The faith of an expat: Jesus and the centurion
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him,
and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said,
"I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
The Galilee wasn’t physically occupied by the Romans until A.D. 44. It wasn’t until Herod Antipas fell from grace with the Romans and got himself exiled with his wife to Lyon just down the road from us in Clermont-Ferrand, that the Roman army finally set up camp north of the border. At the time of our story, then, there was no Roman army in the Galilee. They were in the south – in Judea. So what was a Roman centurion doing in Capernaum? Well Herod, as a Roman client ruler, yearned for a Roman style soldiery of his own and no doubt needed a Roman centurion to help him achieve that. The centurion in our story was, plausibly, on loan from the Roman army as a military advisor. This suggests not only that he was far from home. He was also outside of his familiar patterns and environment - only tangentially still working for the Company. A man, well-suited for a particular life, had shelved it and found (almost accidentally) amongst God’s historic people, the Jews – in their community structures, their worship, their Sabbath and their ethics and above all in their ancient story of God encountering his people - something which appealed to him and which he wanted to be part of.
Who are you when you are not at home? Are you half the man or woman you would be in your habitual surroundings? Does travelling light far from home mean for you your essential toolbox is elsewhere - at home - under lock and key? This centurion’s disassociation from his well-worn paths, on the other hand, had given him a measure of holy freedom. You can still see the lower floor of the synagogue he built for the Jews of Capernaum. It’s underneath the ruins of the somewhat grander sixth-century synagogue, made of white marble, which took its place. It was made of the same sort of black basalt as our cathedral here in Clermont is built from or, for that matter, our own little chapel in Royat.
And what has our centurion learned in these new surroundings and among these new associates? According to Jesus, anyway, this man's understanding is substantial. His words of faith are fresh and matter-of-fact. When Jesus receives his request to have his beloved servant healed and offers to come to the centurion’s house the man replies that there is no need: All Jesus needs to do is say the word and it will be done.
"I’m a man under authority", he says. I know how these things take place. The Lieutenant-Colonel speaks to the Adjutant who then speaks to the junior officers who then speak to me and the other NCO’s. We speak to the men. If we encounter resistance, it’s not for nothing that the symbol of my centurion’s office is a stout stick of vine wood which can be applied to a soldier’s back. The job gets done.
Here, says Jesus, do we find a man of faith such as may not even be found in most of Israel. As evidence that he has understood he has come up with an analogy from his own world which tells me he has understood. Here is a man who would understand that God loves the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and will give them the good things that they require because it's in the Standing Orders. Here is one who, when told not to worry, will not worry, because matters must be in hand. He has understood.
The half dozen dislocations which occur in our own lives are not given the credit they are due. We might see them as a step down from the ordered trajectory we should expect in a perfect world. In fact, each one is an opportunity - to provoke our faith and to claim a space wherein we offer our unique gift to the world around us.