Healing the Centurion’s Servant

Matthew 8:5-13 (Here’s the NRSV translation). And here’s my rough translation.

(5) But while he was entering into Capernaum, a centurion came to him and begged him, (6) and he said, “Lord, my servant-child has been lying in the house as a paralytic, terribly tormented. (7) And [Jesus] said to him, “I can come, and I shall heal him.”

(8) And the centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but if you would just say the word, my servant-child shall be healed. (9) For I also am a man under authority — I have soldiers under my command — and I say to that one “Be gone!” and he goes, and to another “Come!” and he comes, and to my slave, “Do that!” and he does it.”

(10) But when Jesus heard [this], he was amazed and said to those who were following, “I’m telling you the truth, among no one in Israel have I found this sort of faith! (11) But I’m telling you that many are coming from the east and the west and shall recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens. (12) But the “children” of the kingdom shall be thrown out into the outer darkness; in that place shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

(13) And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go, as you have trusted, it shall be done for you.”

The genitive absolutes continue. Jesus has made his way down from the Sermonic Mountain. The crowds continue to accompany Jesus and his disciples. He barely gets inside the city limits of Capernaum when he is met by a Roman centurion (there’s really no other kind, as I think about it).

The centurion begs, beseeches, pleads with Jesus on behalf of his “servant-child.” The verb is the same one Paul uses in Romans 12:1, for example, to plead with the Romans to present themselves as living sacrifices. The centurion is solicitous and subservient in his conversation with this itinerant, lower-class Jew. The scene itself is remarkable and, if it happened that way, would have occasioned numerous comments and consequences.

What happened when the report of this scene got back to the centurion’s superiors? A Roman commander treating a Jewish nobody with the sort of deference that should be reserved only for the Latin nobility? They might have wondered about the centurion’s mental stability. They might have questioned the centurion’s reliability and loyalty. They certainly would have called him on the carpet (or marble) for making mighty Rome appear so weak and needy.

“The display of God’s empire collides with the assertions of Rome’s sovereignty,” Warren Carter writes in Matthew and the Margins. “God’s empire,” Carter continues, “brings the wholeness which Rome’s rule cannot provide…and it will effect Rome’s demise” (page 196).

The public presence of the Roman eagle comes to this marginal Jew for the gift of healing. And that gift prompts Jesus to describe the authentic rule of peace, God’s rule, where the blessed will recline at table with the patriarchal families of Israel in the eschaton (verses 11-12).

“Jesus demonstrates God’s empire in healing the centurion’s servant and asserts God’s supremacy in accomplishing what Rome’s empire cannot do,” Carter continues, “despite the propaganda claims of Aristides and Josephus that Rome has healed a sick world” (page 200).

Alternative sources of healing, well-being, and flourishing always undercut the claims of empire. Autocrats always claim that they are the only ones who can save us, fix us, restore us, make us great again. And those claims never hold up for long.

Imperial systems create the very problems which they promise to “solve.” Such systems concentrate the resources of healing, well-being, and flourishing in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. Then such systems promise to distribute a few of those resources to those who are “worthy” of receiving the “help.”

Imperial systems create the circumstances that turn scarcity thinking into common sense. Such systems foster the facts that make zero-sum thinking appear reasonable. Imperial systems rely on the human psychologies of loss aversion and last place aversion to motivate the “have-nots” to collaborate with the “have too much-ers.” If you want a history of that system in the American context, I’d recommend Heather McGhee’s excellent book, The Sum of Us.

When it comes to the power of death, empire fails even its best and brightest in the end. And the ideology of empire cannot overcome the needs of the human heart. The centurion comes begging healing for his “servant-child.” I translate it that way because no single English word really captures the sense of the term. The Greek word is “pais.” The word can mean “child,” or “slave,” or “servant.”

Greek has a perfectly good word for “slave” — “doulos.” And Greek has a perfectly good word for “servant” — “diakonos.” The word the centurion uses has a greater sense of intimacy and dependency than the other terms. This child is not merely a servant and more than a slave.

Commentators speculate on the relationship between the centurion and the servant-child. Is this servant-child the enslaved gay lover of the centurion, for whom the older man has developed some real affection? Is this servant-child the result of the centurion’s rape of one of his enslaved women and a biological offspring? Is this servant-child an adopted son-slave who has become valued in some way? The narrative reality may be none of those things, but all are possibilities.

In any event, the centurion in the story cares enough for the servant-child to risk public ridicule and censure in order to find a cure. The centurion sets aside the accepted norms and rules to save someone for whom he cares. Perhaps this experience opens the eyes of the centurion to the realities of health and well-being in the Imperial system.

I think about how many of our straight church folks have come to new understandings of LGBTQIA+ realities and life. They’ve had a child or a sibling or another relative come out (or suffer in silence). They’ve witnessed the pain and struggle straight white culture continues to impose on their loved ones. That’s particularly true these days for our trans siblings. It’s this loving proximity that has brought about for many changed attitudes and the willingness to engage in public action.

I wonder if something like that happened for the centurion in Matthew 8.

Like the leper in the preceding text, the centurion addresses Jesus as “Lord.” This is the title that the centurion would use with his superiors in government and military circles. The Latin term would be “Domine.” That the centurion would use this term for Jesus is another astonishing feature in this surprise-filled exchange.

I think it’s worth noting how the centurion describes his life. If he order someone to do something, they do it. They hear his words and do them. This is the description that Jesus offers in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount. The wise person, the one who builds a house upon the rock, is the one who hears Jesus’ words in the Sermon and does them. The centurion understands how that system is supposed to work.

Jesus is astonished to hear such an understanding issued from this Gentile mouth. He has not heard this from those who should get it — those who are the historic children of the Kin(g)dom. This leads Jesus to describe an eschatological scene where Gentiles come streaming into the Kin(g)dom and take their places at the Divine table. The result of this understanding of the working of the Kin(g)dom leads Jesus to respond immediately to the centurion’s plea.

We see in Matthew a mixed understanding of the relationship between Gentiles and Jesus — at least pre-crucifixion. Jesus declares that he has come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Yet, Gentiles keep crashing the party. This is a preview of the mission of the Church as described in the Great Commission. But already ahead of the cross, Gentiles see what’s happening and want in — whether Jesus is really ready for them or not.

I don’t think the Matthean author has a rigid view of this — no matter what Jesus might say. In the second half of the chapter, Jesus makes a probe into Gentile territory to (pardon the pun) test the waters. The time is not quite right, Jesus discovers, but that is not a sign that the time will never be right.

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