The Centurion’s Faith (Luke 7:1-10)

Today we begin a series in Luke chapter 7. And the first story in the chapter is about Jesus doing a favour for a Roman centurion, whose faith Jesus commends in the strongest possible terms:

7:9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

What is it about this guy that amazes Jesus? (Remember, most of the time in the gospels Jesus is the object of amazement, not the subject.) Let’s work through the story to find out.

Although we need a little bit of cultural background first, which I think makes this story come alive. (It’s one of my favourite illustrations of the importance of cultural background, so indulge me. My students do.) Because the story shows how the system of patronage plays out in real life.

What’s patronage? It was the way things got done in the ancient world. For the basics of life, you either grew it yourself, made it yourself, or bought it from the marketplace. But for other things – like luxury goods, imported building materials, credit, advice, political appointments, you name it – it was all about whether you knew someone who could get it for you as a favour. And in return, you’d owe them. If this arrangement was ongoing, they’d become your “benefactor” or “patron” (from the Latin word for “father”). And you’d be their “client,” who was expected to publicly honour them, proclaim loudly their generosity, perform small acts of service for them, and above all, be unswervingly loyal to them.

This didn’t just exist at the individual level. The wealthy became benefactors to entire towns by funding public buildings or supplying the food and wine for public festivals. In return, they were honoured by the town. (Jesus refers to this in Luke 22:25.) As long as everyone did their bit – benefactors kept doing favours and clients kept being appropriately grateful – the system worked.

Sometimes, there were go-betweens. You might not know someone who had what you wanted, but you knew someone who did. Social scientists call this kind of middle-man-patron a “broker.” They’d fix you up with the person you needed. And so you’d owe them. (The dishonest manager in Luke 16:1-9 is setting himself up for this kind of role once he’s sacked by his master. But we’ll look at that parable later this year.)

In fact, this asking-for-a-favour-by-proxy was quite common. Instead of approaching a stranger directly, you’d find someone who was “in” with them whom you knew, and get them to ask on your behalf. (Kind of like the schoolyard approach to asking a girl out: a low-key initial approach via his friends, to find out if there’s any interest. Or even better: approach her friends to make representations on his behalf. The theory goes that he’s got a better chance if he gets on-side with people who have influence with her.)

And this is what happens here in today’s story. The Centurion wants a favour from Jesus, since he’s heard about his reputation as a healer:

7:1-2 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die.

But they don’t know each other. And culturally, it would be inappropriate to approach him directly. What will he do?

7:3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.

But the Jews go, “take a hike, Roman oppressor <spit>, ask him yourself!” Isn’t that what you’d expect from Jews when a member of the occupying Gentile army asks for a favour? Except that’s not what happens. The Jews do what he asks and approach Jesus. Earnestly. Why would they do this?

7:4-5 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.”

And there’s our answer. He’s a benefactor to our town, having funded their synagogue. (A smart operator, this guy, realising that this is a better way to win “hearts and minds” than any kind of brutality.) And this buys him some honour and loyalty, and the expectation that the Jews would do as he asked. In fact, he’s not asking for a favour. He’s telling his loyal clients what he expects of them in return.

What’s more, he’s assuming that the Jewish leaders – being Jewish – would have some clout with Jesus. Perhaps even some authority over them. He might be on the outer with this intriguing teacher-healer, but surely the Jewish leaders will be on the “in”! And it seems to work:

7:6a So Jesus went with them.

But then something unexpected happens.

Luke 7:6b-7 He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.

Why would he do this? Jesus has just complied with his request. Why stop him coming?

Probably because the centurion is well aware of his “outsider” status. Despite the fact that he “loves our nation and has built our synagogue,” he’s still a Gentile. Making him unclean. And for a devout Jew to enter the house of a Gentile and eat with him (hospitality involving food was expected) would be awkward, to say the least. All of those purity regulations in Leviticus. So the centurion wants to spare Jesus the awkwardness and simply asks him to heal by remote.

But this is what Jesus finds so striking. His trust that Jesus simply has to say the word. His military background seems to play a part, here, as he’s used to his own instructions being carried out in his absence:

7:8 “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.”

He trusts in Jesus’ ability to deliver. Without question. Despite having very limited information about who he is. Compare this with the lack of faith Jesus has seen throughout Israel: despite all the signs that he’s the Messiah, they still demand more and more, hesitant to trust him. No wonder Jesus is amazed:

7:9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

That’s the climax of the story. Where Jesus turns the “patronage tables” upside down. At the start, the centurion assumed that he was on the outer with Jesus, being a Gentile. So he enlists his (client) Jews to be his “broker” with Jesus. Surely they are on the inside with him! But because of his faith (in contrast with that of Israel), in this statement Jesus puts the centurion on the inside, and (unfaithful) Israel on the outside.

This is important. It reminds Jesus’ hearers – and Luke’s (Gentile) readers – that being on the “inside” with Jesus isn’t about ethnic identity or relgious affiliation. It’s about whether you trust in who Jesus is and that he can deliver on what he promises. No matter what your background. The old rules about who’s in and who’s out no longer apply.

Having had the climax of the story, the epilogue just points out the obvious: the servant is healed.

7:10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

The healing isn’t the surprising bit. Rather, it’s Jesus’ redefinition of what makes someone acceptable to God. Jesus turns the patronage motto on its head. It’s no longer “whom you (think) you know”, but “whom you trust.”

To think about

The application of this story is pretty basic. But it’s fundamental to the message of the kingdom. Do you think you’re on the inside with Jesus? If so, on what basis? Your heritage? Because you hang out and identify with God’s people? Or because you trust who Jesus is and that he can deliver on his promises?

And this is the message we’re charged with passing on. Too often, the outside world gets the impression you have to be something in order to follow Jesus. You don’t. You just have to trust somebody.

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