Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Risky faith, Roman-style

THE UNKNOWN CENTURION who asked Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant has long been held up as an example of admirable faith. After all, Jesus praised him for having faith not found even among the devout of Israel. Who’s going to disagree with the Son of God, right?

But much of the honor that goes his way centers on the Roman officer’s belief that Jesus could make the sickly servant well. As a military man who knew all about authority, he recognized when other people had it. The centurion was confident that if Jesus wanted to, He could heal the officer’s servant.

Now, that is certainly something to acknowledge and aspire to, of course. But I think there’s another aspect to the centurion’s faith that also deserves some attention and reflection. It’s to be found in the first word he communicated to Jesus in both slightly varying accounts of this encounter, in Matthew 8 and Luke 7.

“Lord,” he said in front of witnesses.

The centurion didn’t just believe in his heart that Jesus could heal, nor even among just a group of like-minded friends; he believed it openly. And consider at what potential cost.

The Romans were an occupying army, charged with keeping the Jews under their steel-tipped sandals. Caesar was the ultimate authority, to whom every knee had to bow. Remember how the Jewish religious rulers nodded to this when, at Jesus’s kangaroo court appearance, they declared, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15)?

Yet here was an elite commander, willing to put it all on the line. And not just for personal gain, but on behalf of someone he cared about—someone who was in some ways disposable. He could have easily just gotten a replacement servant.

It’s also possible that the centurion was already on some Roman “watch list” as a potential Jewish sympathizer. The Jewish leaders in Capernaum who endorsed the centurion’s appeal to Jesus commented that he had built their synagogue, and really deserved a miracle in return.

Now, some historians note that the Romans liked having synagogues in Israel because they helped foster a moral authority that suited their ruling purposes. But the Jewish leaders also told Jesus that the centurion “loves our nation” (Luke 7:5), which suggests he leaned beyond mere tactical interaction with those he was supposed to be keeping in line.

(As a quick aside, in these contentious and divided times, it’s worth noting that the centurion’s story also reminds us that—even among those we might despise—there may be an honorable person or two).

“Lord,” the centurion said to Jesus—both passages using the Greek word kýrios, which Strong’s defines as “a person exercising absolute ownership rights; lord (Lord).”

Whether the centurion spoke the honorific to Jesus aloud, or through emissaries, he went public with his belief in what his superiors might easily have considered a treasonous statement.

The centurion’s faith wasn’t just great because it was resolute: I know God can do this. It was also an example because it was personally risky: God is my ultimate authority.

Who’s yours?

Photo by Johnson Cameraface on Foter.com/CC BY-NC-SA

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