The Faith of a Soldier: Reflections on Luke 7:1-10
June 2, 2013
Wendy Cotter's book, The Christ of the Miracle Stories, is an account of the miracles Jesus performs in the synoptic gospels. The subtitle of the book—Portrait through Encounter—is intriguing. She traces the portrait of Jesus that emerges from Jesus' encounters with a series of "surprising petitioners."
Cotter's work caused me to look at this well-known text with some new questions in mind. What does this encounter tell us about the centurion? And what does it tell us about Jesus? Finally, the question is, what does it suggest to us about our faith relationship to Jesus?
The centurion is a petitioner.
For whom is the centurion beseeching help? There is a version of this story from a collection of Jesus' sayings that scholars refer to as the Q document. It predates Matthew and Luke, and they both used it in preparing their gospels. In the Q version, the centurion speaks directly to Jesus and with much less detail than Matthew's version (8:6). He says simply, "My boy (pais) is doing badly." The brevity of the plea adds to its poignancy and points to the plain spokenness of a career soldier. Scholars differ as to the interpretation of pais. The Q version and Matthew have pais, while Luke has doulos, slave or servant. Speculations include that this boy is his son, his servant, or his young slave/lover.
Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, though common law wives were not uncommon. It seems unlikely that the centurion would boldly admit to such a breach of military conduct before Jesus. The practice of pederastic relationships was widespread in Roman society. Given the attitude of the Jewish faith toward homosexuality, it could explain the centurion's reluctance to have Jesus come to his home. But there is no definitive evidence that this was the kind of relationship in place here. And if it were, the role of the Jewish elders would be difficult to explain. While the precise nature of the relationship is blurry, what is clear is that the centurion has a deep concern and affection for this young man.
Whatever the relationship the centurion has with the ill young man, the story's focus is on this soldier's relationship with Jesus.
The centurion affirms his confidence in Jesus to command healing forces, based on his own experience both of receiving orders and of giving them. When he speaks, those beneath him in the military hierarchy do what he says. The same, he trusts, is true of Jesus.
The centurion knows how to takes orders.
The centurion, in the first place, knows how to take orders.
Vegetius was an historian from the 5th century, the period of the late Roman Empire, who wrote a book called The Epitome of Military Science. In it, he described the qualities of a centurion in rather glowing terms.
A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright. (Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted on Cotter, p. 114)
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
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