Day in the Life: “Centurion”
May 1, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net
True honor is measured by character, not rank.
There are many subjects about which I have no grasp. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. One subject within the growing field of things about which I have no grasp is military ranking. I shield this ignorance, since it is assumed that every warm-blooded American knows from birth the subject of military rank—whether a sergeant outranks a major or which rank follows a second lieutenant or if a captain corresponds to the Navy or the Army. I really don’t know anything about military rank even after several solid attempts to learn.
But I do know that the Bible casts a favorable light on soldiering. In our modern era, American soldiers are often smeared as some form of legalized murderers; hired henchmen of the government. I don’t hear a lot of that kind of talk in the rural Mid-South or the Mid-West, for which I am grateful. But I am glad to report that the Bible has nothing negative to say about the military profession. It has quite a lot information about corrupt kings and the carnage left over on the battlefield, but the category of soldier is either morally neutral if not overtly positive.
We have one of these overtly positive examples of a military man in Luke 7:1-10. We don’t know his name, but—appropriately—we know his rank. He is a centurion—a commander of 100 foot soldiers in one of Rome’s many legions. Every legion would have 6000 professional legionnaires (troops), which works out to 60 centurions per unit (whose pay was 10-20 times more than a foot soldier). Centurions were foot soldiers, at first, but they rose in rank for valor and leadership demonstrated on the battlefield which impressed both their superiors and inspired their peers.
I tried to cross-check a modern equivalent of a centurion, but it is hard to pin down—most suggest that the rank is a middle-range officer between sergeant and major. But, as I confessed already, that doesn’t gel in my brain. The only sergeant I ever knew was Sergeant Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band.
But the minutiae of military rank need not eclipse the main thrust of this passage, which includes rank but hinges on honor. One of the chief values within the military culture is (perceived) honor. How the military conceives and shows honor is largely communicated through promotion or demotion of rank. That is why it is a huge deal, for instance this week in the news, that the Army gave a rare reversal of its own internal disciplinary action. Before his appeal was granted, decorated Green Beret, Charles Martland, (Sergeant First Class) was stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged from the Army after he publicly confronted and physically bested an Afghan officer who openly boasted about abducting and molesting a 12-year old boy back in July 2011. Because of a misapplied military philosophy not to interfere with the internal culture of its very fragile ally, Afghanistan, Martland was reprimanded instead of celebrated; terminated instead of emulated. But the Army reversed its decision this week (April 28) and restored Martland to active duty and full rank.
It really came down to honor. Martland and the Afghani officer who quickly ended up on his back obviously had two very different views of honor. One used his authority to overpower the weak. The other used his authority to protect the weak. While the military struggled with its own ulterior motives, those outside the military who learned of Martland’s story were quick to pressure for a reversal.
If you have to tap the “bars” on your uniform in order to advance “self” and remind others how much honor you have, then for all practical purposes you have no honor. True honor is measured by character, not by rank.
I. Entreat by Proxy (vv. 1-5)
1 After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.
2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him.
3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant.
4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy to have you do this for him,
5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue."
This is a very “military” passage. The soldier treats Jesus, whom he observes from afar, in a way that would be normal for the military. But the scenario is not at all normal. The centurion then does something shocking: he entreats Jesus. He makes an appeal—first by sending a proxy.
Asking for help is not something centurions do. Centurions are the helpers, not the helpless. If help is needed, then requests go up the chain of command, not down … and certainly not outside the chain of command. If help must be called in, then a centurion would have been hard-pressed to leave the jurisdiction of Mother Roma. But the centurion has heard about Jesus. He has heard about his miracles. He has heard about his teaching. He has heard that Jesus does what few other Jews are willing to do—to reach out to non-Jews (Luke 6:17-20). And he has heard that Jesus is coming into Capernaum this very day (Luke 7:1).
Capernaum is a fishing community on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. But sitting just a day’s journey north of Capernaum is Caesarea Philippi, the largest and most “Roman” of Roman colonies in the entire region where the highest ranking soldiers and politicians lived. And since this centurion is likely the highest ranking Roman in town, he likely had to think of his reputation. He had to consider that he was a figure-head for Rome in everything he said and did.
But overriding all of those sizable variables is need; great need. For a man who holds considerable power, this centurion faces a crisis against which he is completely powerless. What great need haunts this centurion on that particular day enough to provoke him to cross several cultural barriers? He “had a servant who was sick at the point of death, who was highly valued by him” (Luke 7:2).
Most of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves in one way or another, but this one is “highly valued” (Gr. entimos) by his “master” (kurios). But it isn’t a monetary sort of valuation; it is emotional. He is honored (timos); esteemed, distinguished, considered precious (Friberg).
Soldiers are stereotypically conservative in showing emotions, but when they finally estimate that someone is honorable they form a deep and lasting bond of brotherhood. We don’t know any details of their relationship, but the centurion has this kind of brotherhood bond with his servant and it is tearing him up to see him “at the point of death.” By itself this friendship is countercultural and a testimony to the depth of the centurion’s character. But character is not enough to stop death from advancing.
