The last chapter discussed what Jesus meant by “bringing a sword”.
In Chapter 11, Andy Alexis-Baker looks at the case study of a Roman Soldier: “What About the Centurion?”
The argument has gone that since the centurion showed great faith, and that Jesus commended him, and did not tell him to leave the service, that it was ok for the centurion to be a soldier, and thus it’s ok for Christians to war.
But if you grew up with the heritage of faith that I did, you are very very familiar with how the whole “making arguments from silence” thing works. I’ve seen whole debates on whether silence is permissive or prohibitive (or either of these exclusively). Baker says “Jesus’ silence on the centurion’s profession has become a tacit endorsement of Christians becoming involved in state-sponsored killing.”
If Jesus being silent on the centurion’s profession means he ok’d it, then we could apply that elsewhere: Jesus must have then approved of Pilate’s decision to murder him, of his decision to murder the Galileans, of the Roman occupation, of the unjust taxation, of the judges who put him through a kangaroo court.
And is Jesus actually “silent” on the centurion’s profession?
Jesus was “amazed” at the soldier. Many assume this means Jesus was just so so impressed by everything about this guy. But the word for “amazed,” thaumazo, is applied negatively in every NT context, as in when Jesus is “marveled at [his followers’] unbelief”. So was Jesus marveling at the centurion’s faith (which he did commend), or marveling at his view of the world?
See, the centurion told Jesus that he saw Jesus as being in a chain of command, much like he was, having authority and power that was in similar rank to his. It seems this is what Jesus marveled at, that the soldier saw Jesus as just another man of authority in a chain of command. What Jesus commends is his faith, not his world-view. “Jesus renounced the techniques of imperial authority,” says Baker. He told his disciples in Matt. 20 that the world follows a chain of command type of ruling, where people rule one another. He said that in his kingdom, this doesn’t take place.
“When Jesus praises the faith of the centurion,” says Baker, “he is not praising or endorsing the centurion’s view of Jesus nor the centurion’s hierarchical assumptions about how the social world should work. The centurion said one thing and acted another way. By coming to Jesus on behalf of his servant, the centurion upset the chain of command that he espoused.”
See, this is what Jesus praised. In ancient Rome if you had a sick slave and he couldn’t be healed, you tossed him. He would go out in the streets and beg for help himself. But this centurion went to the Lord on behalf of his own slave, disrupting his own rigid, utilitarian world view. Jesus marveled, then, that this man would come to him and yet reaffirm the world view he was breaking by his own approach. The man was taking a step toward Jesus’ way of being, and yet when he addressed him he basically said, “look, you and I are a lot a like, so, I know you have the authority to do this.” Jesus marveled as if thinking, “you think I can heal your slave merely because I’m in a position of authority?”
This is why Jesus explains after his marveling that “many will come from easy and west and dine with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven.” He’s giving a vision of a kingdom in which people don’t rule one another and compete for resources. In his kingdom, all are servants, and share resources. The centurion’s words are befuddling, but his actions indicate a leaning toward this kingdom. “Despite his inadequate ideas of authority,” says Baker, “he begins to participate in the process.” So Jesus isn’t silent on the man’s profession at all. He commends the man for stepping out of his soldier role and caring for his slave, appealing to another kind of Lord to heal him. And to clarify and misunderstanding on the centurion’s behalf, Jesus then gives him a vision of a world where the Gentiles and Jews feast together, an image of peace.
Baker ends by reminding us that Jesus’ silence about the centurion is just that, and that if we look at the rest of the New Testament, it fills in that silence. Baker then demonstrates that for the earliest church fathers were against military service, from Tatian to Tertullian. His survey is not, however, as exhaustive as it could be.
Baker says, “the early Christians judged that those in military service who were willing to kill were not able to comprehend the gospel and conform to its demands, including martyrdom.”
Jesus commended the centurion, not for every aspect of his life, but for the step he took away from his life of empire and toward the kingdom of God. Let us make those same steps as well.
How do you see the interaction between Jesus and the centurion?
When Jesus describes his kingdom, how do you see it as different from the way the world is ruled?
What have you chosen to give up as a way of the world? What else should we give up, or walk away from?
[next chapter: Didn’t Jesus use a whip on people?]