Reflections on Luke 7:1-10
Luke gives us a story in chapter 7 that is so quintessentially his, even though it is Matthew, a writer with a very different theology of Jesus, who first records the story of Jesus, the Centurion, and his boy. This incident is quintessentially Luke because it is easy to see how it fits Luke’s wider project of presenting the Christian faith to the Gentile world.
Luke’s theology of Jesus is that of Paul’s. Paul is the boundary-crossing apostle, who takes the revelation of God in Jesus Christ beyond the community of Jesus’ Jewish followers, into an active engagement with the wider, Gentile world. Luke’s contribution is to present the life of Jesus and the early Church seen through Paul’s theology within a coherent format that traverses the crevasses separating Christian, Jewish, and Gentile worlds.
The story of Jesus, the Centurion, and his boy is such a story. It has all the ingredients that normally would make it impossible for any meaningful engagement between the Jewish Jesus, the world of the Roman occupier, and Pan-Hellenic cultural norms.
The first element to note is how Luke uses both the Greek doulos -slave and paid -boy to describe the Centurions servant. Paid is a term that in this context implies the possibility of the type of sexual relationship common between an older mentor and a younger protege and it is clear that this boy is no mere servant. Pederasty, while common in the Roman-Greek world was strongly condemned by the Jews with their patriarchal anxiety about homosexuality. There is no hint that Jesus seems concerned about this possibility.
Secondly, in communicating with Jesus, the Centurion uses the synagogue elders as his emissaries. This denotes an unusually friendly relationship between this Roman commander and a local Jewish community. These elders, who might usually have been hostile to Jesus seem keen to enlist his help in the service of a man they hold in high honor, to whom they clearly feel an obligation, having built their synagogue for them.
Thirdly, Jesus does not hesitate to set out in response to the request. Now something strange seems to happen. Does the Centurion change his mind? He now sends his friends to intercept Jesus and ask him not to come to the house. Is he conscious of the peril he is posing for Jesus in asking him to risk ritual contamination by entering the house of a Gentile: Lord do not trouble yourself for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof? In any case, again, there is no hint in Luke of Jesus being concerned about this.
Fourthly, Jesus expresses astonishment in the Centurion’s recognition of his authority – For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and another,’Come’, and he comes …. Jesus exclaims that not even in Israel, i.e. among those which at this stage if his ministry Jesus understands himself to be called, has he seen faith like this.
For obvious reasons, most commentators gloss over the overtones of pederasty in this story. Most note the perplexing elements of the Jewish elders willingness to mediate and Jesus’ seeming willingness to risk ritual contamination. For many, the emphasis falls on this being a story about faith, the faith of the Centurion, who even though he is a pagan, and especially because he is a pagan, can be counted a righteous man in contrast to Jesus’s own people’s rejection of him. The piety of faith always provides a safe ground for interpretation.
Yet, the question for me concerns Luke’s possible purpose for presenting this story as he does? I believe Luke understands this story to reveal Jesus’ willingness to reach out and cross the boundaries that separate peoples and cultures. Inclusion is one of the key elements in Luke’s theology of Jesus. Luke is also a proponent of an early reconciliation between Christianity and Roman globalization. Under the umbrella of globalization and its agents, the Romans maintained relative stability between otherwise suspicious and hostile cultures, tribes, and nations. Rome was the last great agent of globalization in the ancient world.
Globalization only works when it is able to buy allegiance through ensuring prosperity and safety for its different constituent cultures. Initial periods of conquest and rule through fear don’t last unless the conquered come to see their self-interests reflected in the benefits of empire. The Pax-Romana ensured peace, stability, and economic prosperity among the polyglot cultures of the Mediterranean world.
A tension in early Christianity lies between its Jewish exclusivist and Gentile universalist movements. Luke is on the side of the latter. Hence, his story of Jesus, the Centurion, and his boy offers a powerful metaphor for his worldview, one in which Christianity is the ally of Rome, not its enemy.
Luke’s worldview predominates. The Jewish faction of Christianity dwindles and with the exclusion of Christians from newly emerging Rabbinic Judaism, the Gentile Mission becomes the only game in town. The Gentile Mission is so successful, the reconciliation between Christianity and Pax-Romana so complete, that Christendom eventually emerges to replace Roman power as the central globalizing influence.
Hearing the story in our context
On Memorial Day Weekend, amidst the events of an unfolding presidential election, how do we hear this story?
The origins of Memorial Day are complex and a number of places in both the Old South and North claim to be have been the location for the first Memorial Day. Memorial Day is the day when America has traditionally honored her war dead, beginning with the 600,000 plus dead of the Civil War. Memorial Day Weekend also marks the beginning of summer. This unfortunate coincidence results in most people celebrating the weekend, not as a commemoration of the war dead, but as the start of BBS (barbecue and beach season). At least at St Martin’s in Providence, we will be breaking out the black vestments (literally) for a solemn commemoration of the war dead on Sunday.
Is there a theme linking Luke’s gospel story and its worldview with Memorial Day and the unpredictable future we are now facing? I think there is. I detect the theme of the tension between globalization and tribalism.
The Civil War was a manifestation of a long-running resistance to the globalization embodied in the Constitution and its establishment of the Federal Government. There came a point when the forces of national globalization lost the allegiance, albeit reluctant from the beginning, of a section of the States that comprised the Union. Globalization became identified with the economic power of the manufacturing North. Fuelled by northern industrialization it became so serious a threat to the Southern slave-based economy that a section of States no longer felt their peace and prosperity protected within the movement for national globalization.
Throughout the 20th-Century, the forces of economic globalization became increasingly identified with US national interests, especially in the post-1945 development of a Pax-Americana. However, the hand-in-glove relationship between economic globalization and American self-interest has been unraveling for decades now. The US economy, now like every other world economy is a client state of international, economic globalization. The result of this is that increasingly large numbers of Americans no longer enjoy the benefits of a close alliance between transnational capital and the U.S. national interests. Whether we are industrial workers whose manufacturing jobs have gone off shore or middle-class people victimized by a financial industry that sees itself as its own business rather than as a support for the growth of business, we, the hurt and disillusioned are increasingly looking for the arrival of a new messiah to free us from our plight.
We now experience international, economic globalization as economic, exploitative, colonization. We should not be surprised when the old animosities of racism and gender oppression, now insidiously dressed up in the tribal clothes of States rights, resurface as expressions of tribal cultural responses to the failure of globalization to meet our needs. These dangerous genies, once released from their bottles are hard to put back, and we will all suffer the consequences.
Christianity when rooted in the values of the Gospel, can never support solutions that promote a regression to tribal mentalities that divide the world into a them-and-us worldview. However hard it might seem to see Luke’s story of Jesus, the Centurion, and his boy as providing us with badly needed answers, it is clear that it shows us the trajectory of Christian living based on Jesus’ own behavior in reaching out beyond the tribal boundaries that separated him from the Centurion. It shows the Centurion recognizing the commonality he shares with Jesus, for both are men in authority. It’s a story that celebrates the common experience and shared perspectives that reach across the boundaries of cultural, religious, and economic differences. It’s a key story in Luke’s promotion of Christianity as a reconciling and bridge building movement capable of changing the world.
There are key moments in history when Christians are judged by later generations as to whether they embraced the Gospel as an agent of resistance in the face of the resurgence of tyranny. I believe we are living in such a time, and will be so judged by our children and their children.