This word used is the exact word a soldier hoped to hear at the end of his career when he received a certificate (entimos) of faithful service of 26 years (Moulton & Milligan). “Honorable” is perhaps the highest praise of a military man to describe another person, whether inside or outside the military—you are very highly honored to me.
I love the quick action—when the soldier/statesman was in the act of hearing about Jesus he commissions a company of Capernaum’s elders to deliver his appeal for intervention (vs. 3). This is all very formal, but it is also very smart. The centurion doesn’t know if he will get either Jesus’ attention or his consent. He sends the elders to give character witness and perhaps eliminate as many of the cultural barriers as possible so that his servant might have the best chance at healing as possible. It could be seen as schmoozing Jesus, I suppose, but this is his “normal.” He has plenty of reason to expect a traveling Jewish rabbi to refuse to help a Roman, not to mention a slave of a Roman centurion.
So the envoy finds Jesus and gives him their prepared speech—“[This man] is worthy to have you do this for him for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built our synagogue” (vv. 4-5). But, just like character is unable to stop or slow death, worth (in the sight of man) is unable to heal.
II. Heal by Remote (vv. 6-10)
6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.
7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.
8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."
9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
What is developing in this narrative is what scholars call a chiasm; a literary device that shows the reader where “X marks the spot” at the apex of the chiastic structure. Luke marches to the most important point, circles it with a highlighter, so to speak, and then retraces his steps back the way he came. The people and the centurion “hear” Jesus (vs. 1) and about Jesus (vs. 3a). The envoy asks Jesus to “come and heal” the centurion’s servant (vs. 3b). The elders testify to Jesus that the centurion is “worthy” of this miraculous intervention (vs. 4). You will notice from verses 6 through 10 the same elements in reverse order: the centurion insists that he is not “worthy” (vs. 6b), that is why he did not presume to “come” to Jesus in the first place (vs. 7a). But he understands from his military career, and believes by extension, that Jesus only has to say the word (from even far away) and the servant will be “healed” (vs. 7b). When Jesus “heard” these things about the centurion, he “marveled at him” and gave a summary couplet, which forms a mini chiasm all by itself (vv. 9-10): “turning” to the crowd, testifying that he has not “found” in Israel such faith (the chiastic apex!) as in this centurion, he sends the friends to “turn” back to the house where they “find” the sick servant miraculously restored to health.
But let me return to the apex of the main chiasm of the entire narrative, which I saved for last, in the middle of verse 6. “When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends saying to him, ‘Lord, The centurion—whose life and career is built upon rank; whose social status is that of boss and master and commander and leader declares in public, in the full hearing of both the group of Jewish elders and the group of his Roman friends—addresses Jesus as “Lord” (Gr. kurios)—“master.” This is the bull’s eye of this narrative!
This is no small thing. It is not poetic license. It is the microcosm of this man’s spiritual universe. He is verbally bowing before Jesus as his superior—a thing that Romans never/rarely do—especially to foreign people on the extreme fringes of their empire. It is not posturing. It is not manipulating. It is humble faith displayed in the last place anyone expected to find it—in the heart of a successful Roman soldier over a situation that he cannot fix himself, the decline of his dear servant’s health. So he says, “Lord!”
"Do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (vs. 6). Did the centurion change his mind about wanting Jesus to “come” to his house? I don’t think so. Now that he sees that Jesus is willing to intervene, he sends this second envoy out to express a modesty that is, by implication, rare in those days by the Romans: “I am not worthy.” Just give the word—that will be more than sufficient. He indicates that his word can mobilize soldiers and servants to advance or to retreat, but he has no rank here; no authority where he can say the word and a man receive healing. But Jesus has that higher rank! Jesus possesses that greater authority! This is the ultimate deference to Jesus as his superior. It is nothing less than amazing. The centurion possessed and applied an insight into Jesus’ power from his military worldview.
Jesus does not show favoritism. He mobilizes to help the slave as well as the aristocrat. He teaches the scholar as well as the uneducated. He cherishes the dignity of the Roman as well as his own Jewish countrymen. He sheds his blood for his enemies as well as his friends.
What is honor in your estimation? Is it measured by rank, by career, by money, by awards, by the size of the crowd that follows you? Or is honor measured in character—whether no one is looking or everyone is looking. But still, even though the honorable centurion has character, he is nevertheless unable to save his friend; unable to save himself. He must yield to the higher honor that he finds in Jesus who has an entirely different and completely higher rank. And so must we. Jesus is the one who shatters the house of cards by which we used to measure life. Jesus is not a better version of me. Jesus is someone wholly different and yet amazingly similar at the same time; someone who walks into our neighborhood and says, “Follow Me.” “I am the way.” “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” “I am the resurrection and life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he will live.” “In this world you will have tribulation, but fear not, I have overcome the world.” And today, just as it was that day in Capernaum, he can heal by remote. He can restore from afar. He can save from where he sits at the right hand of the Father.