So Jesus heads to Capernaum, which is still in that Galilee area where he spends a lot of his time. A centurion in the area has heard of Jesus’ work and teachings, and decides to send to some Jewish leaders to him to beckon Jesus to come and heal one of his slaves. This is a scenario utterly foreign to our 21st century American world. First, “centurion”: What is that? This is a Roman soldier who has a command over roughly a hundred men. This is why he’s called a “centurion”- it is rooted in the Latin word “centum” which means one hundred. So this is a pretty powerful man in the area. Second, he’s a Roman centurion. This is a man who is part of the Roman power that is oppressing and occupying Israel. In order to live relatively peaceably the Jewish leaders of an area often had good working relationships with their respective Roman authorities. Third, Jewish leaders are sent by the Roman centurion to deal with Jesus because Jesus is Jewish. Our divisions today are (I think) a little more blurred that this. Fourth, this centurion has slaves. This makes us uneasy (and should), but we also have to remember how common this was in those days, and how much a part of the economic and religious system it was. It was (sadly) normal. With all of that in mind, this story is utterly social (power structures), political (Rome), religious (Israel), and economic (slaves).
What’s beautiful about it is that somehow all of those break down for a greater good. The Jewish leaders are willing to act on behalf of a Roman solider’s slave; Jesus doesn’t chastise the religious leaders for their politically and economically motivated relationship with Rome; the Roman soldier humbles himself in a seemingly authentic way toward an un-credentialed, self proclaimed Rabbi; and the Centurion seems to have an authentic love and respect for his slave, whom he has every legal right to exploit and disregard. Packed within this story are multiple human divisions crumbling down. The big picture problems aren’t fixed: Rome will still occupy and oppress. The religious leaders will still make politically and economically motivated alliances with Roman authorities. The slave will still be a slave. And Jesus will still have the religious authorities out to get him. All of that will still exist, but for a moment it all breaks down and everybody does what they need to in order to restore life to the person in the narrative with the least amount of power- the slave.
There is a ton more going on in this story (not the least of which is a Roman authority being affirmed for his faith above Jewish religious authorities), but this is Luke’s gospel. This is what Mary said that Jesus would do way back in her song in chapter one: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). Big picture problems in our world seems to persist. Who knows when they will forever crumble. But every now and then, we get glimpses of what could and should be. Every now and then humans shed our dividing identities and simply do what is right in order to restore. TO me, that is the good news that Jesus brings to the world.