The healing of the centurion’s servant
What is most interesting about this passage, taking place in Capernaum (a small village on the northern shore of the Galilee), and in which Jesus heals a centurion’s ill servant/slave (both the terms δοῦλος and παῖς are used during the course of the narrative), is how Luke’s version of this story diverges from that told by the Matthean author (Matthew 8:5-13). The other Synoptic Gospel, Mark, does not feature this episode. There are significant additions and omissions by the Lukan author that reveal his specific aims and viewpoints are quite different from those of Matthew. Firstly, whereas in the Matthean account the centurion approaches Jesus directly, here in Luke, the centurion sends first the Jewish elders on his behalf, and then a group of friends, twice putting Jesus off physically coming to see him in his house. Secondly, Luke omits Jesus’s teaching recounted in Matthew’s account about the kingdom of heaven, in which he chastises complacent Jews, the “sons of the kingdom,” imagined at the eschatological banquet with Abraham, who believe that their salvation is secure due to their ethnic identity. Indeed, on this basis the attitude that the Matthean author has towards the people of Israel is seemingly harsher than that represented in Luke’s rendition of the story. Thirdly, the Lukan account makes a point of stating that the centurion was extremely deserving of Jesus’s help, as he helped to build a synagogue for the Jewish population of Capernaum, and “loves” (ἀγαπάω) the Jewish people (ἔθνος), even though he himself is a Gentile (Luke 7:5). In addition to this, the care that the centurion has for his ill servant is emphasised more in Luke than in Matthew, with Luke asserting that the slave/servant was highly valued to the centurion (Luke 7:2).
It is interesting that the harsh words against the Jews in Matthew’s account are omitted in Luke’s, especially given that elsewhere in the Gospel Luke specifically paints Jews in a negative light (such as in the trial of Jesus, when Jewish responsibility for Jesus’s death over and against that of the Roman authorities is emphasised: see Luke 23:1-25, and 13:1-3, where Jesus also avoids condemning Pilate, the Roman governor and instead instructs a Jewish crowd that they must repent from their sinful ways). In Luke’s account here, Jesus merely states the phrase also found in Matthew, that the centurion’s faith is such that he has not found in Israel (Luke 7:9). However, the fact that Luke’s centurion is presented so positively, as a friend of the Jewish population, so much so that he apparently had Jewish elders willing enough to go and search out Jesus for him, might simply be making a statement about Jews and Gentiles in a slightly different way to Matthew. Rather than elaborating on Jewish complacency about their perceived genetic entitlement to redemption, Luke chooses to highlight the exemplary behaviour and faith of a Gentile instead.
Luke alludes to the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, in 2 Kings 5:1-14 (see, for example, David Gowler, “Text, Culture, and Ideology,” p. 104-105), which also involves a highly regarded Gentile man seeking healing, in this case from a skin condition (leprosy). Naaman has a Jewish girl intercede on his behalf, while the centurion has the Jewish elders speak to Jesus for him, and neither men meet their respective healers (Elisha in the case of Naaman) in person, with the healings taking place from a distance. Luke’s use of Jewish Scripture here helps him to strongly assert that in Jesus, God’s will transcends traditional ethnic and religious boundaries. Mikeal Parsons has argued that the story also invokes and challenges the notion of imperial benefaction, which is another aspect he claims is missing from Matthew’s version. He argues that whether the soldier serves Herod Antipas or the Roman army (we will see below that the latter option is extremely unlikely), he still in one sense is a part of the imperial benefaction system, as Herod Antipas was ultimately a puppet of Rome. The centurion has apparently acted as a benefactor to the local Jewish community by building a synagogue for them, and they are glad to reciprocate by praising him and fetching Jesus for him (see Mikeal Parsons, Luke, p. 118). Parsons goes on to say that it is extraordinary that this Gentile benefactor would look to Jesus to heal his servant, as within his socio-cultural system it was acknowledged that the emperor himself had the ability to heal (see Suetonius, Vespasian 7.2; Cassius Dio, Roman History 65.8) (Mikeal Parsons, Luke, p. 119). However, this line of argument seems to over-interpret the amount of imperial subversion intended by the Lukan author. Firstly, as the soldier was most likely a member of Herod Antipas’s army (see below), he was only really connected to the Roman authorities very remotely, and so to imagine that the Lukan author uses this indirect association with the imperial system to compare Jesus’s abilities with those of the emperor is dubious.
Historically, it is likely that the “centurion” of this story would have been a Greek speaking soldier in an auxiliary unit belonging to the tetrarch Herod Antipas, as there are no Roman legions recorded as being present in Capernaum. Such soldiers, auxiliaries, or auxilia, enjoyed a semi-independent status but were not Roman citizens, and were recruited from the non-Jewish populations of surrounding areas such as Phoenicia and Syria (for further details of the military situation in Palestine at this time, see Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People, volume 1, p. 362-367, and on the historical situation in relation to this passage, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, p. 651; on Jews and Gentiles in the Herodian armies, see Samuel Rocca, Herod’s Judaea, p. 134-140 and The Army of Herod the Great). While the centurion was not directly associated with the Roman authorities, however, as an employee of the tetrarch, he was still a Gentile with an indirect connection to them; even so, it seems that any slight hint of Jesus’s authority presenting a challenge to that of the imperial system is largely inherited from the earlier tradition from which Luke takes this story, with the Lukan author himself wanting to focus more on the representation of a positive Gentile role model, who poses no threat to, but rather aids God’s people. Arguably, Luke takes steps in his Gospel to show that both Gentiles and the Roman imperial system (which of course overlap at times) are not in conflict with Christian discipleship, such as at in the opening of the Gospel, where Luke has Jesus’s parents dutifully trek to Bethlehem to obey the imperial census order (see Luke 2:1-3) (see Philip Esler, Community and Gospel, p. 201-202). The centurion is most useful, then, not primarily because of his position (which is indirect in any case) in the Roman system, but for the theological point that he allows Luke to make – successful discipleship of Jesus is neither helped or hindered by one’s lineage or profession (for a similar line on argument, see the attitudes expressed towards tax collectors in Luke 3:12-14, 19:1-10). Rather, it is open to all who are willing to fully invest in it.