Year C: Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Healing of a Centurion’s Slave

Luke 7:  1-10

When he had finished all his words to the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion  there had a slave who was ill and about to die, and he was valuable to him. When he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save the life of his slave. They approached Jesus and strongly urged him to come, saying, “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was only a short distance from the house, the centurion sent friends to tell him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him and, turning, said to the crowd following him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there anyone whom you consider outside of God’s love and desire to save? If your answer is “no,” what ramifications does this belief have in your life?
  2. In what ways is your life built on rock? In what ways is it built on sand? What can you do to improve the foundation upon which you are building?
  3. Do you act on Jesus’ words from a place of obedience to authority, or as a response to God’s self-giving love?
  4. How has your experience of faith in God grown and changed over the years?

Biblical Context

Luke 7: 1-10
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

As we read Luke’s story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant we want to remember Luke’s audience and theme. Luke is writing to Gentiles who have been newly invited into a relationship of covenant love with God. Luke is constantly emphasizing the universal nature of Jesus’ saving power. This story will have special importance for such an audience.

Today’s Gospel does not follow immediately after last Sunday’s reading. The Lectionary has not included the conclusion to Jesus’ sermon on the plain. As Jesus ends his sermon to his disciples and the crowd, he challenges those who might listen to his teaching but not follow it. Jesus says, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I command? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, listens to my words, and acts on them” (Luke 6:46-47). Jesus then compares such a person to one who digs a deep foundation for his house and builds it on rock, rather than on ground without foundation. Floodwaters cannot shake the house built on rock. Just so, nothing can shake the person who becomes Jesus’ disciple, and who not only listens but acts on Jesus’ words.

Luke then moves to the story we hear today, in which we meet a most unlikely person to have heard and acted on Jesus’ words. The centurion in today’s Gospel had never met Jesus; others had told him about Jesus. “When he [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save the life of his slave.” The centurion is not Jewish. Like those in Luke’s audience, he is a Gentile. The fact that he is a centurion means that he is an officer in the Roman army stationed in Capernaum to help keep the peace. Remember, the Jews did not have self-rule during Jesus’ lifetime. Theirs was an occupied country.

Even though the centurion is not Jewish, the Jews in Capernaum urge Jesus to respond to his request. Notice that they think in terms of earning rather than in terms of gift. The Jews tell Jesus, “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation and built the synagogue for us.” The presumption behind this statement is that Jesus’ ministry would normally be for the Jews. It would be an exception for Jesus to go out to a non-Jew. This is a completely accurate presumption. We know from reading the Acts of the Apostles that it was not until after Jesus’ resurrection that the apostles realized that the covenant was open to everyone. In Acts Peter learns this from events and from the Holy Spirit. The events involve another centurion, Cornelius, who asks that Peter come to his home (see Acts 10).

The centurion in today’s story does not invite Jesus to his home. He gives as his reason his own unworthiness: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” In addition, the centurion undoubtedly knows that if Jesus were to enter his home, the home of a Gentile, Jesus would be made ritually unclean for worship. This centurion is a thoughtful person, not only in regard to his ill servant and to his Jewish neighbors, but to Jesus himself.  Jesus shows no sign of being concerned about his ritual cleanliness, however.

The centurion has such faith in Jesus that he believes Jesus can simply “say the word” and his servant will be healed. As a soldier he knows all about authority. If he is told to do something, he does it. If someone subject to him is given an order, that person obeys it. He believes that Jesus has authority over sickness. If Jesus orders the sickness to leave, his servant will be well again.

Luke tells this story in such a way as to emphasize the man’s faith more than the healing. Jesus remarks with amazement not on the centurion’s worthiness or lack of it, but on his faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” The centurion has not earned this healing by his generosity to the Jews or by his thoughtfulness for others. Rather, his faith has made him able to receive the gift of

Jesus’ healing power. Almost as an afterthought, Luke tells us that when “the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

By telling the story as he does Luke is teaching his Gentile audience that Jesus’ healing power is a gift freely given, not something that anyone has earned. The centurion is an example of a person who has heard Jesus’ words and acted on them. In other words, he believed, and therefore acted on what he heard. In addition, the fact that he was a Gentile did not exclude him from Jesus’ healing power. The same is true of Luke’s audience. Gentiles are now invited to place their faith in Jesus and to receive the gift of Jesus’ redemptive power.

