After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
There are few jobs that involve absolute obedience to those in authority. It is generally considered to be a positive thing to listen to those in lowlier positions within an organisation because their intimate knowledge of the day-to-day workings of that organisation may lead to more efficient and profitable practices. But, there are still jobs where obedience is essential. Those who serve in the armed forces are trained to obey orders instantaneously. Such a level of blind obedience may be a matter of life and death. Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, those who are ordained ministers in Christ’s Church also take an oath of obedience. In fact, that oath is repeated at their ordinations into the diaconate and the priesthood, and on every occasion they are licensed by their bishop into a new position of responsibility. Of course, these two examples are quite different in nature. For military personnel it can be a matter of life and death, for the clergy person it is a matter of spiritual discipline.
In today’s reading we hear of a centurion who is absorbed in the world of discipline and order. A centurion was a middle-ranking officer in the occupying Roman forces. As his title suggests he would have had one hundred men under his direct command, as well as his domestic servants. However, this centurion was different. He had obviously served in the area for some time and had become well-acquainted with the local community, even helping in the building of their synagogue. The respect he had earned from the local population would have been exceptional, as was their request that Jesus should help him.
The rest of this story is well known: Jesus responds to the local Jewish elders, sets out for the centurion’s home and is then greeted with a powerful testimony of faith and obedience. As we read this account again, let us ask ourselves whether we could have been substituted for the faithful centurion?
We do not like authority. We certainly do not like obeying instructions that do not agree with our view of life. We rebel; we lash out; we disobey. That is part of our human nature. Sadly, we behave in the same way in our spiritual lives. Too often we want the life of our churches to conform to our likes and dislikes. If we come across a challenging passage in scripture, we either gloss over it or try to apply some convoluted analysis which waters it down and makes it palatable to our sensibilities. We disobey the commands of God.
Let us pray that we might be given the gift of humility in our lives. Let us pray that we might hear the commands of God, and obey them. Let us pray that we might set aside our human need to command, and learn to be faithful servants of Christ in this world.