Monday of Week 24 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Luke 7:1-10

After he had finished the Sermon on the Plain (although we do not necessarily have to think its represents teachings all given at one time) Jesus went into Capernaum, the base from which he operated when in Galilee. Almost immediately he is met with a request for healing but this one is somewhat different. It will set the stage for developments which will take place and be described later in the Acts of the Apostles (also by Luke).

The story concerns the slave of a centurion. A centurion was an army officer with – as his rank indicates – one hundred men under him. He was presumably attached to the Roman garrison in the town or one of Herod Antipas’ forces. The Roman military, in general, had a reputation for cruelty and brutality. However, those in the Gospel do not appear in a bad light. This is a good example of the danger of stereotyping any group of people – something we are all very easily prone to do.

He was not necessarily a Roman but he was certainly not a Jew. He was a Gentile outsider. His slave, who was very dear to him, had fallen seriously ill. This, in turn, implies he treated his slave well. Undoubtedly, he had heard the stories of what Jesus had done by way of healing and wondered if his slave could also be helped.

However, as an outsider he did not dare to approach Jesus personally. He sent a delegation consisting of Jewish town elders. These are not the ‘elders’ mentioned during Jesus’ passion but simply respected members of the local Jewish community. In Matthew’s account, the centurion approaches Jesus himself. Luke having him go through influential Jewish friends sounds more plausible.

They apparently were only too willing to help because they said he was very friendly to the Jews and had even built a synagogue for them. The stage is being set for the story of Cornelius, also a soldier and the first Gentile Christian, in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 10:1ff.).

While Jesus was on his way to the house, the centurion immediately sent word that it was not necessary for Jesus to come personally. As a friend of Jews, he knew that a devout Jew, and especially a rabbi, could not enter the house of a Gentile. He did not want to be a source of embarrassment for Jesus.

“I am not worthy that you should come under my roof,” he said – words which we now use every time we prepare to approach the table of the Eucharist. Just as he himself felt unworthy to be approached by Jesus. He knew that Jesus had only to say a word and his slave would be made whole again.

He recognised the very special authority that Jesus had, an authority, in some respects, not unlike his own as an army officer. He had only to say “Go” to a soldier and he went; he only had to say “Do this” and it was done. Jesus could do the same.

Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith. “I have never found such faith, even in Israel.” Only twice in the Gospel is Jesus described as being amazed. This is caused by the faith of a Gentile; the other was caused by the unbelief of his townspeople in Nazareth (Mark 6:6).

When the delegation returned to the centurion’s house, they found that the slave was totally well again.

What strikes one so strongly in this story is the character of the centurion who contradicted every stereotype of the Roman soldier which the average person in Palestine would have had. He is kind and caring of his slave. He has contributed to the building of the local synagogue. He is extremely sensitive to Jewish customs and does not embarrass Jesus by approaching him directly. And, when Jesus offers to go to his house, he says that it is not necessary. He knows that Jesus, as a Jew, would become unclean by entering a Gentile house. He is a good example how wrong we can be in generalising about certain kinds or classes of people. He also clearly illustrates how a Gentile could be, as the early Church only gradually discovered, a worthy person to belong to the Christian community. In fact, this story prepares the way for Luke’s account later in the Acts of the centurion, Cornelius, being received as the first Gentile member of the Christian community (Acts chap. 10).

The key factor, of course, in this healing story is the faith of the Gentile, a faith which Jesus said he had never encountered even among many of his own people. Beginning with Cornelius, this experience will be repeated in the early Church as the first Christians, all Jews, begin to realise that the Gentiles too are being called to follow Christ and that their Spirit-filled faith can be as strong as that of any of them.

For us today it is a reminder that Jesus can reveal himself to the most unlikely persons and that we must never presume that a person is unfitted for the Christian life based on past behaviour or any other characteristics. God can call anyone and he does.

Let us, too, follow the example of the centurion in our confidence in God’s healing power in our lives.

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