February 14, 2010
Intent: The Holy Spirit as Fire of Love
The Gospel reading today provides a remarkably interesting text for us today. We live in an age where we take so much for granted. We live in an age where the multiplicity of people seems to drown out the miracles of the day. We live in an age where medicine is the only miracle some people even know.
The story of the centurion and his terminally ill servant speaks to us on various levels. First, it is the story of an army officer who cares about a beloved servant. At still a deeper level, here is a foreigner who understands, better than the any of his day, how far Jesus' authority extends and how it operates. As we dissect this story some, I hope you'll find yourself deep within this the story too.
While Rome had its own troops garrisoned in Jerusalem and Caesarea, each of the petty kings who governed under the Romans also had military forces modeled on the Roman pattern. Since there was no Roman military presence in Galilee before AD 44, the centurion headquartered in Capernaum, in our story, would have been attached to the army of Herod Antipas who ruled the area. From the text it is clear that the centurion is a not a Jew.
Originally a centurion was in charge of 100 men (from our word "century"), but in time, the number varied. A centurion was an officer, probably similar in the Roman hierarchy to the position of an army captain in our own. The ancient historian Polybius offers a list of qualifications looked for in centurions. They must be not so much "seekers after danger so much as being men who can command, steady in action, and be reliable; they ought not to be over anxious to rush into the fight; but when hard pressed they must be ready to hold their ground and die at their posts." I suppose is another way of putting it would be to say that a centurion must be a man among men.
But the centurion posted to the Capernaum garrison is far more than just a military leader. The text reveals several remarkable things about his character.
He is deeply moved by the sickness and imminent death of a beloved servant. "Servant" sounds good to western ears, but he was probably a "slave" (Greek doulos).However, depending on which translation of the Bible you read, this differs as well. Mainly due to the style or translation of some of the Greek words used prior to modern Bibles. Obviously, though, he was more than just a servant, but a trusted friend. By his actions, you can observe the centurion's longing to see his servant well. Matthew's Gospel indicates that the servant was paralyzed and in terrible suffering. He may have had a stroke, and is now just clinging to life; we simply do not know for sure.
This centurion is also deeply respected by the religious community in Capernaum. Though he is not Jewish, he is certainly sympathetic to the Jewish faith. "He loves our nation," the community elders tell Jesus, "and has built our synagogue." Apparently the centurion is a big donor to the synagogue building fund. For a non-Jew to get the leaders of the synagogue to "plead earnestly" with Jesus on his behalf says a lot about the esteem in which they held him. Respected Jews were often proud that they had no association with a non-Jew. This centurion was clearly an exception. They could see that and admired him for it.
The centurion is depicted as a deeply humble man. As I explained earlier, centurions don't lead by being bashful or self-effacing. Yet, according to Luke’s account, this centurion never actually appears personally before Jesus to plead his cause. Instead, he sends others in his place, not as a tactical move in order to get Jesus to agree to his request, but merely as a show of unworthiness. Clearly it is because of a sense of personal unworthiness. The friends are told to say, "Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof". No doubt the centurion knows the pious Jew's common refusal to enter a Gentile home. But, there's something more. The centurion has a very clear sense of who Jesus is, and what his level of authority is. His humility is grounded in a profound respect for Jesus' position. In comparison, the centurion sees himself as unworthy to even invite Jesus to be a guest in his home. And since he sees himself as undeserving, he is all the more aware of the pure grace with which Jesus operates.
Let's consider what is called "the Synoptic problem," that is, making sense of the differences between the accounts of the first three Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Obviously they had some source in common, since many of the accounts of Jesus' life are verbally identical. We see the story of the healing of the centurion's servant in Matthew's Gospel, too (Matthew 8:5-13). But there the centurion seems to be speaking to the Lord in person, asking Jesus directly. Which are we to believe?
Both are credible, and both are true. But each Gospel writer shapes his telling of Jesus' life to accomplish particular purposes with his particular audience. Luke's account is more complicated, with the centurion relaying his plea through intermediaries. Matthew simplifies, and tells the essence of the story without going into all the details. Many times the Bible credits leaders as doing what others have actually accomplished at their direction. As an example, 1 Kings 6:14 concludes, "So Solomon built the temple and completed it." Solomon never even smoothed a block of stone that went into the temple, but it was completed under his direction. A person's words were often transmitted through messengers, but considered their own.
Both Matthew's and Luke's accounts are true. In this case, Luke's seems to be the fuller account and Matthew's more abbreviated. Of course, sometimes we come to Synoptic problems that are much more difficult to harmonize.
For most of Jesus' disciples, their faith grows gradually as they see Jesus exerting power of an ever widening circle -- blind, lepers, the dead, and the powerful storm on the Sea of Galilee. After Jesus had calmed the waters they are stunned.
They have walked with him for a year or so, and still haven't figured out the extent of Jesus' power. But the centurion has a profound understanding without even meeting Jesus in person. Let's consider the centurion's great insight.
"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. 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 at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, 'I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.' "
The centurion sees Jesus as a commander like himself. He knows Jesus doesn't have to come into his servant's chamber, and lean over him, lay hands on him, and personally raise him up. The centurion recognizes that Jesus has authority in the spirit world to heal. By whatever means and by whatever agency. The centurion recognizes that all Jesus has to do is to speak the word and it will be accomplished by those forces under him. "But say the word, and my servant will be healed."
Luke doesn't record Jesus even having to speak a word, though He probably did in order to satisfy the centurion's friends who had come bearing this message full of faith. "Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well". The servant is now up and fit and healthy. He is completely healed!
Now, what else does this text tell us? Well, there is a more controversial lesson too. Now, I know some of you here may find this hard to swallow, but wasn’t there many things in the Scriptures we find hard to swallow?
