Do you remember the story of Naaman? He was a general for the king of Aram, Israel’s neighbor and enemy in the days of the prophet Elisha. Naaman was a great man, highly regarded by his master, and he was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease that could end his career and cut him off from his community. Once an Aramean raiding party had gone out and captured a young girl from Israel; she served Naaman’s wife, and she said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his disease.” Naaman told the king of Aram what the slave girl had said, and the king responded, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”
The general’s skin trouble was about to become a diplomatic affair of the highest order. Naaman brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.” The king of Israel ripped his clothes and cried out, “What is this? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone! He wants to start a fight with me.” That’s when Elisha sent word to the king, “Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”
Soon Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots at Elisha’s house, but the great man who spoke face to face with kings was left waiting at the door. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.” Naaman was furious. “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Aram better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?”
Do you remember what happened next? Naaman’s servants came up to him and said, “If the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. And his skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean. He returned with his entourage and stood before Elisha, saying, “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”
Great story. It portrays how fragile human power really is. The great general is ill, and it is the compassion of a slave, the wisdom of servants, and the simple instructions of a rather rude prophet that lead to his healing.
There are echoes of this ancient story in the gospel. In Luke, Jesus himself points to it in his first public teaching at home in Nazareth. He has read from the prophet Isaiah, beautiful words, powerful words announcing release to the captives, new sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor. He has declared the fulfillment of all these things in the congregation’s hearing, and they love his sermon until he opens the horizon of God’s redemption beyond Israel’s boundaries. “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha,” he says, “and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27; see Luke 4:14-30). Suddenly the very people who only moments ago were amazed at his gracious words are ready to kill him by hurling him off the cliff outside of town. We recognize a powerful dynamic at work here, a kind of jealousy: humans celebrate mercy for us and our own as a blessing, and we are ready to call it a curse when mercy touches those who keep us out or whom we want to keep out. We get furious when God shows no respect for the boundaries we have drawn around one another.
Today’s gospel reading also contains echoes of that ancient story. A Roman centurion is no general, but he is a gentile and he represents the enemy. He himself is not ill, but a slave whom he values highly is near to death, and he turns to Jesus for help. The political context has changed. The land of Israel is now part of the Roman Empire and Rome maintains a sizable military presence there.
The first-century historian Josephus writes about the daily routine of Roman soldiers:
Nothing is done without a word of command. At daybreak the rank and file report themselves to their respective centurions, the centurions go to salute the tribunes, the tribunes with all the officers then wait on the commander-in-chief, and he gives them, according to custom, the watchword and other orders to be communicated to the lower ranks [Josephus, Jewish War, 3.98.].
Centurions were mid-level officers who were in command over about eighty soldiers. Folks in Capernaum would have known this one to be the man in charge, not just over the soldiers under his command, but over the whole town. This is how a Roman historian describes the preferred qualities:
A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright [Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science].
The centurion in our story is used to a life of receiving and giving orders. But surprisingly, he doesn’t command a couple of soldiers to go and order Jesus to come to his house. He sends some of the Jewish elders, asking Jesus to come and heal his slave. He recognizes in Jesus an authority like his own, but different. His world is the military, and he is confident that Jesus is in command of healing forces just like he himself is part of a chain of command. And so he addresses Jesus like he would petition a superior officer. It’s a remarkable scene; we’re looking at an officer of the Roman Empire petitioning a Galilean peasant! Something has been flipped here; something’s upside down; something has opened up.
The centurion becomes visible as a human being. He is a man whose heart is heavy and close to breaking because a loved one is sick, and he is helpless: he has no authority over the forces of healing. We may suspect that some kind of quid-pro-quo is still part of the picture, since the elders tell Jesus that this man loves their people and has built the synagogue. Certainly such a generous man is worthy of a favorable reply! But the centurion himself responds to that suspicion, sending word through a group of friends, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
Only speak the word – the centurion’s world is defined by the chain of command, and he imagines divine authority to be organized in similar fashion, with Jesus as a commanding officer who speaks and makes things happen. Only speak the word – Jesus is astounded to encounter such faith in a gentile.
We have a tendency to perceive the world in simple dualities like Jew and gentile, neighbor and enemy, believer and non-believer, documented and undocumented, red and blue – but these categories we use to define ourselves and others become much less rigid and they begin to lose their defining power in the presence of love and suffering. The story of the centurion shows us the possibility and the reality of looking beyond the simple dualities: This Gentile has built a synagogue for the Jews, and the comfortable construct of gentiles as hopeless idolaters begins to crumble. These Jewish elders speak well of a Roman officer and they speak kindly to Jesus, and the comfortable constructs of Roman oppressors and Jewish opponents begin to crumble. This soldier of the empire is caring and kind, and our comfortable assumption that systems of domination leave no room for such gifts begins to crumble. Love and suffering can soften our rigid constructions of reality and make room for healing, and I mean healing in the full sense of the word, the restoring of conditions in which life flourishes.
“Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” the centurion asked Jesus via his friends who served as intermediaries. Jesus didn’t go to the centurion’s house. For all we know the two never met in person. Jesus didn’t meet the servant, either, let alone talk to him or touch him. The friends returned to the house and found the slave in good health. Apparently Jesus did speak the word, but Luke doesn’t tell us what he said or when he said it. I wonder if this is Luke’s way of saying that it isn’t a particular word or command that brings healing to our broken lives; that it is rather Jesus’ presence with us and our encounter with him in faith that makes our lives whole. In Jesus’ own love and suffering we recognize the boundless love and compassion of God. His whole life is the word that continues to speak healing into the world.