A Provocation: Second Sunday After Pentecost: Luke 7:2-10

Luke 7:3 …he sent some Jewish elders to him…

Luke 7:6 …the centurion sent friends to say to him…

Luke 7:8 …I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me…

Some Questions:

  • Who is this guy, that he can SEND Jewish elders wherever he wants?
  • Who is this guy who SENDS even his friends?
  • Why don’t translators actually translate the words?

Some Longer Reflections:

The centurion gives orders.  Even to his friends he gives orders.  That is the point of him SENDING people to Jesus.  He doesn’t ask them to go, he sends them, which implies ordering.  I know military people like this.  It is understandable, and it can work well.  Sometimes it does not, but it can.

But when he gives orders to Jewish elders, it catches my attention.

If the scene ended with a rebuke to those elders, I would assume that this was another scene that criticizes Jewish authorities who collaborate with Rome.  You could read the end of the scene that way, but it would take some serious work.  It looks more like Jesus approves of Rome and its authority.  Just like the elders in the scene.

But there are stranger things than that in this little scene.

In verse 6 the NRSV tells us that, when Jesus “was not far from the house,” the centurion sent friends to talk to Jesus.

This is rather odd.

For one thing, people who SEND and ORDER are not, in my experience, much troubled by questions of worthiness.  Give an order or don’t, but dithering over worthiness just gets in the way.  The military people I know best do not dither very much.

For another thing, it is odd that the centurion feels the need to stop Jesus in mid-journey.  Even if he feels unworthy (for some odd reason), he has just compounded his disturbing of Jesus.  He orders the elders, who pass on what Jesus also takes as an order, and then he orders him, awkwardly, to stop and speak.  The awkwardness makes his interaction with Jesus more complicated than it needed to be.

If Jesus were the one issuing the orders, interpreters would have developed a tradition of how Jesus was teaching his student a lesson about the deeper truths of authority.  “You only need to speak,” Jesus would be interpreted as teaching, “God’s power is not dependent on physical proximity.”  And then we would be told that Jesus understands authority better than anyone.

Presumably the storyteller does not assume that the centurion understands faithfulness and authority better than Jesus does.

Presumably.

But the truly odd thing is that the translators have omitted a word.  We are given a view of Jewish elders responding to orders, of Jewish elders urging Jesus to respond as well, and of Jesus responding quickly in his own right.  And then, while Jesus is hurrying to heal the servant, the centurion halts his motion and tells him only to speak, all this because he is not worthy.  This is indeed odd.

But take a look at the Greek.  A word is missing in the English translation.  The storyteller informs us that the sending of the friends took place: ἤδη δὲ αὐτοῦ οὐ μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας.  Jesus is not far from the house.  That much is clear.  The translator has, however, chosen not to include the word ἀπέχοντος.

The word implies that Jesus, having traveled toward the centurion’s house, had stopped.  In fact, he was “holding himself apart from” that house.  That is what ἀπέχοντος implies.

Why was Jesus holding himself back from the centurion’s house?

This little word matters.  It is a participle, and it identifies the activity in which Jesus is engaged when the centurion does his next act of sending: Jesus has stopped himself and seems to be unwilling to enter the centurion’s house.  But why?

  • Perhaps he doesn’t know which is the right house, but that wouldn’t make much sense.
  • Perhaps he is not so sure that consorting with an officer in the Roman military is a good idea for a Jew living under occupation.
  • Perhaps it’s just that the officer is a Roman gentile, a pagan.

The last two options make some sociological and historical sense: Jews did hold themselves back from the Romans who occupied their country.  But such a reading will make a mess of the way Christians usually like to read this passage, which usually involves Jesus and the centurion admiring each other.  Such a reading will make a mess of the way we like to make Jesus the open-minded hero of every scene he enters.  It will make of this little scene a parallel of sorts to the scene with the Syro-Phoenician woman in the gospel of Mark (Mark 7).  In that scene, Jesus learns a lesson about faith from the little girl’s mother.  If the scenes are parallel, then Jesus learns a lesson here, as well, but this time from the centurion.  If Jesus is learning yet another lesson, then his words at the end are not some kind of veiled criticism of Jewish unfaithfulness.

“Don’t skin yourself over this,” says the centurion (literally), “just speak.  I care about my servant, not about your uneasy religious scruples.”  Faith is not about guarding the border between Us and Them.  Neither is faith a matter of giving and responding to orders.  Faith simply responds to human need.

Jesus’ words indicate that he never thought of faith that way before. “Not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says.

Jesus sounds a little embarrassed.  Probably he should be.

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