Posted by: Titus Presler | September 16, 2010

Jesus and a centurion: Mission marked by difference

Filling in to lead a weekly parish Bible study at Grace Church, White Plains, N.Y., last evening, I was struck once again by how often the theme of mission being marked by the encounter with difference comes up in the New Testament, whether in Jesus’ ministry, the life of the early church or the more theological content of the letters.

Jesus’ healing of a centurion’s servant at Luke 7:1-10 was the Bible passage being taken up in a book study undertaken by the group with the leadership of Canon Jane Butterfield, who was away – hence my filling in.

It is striking how many of Jesus’ interactions with individuals that the gospel writers pick out for detailed description involve encounters with difference – sociological difference that was regarded as involving significant challenge in the context of the day.

Centurion and Jew: That encounter involved the differences between Gentile and Jew, oppressor and oppressed, foreigner and native, powerful and powerless, Roman and subject.  Those contrasts mirror differences inherent in the situation with which the centurion is concerned, the illness of his slave (Greek doulos): owner and owned, captor and captive, oppressor and oppressed, powerful and powerless, Roman and subject.

The mitigation of compassion, kindness and affection are already at work in the situation, however, for this is a slave whom the centurion “valued highly” (NRSV) or who was “dear to him” (RSV).  Correlatively, mutual hostility between Roman and Jew has softened considerably in this situation for the elders assure Jesus, “He loves (agapa) our people (ethnos, RSV: nation), and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”  This is indeed remarkable, and one wonders whether this centurion is one of the God-fearers (theopheboumenoi or sebomenoi) who play an important role in Luke’s account of the early church in Acts.

Yet even in the elders’ petition on the centurion’s behalf is the implicit assumption of disqualifying difference.  “He is worthy of having you do this for him,” they say, a statement the point of which comes out more vividly in the NIV’s rendering: “He deserves to . . .”  Were it not for his affection for Jews, demonstrated by his patronage in the synagogue project, this oppressive Gentile centurion – a representative of the occupying empire, whose soldiers regularly brutalized the occupied – would not be worthy of this favor.  Such a person would not deserve to have his slave healed, even if at the point of death and even if such healing expressed solidarity by one oppressed person, a Jew, with another oppressed person, a slave.

The issue of worthiness, deserving, is echoed by the centurion himself.  While Jesus and the elders are on their way to his house – itself remarkable for a group of Jews – the centurion sends friends to offer a pretty extensive speech on his behalf, the bottom line of which is, “I am not worthy” or “I don’t deserve.”  Typically we hear this line as his commendable humility as a human being in the presence of a manifestation of the divine, rather like Isaiah’s cry in the temple, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclear lips.”

Contextually, we might better hear it as the centurion having internalized the Jewish assessment of him as, indeed, an unclean and oppressive Gentile foreigner, a stranger to God’s holy covenant with Israel.  The centurion intuited Jesus’ faithfulness from afar, even to the point of sending emissaries to seek his slave’s healing.  Yet he sees himself as fatally outside the circle, not worthy, not deserving.

So Jesus is amazed: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  I hear this as a discovery by Jesus.  Someone outside the circle actually has more faith than those inside the circle.  The true nature of God’s covenant with Israel – and thereby with all humanity – is discerned more clearly by someone outside that covenant than by the historic beneficiaries of that covenant.  The story of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter does not appear in Luke, but it is there that Jesus tumbles most vividly to the universal implications of his gospel, a realization catalyzed, again, by the faith of a foreigner and a woman at that, someone who was different, even disqualifyingly different.

This story of the centurion, then, is proleptic – an anticipation and foretaste – of how mission in the New Testament develops into a robust encounter with difference and becomes defined by the encounter with difference.  The story illustrates, as do so many of the stories of Jesus’ encounters with individuals, how his ministry occurred in an environment beset by differences routinely regarded as disqualifying the different from the embracing outreach of God’s reconciling love.  Such outreach is the mark of mission, ministry in the dimension of difference.

Folks in the Bible study could clearly see the relevance of the story to encounters with difference today: a parish reaching out to ethnic diversity; the controversy surrounding the Muslim-initiated interfaith center near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan; the work of missionaries in a world of difference.

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