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Sunday, 2 June 2013

Jesus and the Roman Officer: A commonality of practice

Jesus was surprised (Luke 7. 1 - 10). This is worthy of note because the Gospels only record two occasions when Jesus was said to have been surprised. Firstly, he was amazed that his own, hometown people rejected him, and secondly that this gentile officer accepted him.

There is much about this story and this officer that is surprising. We see his humility in that, although he is the local official of the ruling power, he says he is not worthy to have Jesus, an itinerant Jewish preacher, in his home. The local Jewish elders testify to his love of the Jewish people, to the extent that he himself had built a synagogue for the locals in Capernaum. As a result, the Jewish elders are prepared to advocate on his behalf. Then we read that his slave is ‘very dear’ to him. There is much about this man that is at odds with the general practice of those who have positions of power, particularly when the position of power held is that of an oppressive ruling elite.

So there was much about this man to which Jesus would respond warmly. The officer cares about others and he does so regardless of nationality, religion and class. In other words, his love of others enables him to cross boundaries between people. There is even the possibility (in the Greek word used of the slave) of a same-sex relationship existing between the officer and his servant!

The officer is an intercessor. He speaks on behalf of his servant and sends other intercessors (the Jewish elders) in his name who speak on his behalf. As a result, nothing is mentioned in the story about the servant who was healed having faith. It is the officer who had faith and stood in the gap for the servant by interceding for him.

His faith is seen in that he believes that Jesus will help his servant and doesn’t need to see or meet Jesus in order to do so. The Jewish elders didn’t think Jesus would help a gentile soldier unless they had proved that he was good to the Jews. Yet, in order to receive help from Jesus no good works are required. The Jewish elders want to prove to Jesus that the officer is worthy of Jesus’ help and yet, when a message comes from the officer himself, the message is that he is not worthy. His faith is seen in his trust that Jesus is someone who will act with compassion and love, not that he sees himself as good enough to earn that love. Jesus shows in this story that the only thing he is assessing is whether or not we have that kind of faith.

The officer understands Jesus’ ability to heal in terms of his being part of a chain of command in which he is able to issue orders and where what he orders occurs. The fact that Jesus commends the officer’s faith doesn’t mean that we then have to accept that the officer was right about Jesus being part of this chain of command. The story can be understood in that way and often has been, but what Jesus commends is the officer’s faith, not the means or logic by which he arrives at that faith.

Jesus continually taught that true leadership is shown through service. He reversed our common expectations about the way in which power should be held and exercised. The Roman officer, by caring about others and doing so regardless of nationality, religion and class, was actually living out in practice, to a significant extent, what Jesus was teaching to others. As faith without deeds is dead (James 2. 17), it may actually be the officer’s practice of servant leadership to which Jesus refers when he says, “I tell you, I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel!”

Like Jesus then, if we allow ourselves, we will be surprised by this story. In it, the gentile, the pagan, the one who does not believe in the God of Israel, the one who is the representative of the oppressive ruling power, the enemy, is the one who crosses boundaries of race, religion, class (and possibly also sexuality), to show real faith in practice. Despite the differences between them, this man and Jesus recognize a commonality of practice in each other. The officer says to Jesus you seem to be my real commanding officer and Jesus says to the officer I see real faith lived out in practice in you. In the synergy that exists between them the servant recovers and is found to be well once again.

In a time where a British soldier has been murdered by those claiming to act in defence of their faith and their people, and where others in our country have then responded with similar hatred and violence, we will do well to pay attention to the lessons of today’s Gospel reading. As the statement issued by the Faiths Forum for London about the Woolwich attack said, “We, as representatives of many of London’s faith communities, deplore the terrible attack that has taken place … in Woolwich … We pray for the victim of this attack and his family, and call for Londoners to stand together at this time. We will redouble our efforts to work for peace, love, understanding and hope.”


The Holmes Brothers - (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?

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