The Strange Faith of the Centurion

“Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this: For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.”—Luke 7:1-10 (King James Version)

Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Foto: Klut
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Foto: Klut Paolo Caliari gen. Veronese 1528 Verona – 1588 Venedig Der Hauptmann von Capernaum Öl auf Leinwand; 178 x 275 cm Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Gal.-Nr. 228 Verwendung nur mit Genehmigung und Quellenangabe

I must confess that the centurion in this story has always rubbed me the wrong way. If Doubting Thomas had an older brother with perfect hair and a winning smile—an older brother who got straight A’s in school, did well in sports, and excelled at pretty much everything—one of those “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” brothers—that brother would look like this centurion. His faith is like that spotless house that’s so flawless it’s annoying. This isn’t the faith of a grown man; it’s the faith of a child, or a simpleminded idiot like Forrest Gump. And yet this guy’s clearly not a child. Nor is he a simpleton. He’s a military man, a leader of men, with a serious job and some thoroughly grownup responsibilities.

Shouldn’t this guy be a little more jaded? A little more worldly? A little more cynical? Where’s the fashionable nihilism we find in world-weary Pilate, who famously retorts, in John 18:38, “What is truth?” My guess is that this centurion’s exceptional faith in God’s order was rooted in his exceptionally positive experience with Roman order. My guess is that he was an exceptionally lucky man, and an exceptionally good leader.

We need to remember how profoundly strange this story is. Relations between representatives of the Roman state and the Jewish community were often contentious—especially in places like Capernaum, known for its radicalism. What might we reasonably expect to find in a place like Capernaum: a place that looks like Ferguson, Missouri: a place defined by the heated relationship between an oppressed minority group and the state representatives who are supposed to keep them in check. Instead, we find a Roman centurion who’s adored by the people, a guy who builds synagogues, a guy who’s willing to move heaven and earth for a slave. This is no ordinary centurion!

Unless you were stationed way out on the periphery of the Empire, where battlefield deaths opened up positions for advancement with some regularity, the Roman military hierarchy was notoriously rigid and maddening. If the soul-crushing cubicle-world of the 21st-century office made Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, one of the wealthiest cartoonists in the world, the soul-crushing hierarchy of the Roman military made Stoicism one of the most popular philosophies in the Empire.

In many ways, Stoicism is about learning how to deal with a world that doesn’t make sense: a world where your boss is an idiot, a world where the wrong person gets the promotion because they’ve got the right connections, a world where the people working for you are often clueless, a world that’s often highly dysfunctional. And yet this Roman centurion seems to have experienced none of that. Quite to the contrary: his description of how his commands are heeded brings to mind the flawless factories depicted in old Soviet propaganda films. Perfect order reigns in this centurion’s ranks: “I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion’s faith in Jesus’s power is, I suspect, rooted in his own experience of Roman power. And can we really fault the Israelites for having a less than rosy view of Roman power? These are a subjugated people after all, a minority population that was crushed under foot from time to time. And yet Jesus says we ought to have faith like this privileged man, this centurion, this extraordinarily lucky man. What are we to make of this? Is Jesus just being mean? Blaming the victim? I don’t think so. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says that we must “become as little children” before we can “enter into the kingdom of heaven.” What could this mean? What do children and exceptionally privileged men have in common? I think they share a kind of naïveté. And I think that Jesus is saying that there’s a wisdom in that naïveté, just as there’s a wisdom in innocence.

We know that Paul debated “Stoic philosophers” in the public square (Acts 17:18). And it’s not hard to imagine what they argued about. Stoicism, especially its more popular and less sophisticated forms, was all about being reasonable and realistic, whilst Christianity was all about being unreasonable and unrealistic. As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek rightly observes: “Christianity is anti-wisdom: wisdom tells us that our efforts are in vain, that everything ends in chaos, while Christianity madly insists on the impossible. Love, especially a Christian one, is definitely not wise. This is why Paul said: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’ . . . . We should take the term ‘wisdom’ literally here: it is wisdom (in the sense of ‘realistic’ acceptance of the way things are) that Paul is challenging, not knowledge as such.”

We’re often told in this day and age that the privileged are all deluded and the underprivileged see things as they are. In practice, this is usually just a covert defense of the cynical perspective, because seeing things clearly always seems to mean seeing things cynically. But I don’t buy it. Never have. I think lack of privilege reveals just as much as it conceals. Just as you need to have seen blue things (like the sky on a clear day) in order to understand what blue is, you need to have experienced beauty and love and order to know what beauty and love and order are. If you’ve never really experienced true love, you might be tempted to conclude that it’s a myth. If you’ve never seen government work well, you might be tempted to conclude that good government is a myth. You have to believe that “Another World is Possible” before you can make another world possible.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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