The story has echoes of another one, an older one from 2 Kings 5:1-19, of Naaman, the Syrian, who came to Elisha, the Jewish prophet, to be healed. In a reversal of roles from Luke’s story, Naaman, who is also a military commander, is the one who is sick and a slave urges him to trust the power of the prophet Elisha in Israel. In another reversal, Naaman, himself a man with authority, does not recognize the power in the prophet’s instruction but expects a more magical approach.

There is also an echo of the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33. As Jacob’s powerful brother drew near, Jacob sent servants and gifts ahead of him to smooth the way. As Jesus is approaching this centurion’s home, the man sends groups of friends to do the same. Jacob meets his brother and receives a blessing, but the centurion (like his servant) receives a blessing before even meeting Jesus.

Any fool can come to obey authority. It takes wisdom to recognize true power.

Of course, authority has often been the trouble with religion. Jesus welcomed everyone at his table. He healed outsiders, touched people who were despised, preached forgiveness and inclusion. We who claim to follow Jesus often condemn and exclude, despise those who leave blemishes on our clean pews, and send the outsiders away. Of the few we invite to our table, many feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and judged. Not that Christians are alone. Followers of every religion in the world have given outsiders plenty of reason not to come in, and given plenty of insiders reasons to leave.

We should beg forgiveness. All of that is only the imposition of authority, and it has nothing at all to do with true power. Most authority is exercised by those who fear losing it, while real power comes from love.

Spiral Galaxy - Hubble image
Spiral Galaxy – Hubble image

When he sees that his slave is sick, the centurion sends a message to Jesus, who happens to be in town. (The plainest reading of the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, tells us that Jesus had a home in Capernaum.) Perhaps this Roman had heard stories about Jesus, or perhaps he had witnessed a miracle himself. We do not know. It is possible that they had met, though Luke does not tell us so. We are told that this centurion had servants and means. He is credited with having built the local synagogue and with having grateful friends among the Jewish elders.

Like any good soldier, he has a plan. He does three things that taken separately are straightforward but that taken together are remarkable. He recognizes his opportunity — Jesus entering the town at his moment of need — and he seizes it. Second, he bases his action on his faith, whereas most of us use faith like toppings on ice cream — something sprinkled on top at the end. Third, he shows that he understands the difference between magic and true power — that the authority Jesus possesses comes from who he is, not from any ritual that needs to be performed, and that true power has a long reach.

A Roman soldier would have appreciated the long reach of power. In other gospel stories, people beg Jesus to come to them, to touch them, to perform some manner of ritual to cure them. Nearness and touch are part of their religious understanding — it is a faith of small distances, a near field understanding of power. The centurion suggests that true power is more like gravity — pervasive, continuous, unseen, but always touching everything.

We are often touched by things that come from far away: light from the sun, the words of a poet who died centuries before we were born, the gravity of memory. Open a drawer to find an object belonging to a loved one long gone — his glasses, her locket — and we are touched once again by the ones we have loved. Modern science posits the possibility that quantum particles may be connected over vast distances. Poets and theologians have known something of the same sort for thousands of years.

After all, what is distance to God?

X-Rays streaming from the sun
X-Rays Streaming from the Sun