The story of the Roman centurion sending word to Jesus through Jewish elders and his subsequent exclamation, “I am not worthy… but only say the word…” is simple, and yet amazingly complex. It is familiar in some denominations because of the liturgical use of the words, “I am not worthy,” as the congregation’s response given before participating in the Mass or Lord’s Supper. Unfortunately, this is often the only thing that is remembered.
The complexity resides in what might be labeled an interfaith encounter long before such encounters were deemed necessities. The cast of characters seems to relish in a certain ambiguity, even cross-boundary identities.
The Roman centurion is friendly to the Jewish people and their faith. He has obviously done many favors for them. The Jewish elders, who have as a group shown both support and suspicion of Jesus’ ministry, are called upon to approach Jesus and ask for his help. But the centurion also sends a second group. This second group, however, is only described as his friends. Who were they? Are they the same Jewish elders? Then there is the one around whom this healing story centers, the slave, called a servant but also a boy. The centurion obviously has a very special relationship to this servant.
Or does the story center in the healing of this servant / boy? Though it is clearly a healing story, the servant / boy is displaced in the text both by the interaction between the centurion and Jesus and the reference to the healing at the end. Finally, of the three principle characters in this story, only Jesus is present as a direct-speaking character in the text.
These observations and questions are not necessarily meant to be answered. They serve a different purpose. Primarily, they make us aware that neat cultural and religious boundary classifications are blurred. Identity is disrupted by unexpected allegiances, by contradictory descriptions. Strong, stereotypical identities are diluted, displaced by absences in the text. But, in the midst of this blurring, healing occurs.
In the aftermath of violence, a deep-seated illness of broken minds and spirits, a possibility toward healing always exists. The vicious anti-Semitic attack on a northern New Jersey synagogue exemplifies this possibility. Violence – religious intolerance – was not to have the last word, nor was forgiveness to be blindly shared. A searching for truth was to be engaged. This searching began in the blurring of demarcation lines between different faiths.
“An attack on one house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship.” After the attack on the Congregation Beth-El, religious leaders from various communities came together, not to discuss what they could do but to listen to what was needed by their sisters and brother who had suffered the attack. The dialogue is characterized by a discussion on how we experience both hate and love in our lives and communities.
A dialogue becomes possible between faith communities in the midst of the world’s brokenness, a dialogue that is rooted not in maintaining established identities but in being attentive to the cry coming from those victimized. This interfaith dialogue does not have as its goal a mega-religion or the dismissal of what is unique to particular faith expressions. Living reconciled implies, first of all, walking a path together towards ever-deeper human solidarity, seeking truth beyond all the narrow egoisms of self-contained identity.
This reconciliation heals the illness, physical and mental and spiritual. God works across boundaries.
The relationship between the centurion and Jesus is astounding in this regard. The centurion’s only reference is one of power. In the story, he described what discipline and obedience mean in his realm. He orders his men to do this or that and they do it. Submission was a critical attitude in order to maintain one’s rank. Yet, his servant / boy is, through the illness and his apparent closeness to death, disobedient. The centurion exercised enormous power, he knew its efficacy, yet, in this situation, confronted with the violence of death, he was powerless. This powerlessness, symbolized by his absence from the text as someone who speaks directly, now seeks another power. Yet the reference here remains one of power. The centurion has heard that Jesus has a power (even over death), a power he does not possess.
The centurion summons the Jewish elders as he summons his soldiers. He sends them to Jesus, asking that Jesus come and heal. There is no middle ground. It is not an invitation to come and dine, to come and take a look, to come and see what might be done – but to come and heal. And Jesus surprisingly obeys. He sets out on the road towards boundary crossings and ritual impurity. (It was not ritually proper for a Jew to enter a Gentile’s home.) But on his way, another word comes from the centurion: I am not worthy! Do not come to my house. Only say the word! And again, perhaps even more surprisingly, Jesus obeys the centurion!
The Son of God, even without physically crossing any boundaries, has allowed himself to be shaped, ordered by the word of a Gentile. This obedience on Jesus’ part has far deeper consequences than had he simply crossed the threshold of the centurion’s house. God’s self listens to the cry from the outsider, even in the form of a command, and changes his itinerary.
In the word coming from the centurion, Jesus witnesses faith. Faith calls to faith. The faith of the centurion is not based on the fact that he has done good works (for the people of Israel) but that his faith is grounded in the recognition that Jesus conquers death. His faith calls to the source of faith, Jesus. It is a bold and daring faith, not afraid of blurring lines of cultural and religious identity. And, Jesus exclaims, this faith is greater than anything he has found in the expected places or usual definitions of identity, greater than any he has found in his own people.
Faith propels communities and people forward onto paths untrodden, into places unheard of, across many culturally and religiously imposed boundaries, and in that movement, faith is also discovered, the faith of others, and together, ways of reconciliation and peace are created.
Dirk G. Lange is Associate Professor of Worship at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minn., where he teaches worship and the theology of the Lutheran Confessions. This ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
Image: Stained glass window at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Frontpage / Shutterstock.com