Matthew and Luke have parallel stories, as we have already mentioned, which derives from a common or similar Gnostic gospel known as "Q". A significant difference between the Matthew and Luke texts is Matthew's use of the Greek word, pais, meaning ‘son’, ‘serving boy’ or ‘servant’, compared to Luke's use of doulos, meaning ‘slave’, to refer to the centurion's serving boy, who was really a teen or young man. Pais is the derivative noun in, paidika, used to refer to the beloved youth. Thus the interpretation that the centurion’s serving boy is his sexual slave, the "beloved youth", here is euphemistically called his ‘son’. Significantly, Luke’s version of the story makes specific reference to the centurion's affection for the boy, something that the Matthew text does not require, for that understanding is already carried in the use of the word pais.
Luke is more specific in his description of the sick man; he calls the man the centurion’s entimos doulos. The word doulos generically means ‘slave;’ it could not mean son or boy. Entimos means ‘honored’, so the combination would produce the contradiction of ‘honored slave,’ meaningless unless it applied to a ‘junior or younger male partner.’ Thus the meaning of pais in Matthew is limited to a same-gender relationship (some historians state that reputedly, the shield bearers for Roman soldiers were their lovers). In the only example in the Bible where anyone asked for healing for a slave, Jesus was not only healing for a conquering overlord, he was healing his male concubine of sorts.
To our modern minds, the idea of buying a teen lover seems repugnant. But we have to place this in the context of ancient cultural norms. To some minds, this is an unacceptable lifestyle, however in that time period it was not only acceptable, but common. In ancient times, commercial transactions were the predominant means of forming relationships. Under the law, the wife was viewed as the property of the husband, with a status just above that of slave. Moreover, in Jesus’ day, a boy or girl was considered of marriageable age upon reaching his or her early teens. It was not uncommon for boys and girls to marry at age 14 or 15. Nor was it uncommon for an older man to marry a young girl. Fortunately civilization has advanced, but these were the norms in the culture of Jesus’ day.
In that culture, if you were a man who wanted a male “spouse,” you achieved this, like your heterosexual counterparts, through a commercial transaction — purchasing someone to serve that purpose. A servant purchased to serve this purpose was often called a pais.
Thus, when this term was used, the listener had to consider the context of the statement to determine which meaning was intended. Some modern Christians may be tempted to simply declare by fiat that the Gospels could not possibly have used the term pais in the sense of male lover, end of discussion. But that would be yielding to prejudice. Sometimes we must let the word of God speak for itself, even if it leads us to an uncomfortable destination.
Now, if all this hypostasis is true, Jesus’ response ignores the man’s powerful, hated position and the implied sexual relationship; instead he highly praises the greatness of the man’s faith. By implication, love is not degraded by who shares it.
The rhetorical use of pais, the son who is really not a son and who is paralyzed, alternating with the word, doulos, the servant who is faithfully obedient but is not called a son, sets up an interpretation for the sons of the kingdom, who are true sons but of too little faith to be obedient servants of the kingdom. Their little faith is to be understood as a type of paralysis. The curing of the Centurion's son, through the faith of another, hints at the possibility of a similar cure for the sons of the kingdom.
However, whether that small section is true or not, there comes with the story a marvelous scandal and lesson all in one. The marvel is not that the Centurion, in great faith, has approached Jesus on behalf of his son, his serving boy. Rather, it is his faith, which is pronounced greater than the faith of the sons of the kingdom, but who do not faithfully respond to the Son of God, and thus exposes their little faith as shamefully scandalous.
To whom this reproach is addressed remains ambiguous. It could be to the Jewish-Christians who are too timid to undertake a Gentile mission. It could be a universal call to repentance, shaming Jewish Christians into action by the extreme example of an outsider's faith, or it could be a dispute against Jews who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. One thing is certain; it teaches that faith is the key to participation and not status. It shows a biblical tradition of inclusivity that runs contrary to that of the hard-line that would exclude or control participation by strict application of Levitical Law, from the Mosaic codes.
All this said, I think there is a big message here that is by far and wide the important message. The text, like many others in the Gospels, is attempting to show us that Jesus is the true Messiah. Jesus is the Son of God and thus has authority over all things. Jesus frequently healed the sick. Jesus frequently was found in the company of less than acceptable company (at least based on the Levitical Law).
So often in our powerlessness we mumble something about, "If Jesus were here in the flesh and were to lay his hand on this person he would be instantly healed." This is good faith, but only a nursery school level of faith. It's like the woman with the hemorrhage who said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed." Her faith was focused in her personal ability to touch the hem of Jesus' garment. We're like that. If only so-and-so were here, he could accomplish this. If only Billy Graham, or Benny Hinn or John Wesley or Mother Theresa or .... We look to the personal instrument of the healing rather than to our Lord who can accomplish the task with just a word -- his own word. He is the Delegator of the power, not some great saint past or present. They are mere instruments.
The centurion's insight is that Jesus' delegated word of authority can span distance. He has power in the spirit world to speak a word and his word is accomplished.
Now you and I are on the front lines. We are the ones who see the sick and downtrodden and oppressed. And our Lord, whose word of spiritual authority can span distances, wants you and me to take faith and do the impossible on his behalf.
Jesus can speak his word across whatever distances and delegate his power to be exercised by you and me, here and now, by any authorized means. That is the message. That is the insight, if we can grasp it.
I think that what the Holy Spirit, as the Fire of Love, in keeping with our Intent of the day, is telling us is that God’s love is indiscriminate. First, it matters not who we are or the state of life we lead. Second, we need only to have faith and approach Him with our needs and concerns, and His grace which passes all understanding will indeed reach over the span of time and space to reach us in our need.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.