My father and his family lived through the German occupation of France in World War Two. For the duration of the war, uniformed strangers lived—literally—in his home, told him where he could and couldn’t go, dictated everything about his life. His sister was arrested for Résistance activities and executed; his mother’s health deteriorated; his education was interrupted. No one had enough to eat, it seemed, ever; and everyone lived in fear, all the time.
I think about his experience whenever I read anything that touches on the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee because as horrible as all my father’s stories were, the fact is France was occupied for four years. Judea was occupied for three hundred.
So it’s not altogether surprising that centurions show up in the Gospels—and in the Acts of the Apostles—with some frequency; an occupying force requires a permanent military presence to quell resistance. But what I do find surprising is the portrayal of these military figures, which is almost exclusively positive. Perhaps when an occupation goes on for generations, it becomes a way of life for many. Certainly, in today’s passage from Luke, there is an easy and ordinary relationship between the Roman centurion and the Jewish elders.
Think about it: this occupier sends the leaders of the very people he’s occupying to speak to Jesus on his behalf—to give references, as it were, that he’s a good person and has been a good patron of the Jewish people. (Even then, it seems, building projects could curry favor, for they were quick to point out this centurion built the Jews’ synagogue!)
But it seems he immediately has second thoughts. Perhaps he’s thinking about his role as an occupier. Perhaps he’s just falling back upon his own life experience, the set chain of command within the Roman army. He would be given an order, and he’d command those under him to carry it out; with the command came the power and resources to complete the mission. Perhaps he’s thinking about that when he sends his friends to Jesus to amend his request: he knows Jesus’ authoritative command—whether given in person or from a distance—means ipso facto that the sick slave would become well again. And the centurion, recognizing in Jesus the power and authority of the Kingdom, sees himself as too small, too unworthy to have Jesus come into his home. You can do anything; he is implicitly saying. You can even do it from afar.
Why? How is he so confident? Remember, the centurion says this at a time when even the disciples don’t understand who Jesus is. They know he’s special, but they don’t yet realize he’s divine. Peter won’t declare Jesus to be God’s Messiah for another two chapters.
And yet here is a Roman military officer, a pagan, who knows who Jesus is. It’s this foreigner who has to teach everyone else—the elders, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, even the disciples—a lesson in faith.
Somehow, it seems fitting in this surprising story that Jesus himself is surprised at the trust this centurion demonstrates. He’s amazed to find faith in a Roman that surpasses what he’s seen in anyone from Israel; this enemy soldier is a model of faith for the people of God.
As I read this surprising story, I think that maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the unlikely places faith shows up in our own world. It could even show up in those we think of as our enemies. Jesus cares about, ministers to, and wants to bless our enemies; how do we dare turn our backs on them?
In the midst of my father’s horror stories about the Occupation, there were moments of humanity that came shining through. The Gestapo killed my aunt, but the army officers stationed in my family’s home risked much themselves to make sure she could be properly buried. When my grandmother fell ill, they lied to their superiors to get her the medicine she needed.
Jesus is clear: love your enemies, he says, because you may be very sure that God loves them, too, just as much as he loves you. We are all equally unworthy for him to come into our homes. Perhaps that common ground can open us up to others, to people who are different from us, to those we’re taught are to be avoided, feared, despised. And it’s entirely possible that, like the centurion, they can teach us something about real faith, too.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.