The Centurion’s Servant
21st January, 2018
Several years ago, I was working through the Greek writings of the first century historian, Flavius Josephus. During the Jewish wars with the Romans in the late 60s, Josephus had served as an officer in the Jewish resistance. The resistance movement was comprised of largely disparate bands with competing interests – and Josephus was seeking to consolidate them into a single force. And in a meeting with one of the leaders, he reasoned with him and said, ‘look, if you’re going to be effective against the Romans you need to abandon your course of action, and place your trust in me.’ But in Greek, Josephus told this chap, ‘Repent and believe in me’. Now – of course, that sounds way too biblical to modern ears to be the kind of thing a military officer would say to recruit a potential ally – ‘Repent and believe in me.’ When I read that, it occurred that 2000 years of church history has sanitized and sanctified these kinds of words into religious words. And when reading the Bible, to read words like ‘repent’ and ‘believe’ as religious words, is to misinterpret them – and potentially to misinterpret much of what Christianity might really be.
So … this term we are revisiting some Christian Exercises – not some kind of spiritual gymnastics, but the kind of things that Christians ‘do’, practices often described as ‘religious’. And this evening we are looking at the word group surrounding faith / belief / trust / loyalty. Though there are modern strands of philosophy that make a great deal of the distinction, for instance, between faith and trust – when it comes to reading this word as we find it in Scripture you simply cannot pick from a list of dictionary or lexicon entries. For instance, the word Josephus used for belief is a channel – and flowing through that channel are all manner of Indo European concepts that no translation can really unravel. In addition, the English word for belief, comes from Anglo-Saxon – ‘by life’ – in other words, your life as the demonstration of whatever it is that you really value. In this light – technically – it’s not we who get to say what we believe in, but for other people to look at our lives from outside and see how the way we live manifests the stuff we treasure.
So from that perspective, modern attempts to compartmentalize religious meanings for religious words look a bit silly. One example might be the widespread consensus that in the beginning, God made two types of people: People of ‘faith’; and normal people. Evolution has produced Religious people on the one hand, and fully-adjusted humans on the other.
And yet when it comes to concepts like ‘belief’ you realize it’s everywhere in contemporary culture. Credit, for instance, is just the Latin word for belief – and if you carry a credit card, you are thereby saying to your bank precisely what Josephus said to this resistance leader: believe in me! When you hear people begin their sentences with, ‘Trust me…’, then translated into New Testament Greek, they would say ‘believe in me.’ Or… if you climb on a bus that says Addenbrookes on the front, you are committing an act of faith – because you have invested your life trusting that this bus will take you where it promises to take you. And there are people here who have discovered first hand that such faith can sometimes prove to be misplaced – because the bus crashed en route to the hospital!
So, all of this to say that ‘belief, faith, trust, credibility’ – they are not ‘religious’ words or concepts employed only by ‘religious people’. In the New Testament – this evening we look at one passage in particular where the word is used.
A generation before Josephus was fighting the Romans, there was a Centurion – probably a Roman centurion – living in Capernaum, a small town about the size of Grantchester. The centurion had a servant who was terminally ill, so he used his influence with the local Jewish elders to get Jesus to come and heal him. Capernaum was such a small place, and Jesus had been using the town as a base of operations – so he probably knew who the Centurion was and agreed to go. And as we heard, when Jesus was not far off, the Centurion sent a delegation of ‘friends.’ The second message is simply for Jesus to give the order from a distance, in the knowledge that the servant would thereby be healed.
Now at this point, most interpreters point to this supposed relation between faith and miracles. As though the centurion had switched his brain off for a few minutes, to make himself believe that Jesus could do the impossible. So far as I am aware, faith and miracles never go together like that in the Gospels. Instead, a better word for ‘faith’ in this instance, might be loyalty: The loyalty of the high status Centurion willing to risk his reputation for the sake of his low status servant. Or the loyalty of a foreigner to the God of Israel, being willing to build a synagogue for his fellow citizens. But above all, his loyalty to the God of Israel as it was channelled through the person of Jesus.
There is a profound irony, that while many in Israel would not accept that the God of Israel was active in Jesus – this pagan centurion had shown more loyalty to Israel’s God than any Israelite. That is the relation not between faith and miracles, but between loyalty and liberty.
The context for this incident is that Jesus has been telling his followers that they should love their enemies – and the ultimate enemy of the people of God in the first century was Rome. And yet, straight after Jesus has made this demand of his followers, we read not of a Jewish person loving a Roman enemy, but of a Roman loving his Jewish enemy – showing himself to be more loyal to Jesus than even Jesus had expected. We don’t often read that Jesus was surprised - because he’s supposed to be all-knowing. But Jesus was astonished by this pagan military officer – because he showed faith / belief / trust / credence / loyalty. Not in some weird apolitical religious sense – but in a practical, down-to-earth, gritty sense: by life.
So, the context for the faith of this foreigner then, is not something abstract. He was not a ‘person of faith’ in any religious sense. He was a wealthy, senior military officer, representing the occupying army in a volatile region. Ultimately, it was his care for a beloved individual that revealed his multi-dimensional loyalty.
There was, then, nothing otherworldly about his faith.
There was no attempt to close his eyes and make himself believe in the impossible.
There were no mental acrobatics. Only loyalty to what he knew of Israel’s God.
There was no religious xenophobia, only love for his servant.
There was no act of faith other than that shown by someone who joins an army, or uses a credit card, or takes the bus to Addenbrookes.
The question it leaves us with, is in what exactly we place our trust? In what we deliberately, or unthinkingly, or reluctantly, place our trust.