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In Matthew we read, “When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Shall I come and heal him?’ The centurion replied, ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, “Go,” and he goes; and that one, “Come,” and he comes. I say to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.’” (Matthew 8:5-10 cf. Luke 7:1-10)
Why would the early Jewish community of Jesus followers have included this healing story? In Luke, this story sets us up for what comes next:
“John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ ” At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7.18)
The early Jesus community saw Jesus as connected to the ancient prophet Isaiah. This passage draws from statements in Isaiah’s writings including this section:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to declare the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of recompense; to comfort all that mourn.” (Isaiah 61.1-2, LXX)
This passage seems to have been used to create the initial structure of both Matthew and Luke. First, the Spirit anoints Jesus at his baptism. Then Jesus proclaims good news and blessings on the poor, broken, and captive. Overall, about the first third of Matthew and Luke supports the early community’s claim that Jesus was tied to the liberation hopes of Isaiah.
This saying also presents a very Jewish picture of Jesus. A Galilean centurion would have known quite well how a Jew would feel about entering a Gentile’s home, and this tension is part of the centurion’s comments in this story. Jewish sensibilities are respected, and yet the Gentile’s servant is still healed.
For the early Jewish followers of Jesus to have included this story in their record of Jesus’s Gospel shows that they embraced the ethic of enemy love. Centurions, most of all, would have been the people that Jewish citizens least expected to receive Isaiah’s favors. The more politically radical of the Jewish community would likely have gone further and judged Centurions as worthy of YHWH’s vengeance or punishment. That sentiment could have been quite popular among the less radical as well.
Luke seems to soften this tension between Jews and Gentiles. Notice that Luke’s story differs from Matthew’s in that the centurion sends a delegation to Jesus rather than coming himself. Next Luke’s narrative emphasizes that this is not a normal centurion: he is different and worthy of an exception, not to be looked at in the same way as most centurions would have been:
“When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’”
In Matthew, on the other hand, the centurion describes himself “unworthy.”
Perhaps Luke’s version was quite a bit less jarring to those who whose loved ones had been crucified, executed, or arrested by soldiers and centurions. Matthew’s version is much harder to swallow. It demonstrates Jesus’ ethic of compassion, even compassion for one’s enemy.
This material prepares the audience of the gospels to embrace the Jesus communities’ teaching that Jesus is the “one to come.” Yet this last section ran the risk of being quite offensive, possibly polarizing, and stirring up pushback.
Scholars believe that Matthew was written before Luke, and reflects a Jewish Galilean populace rather than the Jerusalem community addressed in Luke. John Shelby Spong in his book Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World reminds us that Matthew is the most Jewish of the canonical gospels.
“Within about a decade, Matthew wrote the first expansion of Mark and aimed his story at the disciples of Jesus who worshiped in rather traditional Jewish synagogues. Recall once again that the split between the church and the synagogue would not occur until near the end of the ninth decade, so when Mark and Matthew were written, they and their readers were still in the traditional synagogue” (pp. 329-330).
Matthew’s gospel goes beyond Luke’s. Matthew prepares his audience for the interchange with John’s disciples by choosing not to only use the story of the centurion but also to substantiate the claim to John with more healing stories. Yet in true Matthean fashion, Jesus is more than simply healer. He is even the healer of enemies. The text still emphasizes the unworthiness of this Gentile and Roman because enemy love was central to teachings found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Matthew incorporates the centurion story to illustrate this teaching and to characterize before Matthew’s audience just what type of a liberation Jesus was announcing. He wasn’t simply announcing the overthrowing of a Roman hegemony and a Jewish one in its place. No, this was a restoration of the humanity of both oppressed and oppressor. A favorite passage of mine in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed illustrates what I think is the reason Matthew’s inclusion of the centurion story:
“In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.” (p. 44)
Who are our centurions today?
That’s the million dollar question. Jesus offered neither a way of assimilating into Roman oppression nor a path that led to destruction by the Romans. His path was nonviolent resistance and the challenging ethic of genuine enemy love. This love doesn’t seek vengeance against one’s enemies; it seeks the transformation of that enemy. (I want to also add that Jesus’ message of enemy love also included the ethic of reparations from those enemies, as well.)
Through imagination and in whichever situations arise, this love seeks to meet our enemies on the terms of a shared humanity. Take away the system of domination and we have a lot in common, and more, we are also connected. You and I both are part of this interwoven family called humanity. Barbara Deming, lesbian, poet, American feminist, and advocate of nonviolent social change, writes in her book Revolution and Equilibrium:
“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out-stretched—maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not—but always outstretched. With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’ Active nonviolence is a process that holds these two realities—of noncooperation with violence but open to the humanity of the violator—in tension. It is like saying to our opponent: On the one hand (symbolized by a hand firmly stretched out and signaling, ‘Stop!’) ‘I will not cooperate with your violence or injustice; I will resist it with every fiber of my being’. And, on the other hand (symbolized by the hand with its palm turned open and stretched toward the other) ‘I am open to you as a human being.’” (p.16)
As our enemies have lost sight of our humanity, we must fight, for our own sake, to not lose sight of theirs. The Jesus who healed the centurion’s servant showed us the way.