Revd Bello Mahilum
29th May 2016
Paul Vallely, a visiting professor in Publics Ethics at the University of Chester, wrote an article in the Church Times dated 20th May 2016. He described David Cameroon's gaffe, where he was overheard telling the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury that Nigeria and Afghanistan were both "fantastically corrupt" on the eve of the British Government's anti-corruption summit. He further says, that one of the great myths about corruption is that it is something that foreigners do in far-off places. But much of the money from foreign corruption ends up in British banks, facilitated by City accountants, and is used to buy swanky mansions through Mayfair estate agents, who ask no questions about the provenance of the cash, which continually inflates property prices.
The gospel narrative from Luke this Sunday may have some different resonance in the person of a Roman centurion. He was not a corrupt person but someone who was able to form a strong bond of relationship with the Jewish community, through being a benefactor who helped build their synagogue. In other words, a man of integrity and honour who was well-liked and loved by the community.
Let's try to get to know further who is this Roman centurion is in the time of Jesus as described in Luke. The Centurion belonged to the militia of Herod Antipas. He was probably one of the God-fearers, non-Jews who were attracted to Judaism because of its monotheism and ethical teachings.
Let me ask you this question. Did Jesus have a face to face encounter with the centurion or the servant? No is the answer. The plot of the story begins with a request from the centurion whose slave 'whom he valued highly and who was ill and close to death'. The scene that follows gives a message about one man's faith and another's healing. Through Jesus' long distance encounter with the centurion, Luke addresses both soteriological and Christological questions. How does one become part of the people of God? Further, who is Jesus, and what does God intend to accomplish through him? The Christian message found a vibrant response among such Gentiles, for according to Luke, they could belong fully to the people of God by faith in Jesus together with obedience to the ethical requirements of the law of God.
Please don't forget the appearance of communal voices: they are the Jewish Elders and friends of the centurion. They are not merely a chorus intended to deliver a message while two of the central characters (Centurion and slave) bide their time offstage. The community itself is a central part of the message.
There's one issue that confronts us directly, which we have to deal with head on. This is the offensive notion that two of the central characters in this story are a slave and his master. When the Centurion states that his is a "slave whom he valued highly" we are unsure if it is meant to be a practical comment on the value of his property as a social status might implyor a gentler notion of a compassionate, heartfelt plea on behalf of a servant of strong character whom the soldier admires. Regardless, while this relationship may rightly stir us against the social injustice represented here, we ought not to lose sight of the notion that the Centurion is speaking on behalf of one who has no voice in society. When our faith is enacted on behalf of another, it celebrates our web of human connectedness, especially in times of illness and tragedy. This is an imperative of faith living in the world.
The sense of being connected begins when the Jewish leaders testify to the soldier's worthiness by lifting up how he has been accountable to the larger community. Luke says, "he has loved our people; he has built our synagogue." Both of these are expressions of affection and care offered by a military officer who is under no obligation but does so out of some deep connectedness to the people. Love and commitment become the central tenets of accountability to the community.
Let us ask ourselves this question. Why do we call out to others for help in moments of desperate need? Sometimes it is the simple burden of every life that urges us to call out to another. When we finally do reach out, too often we do so with a sense of shame or failure that our faith is not strong enough to go it alone. Indeed, the roots of one's faith are embedded deeply within the individual heart. But a lived faith must recognise itself as part of the world. We require the larger community, especially the community of faith, to speak with us and for us - to name what is just and hold us accountable. It is this faith that helps us to encounter the joys, challenges, and tragedies of life and reconcile the unpredictable nature of each with the grace of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Finally, the centurion's faith reveals itself: "Only speak the word, and my servant will be healed." As we remember the healing of this person we thank God for the connectedness of the community of faith which can speak for us when we need it and for all who have no voice in society.