First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 2

Pentecost 2: 29 May Luke 7:1-10

Luke shares the story of the healing of the centurion's servant with Matthew. They will have found it in the common source unique to the two of them, called "Q" (German "Quelle" meaning "Source"), where it was apparently linked with the collection of Jesus' sayings preserved in Luke 6:22-49, greatly expanded in the version in Matthew and known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5 - 7). So the story has its own story. In John 4:46-54 we find what is probably a variant of the same story. It is also set in Capernaum, and is a healing of the sick child of a royal official. The same Greek word pais can mean both servant and child.

The versions of the story in Luke and Matthew are almost identical in parts, especially in the way they report the centurion's words. They differ in the way they describe the setting. Matthew has the centurion approach Jesus directly. Luke has Jewish elders approach Jesus on his behalf. Luke frequently plays with settings of sayings and has likely done so here. By portraying this centurion as a very worthy person admired by Jews he makes him similar to Cornelius the centurion in Acts 10, where the focus is also a breakthrough in reaching out to Gentiles. Luke has probably created the similarity deliberately.

Like John's version, Matthew's version has the centurion make the first move. It is possible to translate Jesus' response in Matthew's version not as a statement: "I shall come and heal him", but as a question: "Am I to come and heal him?" This would express the kind of hesitation which Mark tells us about when Jesus was approached by the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30). There, too, the healing takes place at a distance. The reason why these healings of Gentiles took place at a distance reflects the belief which Jesus or at least the story-tellers adhered to, namely that entering the houses of Gentiles should be avoided either because of impurity or because of immoral or idolatrous influence. The centurion's response is sensitive to the issue when he declares himself unworthy that Jesus enter under his roof. This is not an ad hoc stance of humility, but a recognition of what people (not all Jews) assumed about Gentile houses. Jesus' response on hearing the words of the centurion turns the situation around. While not venturing into the centurion's house, Jesus heals the servant from a distance.

Fathoming out how such a healing could happen (if it is not magic) did not preoccupy the storytellers and certainly not Luke and Matthew. They assume it did happen and instead change the focus to what the story sumbolised, namely that the gospel, God's goodness, goes beyond the traditional barriers and reaches out to Gentiles. In Luke 4 Luke had portrayed Jesus as referring to Elijah and Elisha's engagement with Gentiles, much to the anger of his listeners. That episode of an initial positive response followed by a negative one when Jesus engaged with the less worthy served Luke as a template for both his gospel and for the Book of Acts. Our story fits well within this emphasis. The story will have been used to focus on the issue of Gentiles already in "Q", since both Luke and Matthew set the centurion's faith in contrast to that of Israel. It caused Matthew to attach to the story the saying of Jesus about eating with the patriarchs (8:11-12), which Luke brings elsewhere (13:28-29).

John's version does not have this connection nor the contrast with Israel's faith, so will have branched off before this happened. It shows the way the story will have functioned at an earlier stage, namely as a proof that people should believe in Jesus. In fact a good half of John's tradition focuses on the miraculous coincidence of timing. It has also enhanced the miraculous by locating Jesus not in Capernaum but at a greater distance - in Cana. There was a natural human tendency to enhance miracles. John's editing of the account shows, however, some unease about the focus on the miraculous and so has Jesus scold people: "Unless you see miracles you won't believe!" (4:48). Earlier in 2:23-25 the author reports that many believed in Jesus because of his miracles but Jesus did not believe in them. Nicodemus then becomes the representative of such belief, declaring that Jesus must be from God because no one could do such miracles without God's help. John has Jesus rebuke him, telling he needs to see things totally differentlty: he needs to be born from above (3:1-3).

The miraculous is also the focus in what are given as the centurion's words in the "Q" version, preserved in Matthew and Luke. He declares that he simply tells people what to do and it happens, so Jesus must be able to do that, too. The assumption is that Jesus can tell demons to stop doing what they are doing. We are in the world of demonology. This might sound like the storytellers assumed that Jesus could simply do anything if he put his mind to it - heal everyone, stop every illness, rescue everyone in danger, transform everything into good in an instance of thought, raising the question: why didn't he? But it is clear that this is not how they saw it. Jesus still sets off to do the healing. There seems to be an assumption that Jesus' power to do things is closely related to contact either with the person in need or with their spokesperson - and their faith.

There is no doubt that Jesus did perform healings, but there is also little doubt that some people enhanced the healing stories and that the fish grew longer, as it were, the more the stories were told. That's human. We see it in black and white when we look at how Matthew and Luke sometimes enhance Mark's stories. This makes it difficult to know what actual event might lie behind such stories, perhaps a healing of the official's servant which in the telling went through a process of being sanitised by religious concerns about his contact with Gentiles and their houses and so resulted in a healing from a distance. We can never know for sure. From very early times people were aware that making a case for Jesus' authority on the basis of miracles was dangerous and likely to descend into a competition such as existed in the world of the time: I'll follow whoever has the best miracles! A propaganda exercise. First century authors were more likely to believe the miraculous than people are today though those who embellished and exaggerated them must have known they were dealing with fictional traits, however piously motivated they were. It is instructive, then, that our gospel authors tend to shift the focus away from what sounded just like a propaganda exercise to some more significant meaning. All three do so - and we need to, too, though without ignoring the problem.

Back to the focus on inclusivity, some think that the saying of Jesus which Matthew attaches to the story (Matt 8:11-12) referred originally to Jews who were scattered abroad being brought home. This is possible, but now it certain refers to all peoples, promising that many like the Gentile centurion will come and belong. It is typical of Jesus to have spoken of the future as a common meal, a wonderful image of togetherness, inclusivity, and fellowship. The vision and hope is that people will find a place for themselves together in harmonious relations and will be fed. It is a vision with deep roots in the prophetic tradition, such as in Isa 25:6-8. It also lies at the foundation of the Christian eucharist, which celebrates Jesus' giving his life in order to enable the vision to become a reality. It is a big, generous, image of salvation. It is also an agenda and inspiration for living in the here and now: bringing a sense of love and belonging to all, reaching over the boundaries and barriers which exclude and discriminate.

Some in their eagerness to counter discrimination against people with a same-sex orientation have speculated that perhaps the servant was in a sexual relationship with the centurion, suggesting that Jesus' failure to address it must mean he condoned it. But nothing in any of the versions indicate this and, were it to be so, it would raise the major problem of pederasty. You don't have to manipulate biblical texts to justify setting discrimination aside. You just need to listen to what such passages as this one say at their heart. They invite us to embrace a stance which sees every person as of worth and to believe that indeed God sees no one as unworthy - beginning with ourselves.

Epistle: Pentecost 2: 29 May  Galatians 1:1-12