After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. - Luke 7:1-10
On the face of it, today’s Gospel reading is a healing story. A Roman army officer has a beloved slave – he refers to him as his “boy,” possibly in the same way we might say “boyfriend,” and describes him as being “precious” to him.[i] This precious slave is very ill, on death’s door. So, the officer sends for Jesus to heal his beloved. Jesus admires the officer’s faith – in fact, he hasn’t found anyone more faithful in Israel – and heals his slave.
But I think there is more to the story. The healing of the slave is a pretext for the exploration of issues of worth and power. Does the army officer deserve to have his slave healed? Does Jesus have the power to heal the slave? Who is worthy and who is trustworthy? That is the question.
Interestingly, the Jewish elders are all for the healing. This, despite the fact the officer is an official of an occupying army enforcing a regime that oppresses the people of Israel and expropriates their wealth. It seems that the officer has “gone native” – the elders report that he loves their people – and generously funded the building of their synagogue.
In other words, he is worthy because he is a major donor, who is perfectly capable of positive relationships with “good Jews.” What the text seems to describe is a typical relationship between an occupying colonial power and local elites who benefit by collaborating with the occupation. The officer is deserving of Jesus’ attention because he has power. Isn’t that what matters?
As an officer of the Roman army, the centurian is “under authority” – he is subservient to, but also speaks with the authority of, the Roman Empire. He exercises imperial power in military terms by commanding soldiers and in economic terms by commanding slaves. The army officer knows this, and the Jewish leaders recognize it as well. They equate imperial power with moral worth because it is in their interest to do so.
It is not so different with the Pax Americana. We tolerate all manner of economic exploitation and despoliation of the earth, drone assassins, torture, the suspension of habeus corpus, and Guantanamo Bay all in the name of “National Security” and “Free Trade” because it is in our self-interest to do so. The United States is the sole superpower, and we benefit by this status – or at least we think we do – and so we convince ourselves of the morality of our motives.
And in so doing we reveal where our ultimate loyalty lies. Although we print “In God We Trust” on our currency, it is the currency that we really trust – and the imperial power that keeps it flowing in our direction. American church leaders are not much better than the Jewish elders of our story when it comes to complicity with the imperial powers. We don’t want to undermine the capacity of our major donors to be generous! The success of our capital campaigns depends upon
American domination of economic globalization.
American domination of economic globalization.
The irony of this healing story is that it is the Roman army officer with the kept boy who realizes the truth that the Jewish religious leaders miss – or can’t allow themselves to see. He knows that he doesn’t deserve to approach Jesus. He knows Jesus wields a greater power: not the power to dominate, but rather the power to heal and make new. The army officer is not worthy, but Jesus is trustworthy. The whole story pivots on this realization.
This healing story subtlety undermines the equation of moral worth with imperial power. The army officer is a man who can make many things happen with a simple command, but he can’t make well the person he loves. He is beginning to discover the limits of his power and of the power he represents. In contemplating the impending loss of his beloved, he begins to realize that what is truly worthwhile is attention to the relationships that sustain and nurture life. What is more, he is continuing to learn that the bonds of relationship that are of genuine worth transcend class, ethnicity and religion.
Our army officer is discovering that he is part of a reality that is so much larger than himself. He is beginning to allow that insight to reshape his awareness and his sense of what is worthwhile. It is now this slave – this nobody – who is worthy of attention, of Jesus’ attention; even while the army officer’s own sense of self-importance recedes. Our army officer is becoming a man who lives for others, and not only for himself or even for others who are like him. His heart is being broken open; he is waking up to reality. He is undergoing a kind of conversion.
This conversion is the miracle in the story, not the healing; sick people get better all the time. What is miraculous is that the army officer comes to recognize how small and powerless he truly is in the scheme of things. What is even more miraculous, he is willing to entrust himself and his beloved to the care of God. God, not the Roman Empire, is now the source of his security. It is not his status in the Empire that is of worth, but his willingness to submit to the power of healing that only God can provide.
His is a radical act of trust. His friends bring his declaration of faith to Jesus, “Only say the word and my beloved will be healed.” There is an allusion here to the Word of God spoken at the beginning of creation. It is by the power of God’s Word that the universe is made. The army officer recognizes Jesus as that Word, and places his trust in the power of the Word that has made all things to make them new. It is this power to make new, to reconcile, to heal, to bring creation to its fulfillment that constitutes authentic power. Before this power, the army officer bows in humble submission.
The army officer is not worthy. He is a ritually unclean Gentile occupying Jewish land. He is the enemy. He is the wrong ethnicity, the wrong religion, and the wrong nationality. He is not worthy. But in the end, his being worthy or unworthy is beside the point. It is his need that draws Jesus to him. And so healing breaks out in all directions. The beloved slave is found to be in good health. But I suspect that it is the army officer who has truly been made new.
We are preoccupied with the question of worth. What we fail to understand is that whether I think I am worthy or unworthy, the focus is still on me. We remain locked in egoistic thinking and acting at all levels of social organization that prevent us from attending to what is truly of worth: the relationships within which we live and move and have our being. What is important is not our worth, but the recognition of our need for God and others as part of the web of life that sustains us.
And that brings us to the real question: who is trustworthy? In whom or what do we really place our trust? What do we really believe will provide us with a sense of security and fulfillment in life? Is it our self-will? Is it the military power of the state? Is it the accumulation of wealth? When push comes to shove, where does our allegiance really lie?
The Gospel is an invitation and a challenge to conversion. It is an invitation to let go of our preoccupation with worth, with measuring, comparing and scheming to secure our place in the pecking order. It is a challenge to entrust ourselves, not to our willfulness, not to our social privilege, not to our education, not to our productivity, not to our citizenship – not even to our religion – but finally and ultimately to the One who speaks a Word and brings all things into being: the One whose power makes all things new. That One is worthy and trustworthy.
[i] This is a text in which translation really matters. The NRSV translation describes the slave as “valued highly,” but this misses the dimension of emotional attachment connoted by the word entimos – “precious” or “dear” would be more appropriate. And pais translates better as “servant boy” rather than “servant,” though pais was also the term used for a male homosexual lover in Greek, akin to our English “boyfriend” (see vs. 7, where the officer himself uses pais to describe the relationship, rather than doulos, the standard word for slave). See Theodore Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003), pp. 137-139.