Obeying The Higher

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

The centurion does not have all the lines in this story, but he has the majority of them. He is also smack dab in the center of the action and completely turns around the travel plans of Jesus. So what he has to say cannot be avoided. With astonishing certitude, the centurion uses his experience of the military chain of command to describe the relationship between the spiritual realm and the physical realm. Far from being offended, Jesus wholeheartedly agrees with him. He sees his way of thinking and acting as a faith development that surpasses what he has found in Israel. There is no getting around the fact that what the centurion is promoting and what Jesus is approving is a hierarchical view of life.

In a strict sense, “hierarchy” refers to the origin of all things in the sacred and, therefore, how the sacred continues to exercise influence and authority on everything it has brought into being. However, the language of hierarchy has a history of associating with psychological and social dynamics that are often evaluated as misleading and destructive. To contemporary ears, hierarchy is a suspicious word.

Hierarchy implies an ascending order of ranked values. In spiritual traditions, this is often translated into the superiority of the spiritual over the physical. This superiority is based on the perception that the spiritual lasts and the physical fades. The physical is susceptible to moths and rust. Moths and rust cannot touch the spiritual (Matt 6:19- 21). From this point of view, the spiritual is more intrinsically valuable than the physical. However, this does not mean the physical should be denigrated and people should engage in ascetical practices designed to completely overcome the insistent demands of the body. But this is the wrongheaded conclusion that has often been drawn.

Spiritual seekers have been led down an anti-body path with deceptive results. They fantasize they are above the body. They fast in order to give the impression that food is not essential to who they are. Of course, they either become sick or they eat in secrecy, deceiving themselves and others. Or they believe they have banished sexual desire.  Of course, they become obsessed with the sexual lives of others and are tortured by sexual fantasies they vigorously try to cover up. Valuing the top member of the hierarchy has led them to devalue the whole hierarchical structure, especially its physical foundation.

Also, hierarchy as a ranked order of value has been translated into social relationships. This is where the centurion’s military metaphor is particularly susceptible of abuse. The people on the top give orders to the ones below, and the ones below are meant to mindlessly obey and not talk back. Of course, the orders that are given to the lower ones are commands that serve the interests of the higher ones. The result is the oppression of the least, a social condition that the revelation of Jesus is meant to unmask and reverse.

What is prominent in the chain of command image is the absence of dialogue between the higher and the lower. This has become a hallmark of rigidly hierarchical organizations. Although all sorts of organizational mechanisms from town halls to polling procedures to consulting focus groups have been created to facilitate the higher listening to the lower, the essential hierarchical structure remains in place.

This pervasive hierarchical mood has led many to conclude that genuine dialogue cannot go on in strictly organized higher-lower settings. The goal of dialogue is to create shared meaning. It comes about when people treat one another as colleagues. However, hierarchy prohibits this sense of openness and equality. So in place of dialogue, orders are given and orders are either carried out or disobeyed. The social world that hierarchy creates and that we are forced to live in is a world of authority matched by either obedience or rebellion.

Therefore, when the word “hierarchy” is mentioned, people’s minds often gravitate to negative psychological and social consequences. Ken Wilber has tried to reframe hierarchical thinking so that its dysfunctional tendencies are curbed. For him hierarchy is “a ranking of orders of events according to their holistic capacity” (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution [Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1995] 17). Each level of the hierarchy is both a whole and a part in relation to a larger whole. For our purposes, Jesus, the Son of David, is both a whole and a part in the larger whole of Jesus as the Son of Man; and Jesus as the Son of Man is both a whole and a part in the larger whole of Jesus as the Son of God. Therefore, the lower levels are not dismissed or violated when they are enveloped in larger wholes. Hierarchy recognizes different levels of value and initiates a holistic process of inclusion and transcendence.

Therefore, honoring every level is important in holistic thinking and acting. But so is recognizing different gradations of value and that lower levels are meant to be open to and influenced by higher levels. But what type of influence does the higher divine level exert and what type of obedience is required by the lower human level? The military example of the centurion leaves the impression that there does not have to be any conscious cooperation from the lower levels. The higher issues commands and the lower obeys without question or understanding. The integrity of the lower is sacrificed to the higher.

But what if the higher divine level was self-giving love? What if its fundamental intention was to heal the isolation of the lower levels by communing with them? What if this communion with the spiritual fulfilled the full potential of the lower levels? Then, although the lower would be obeying the higher, the higher would be serving the lower. Under certain circumstances, the higher would even take off the clothes of superiority and reveal the towel of a slave (John 13:3-5). Service is its essence. And in the revelation of this Love all the false consciousness around hierarchy must itself become obedient. The fantasies of domination would be seen for what they are—fearful expressions of isolation. What would emerge would be a world of nested dimensions mutually indwelling in one another. It is no accident that the higher divine level of the Son of God is revealed in the healing of a beloved slave.

 Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle C, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.