Luke 7, Jesus and the Centurion

Middle Management Conquers the World

This weekend, on June 22nd, is the anniversary of the Battle of Pydna, an event that shaped life in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries to come. The outcome saw the end of Macedonian and Greek rule of Greece, and it cemented Rome as the only dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. The decline of Greek powers and the rise of the Roman Republic dramatically changed life in biblical Israel and ultimately led to the events that unfold in the New Testament. The outcome of the Battle of Pydna and the ultimate conquest of all of the Mediterranean by Rome is in no small part thanks to a middling military rank in the Roman army, which is the focus of the story in Luke 7: the centurion.

In 168 BCE, Roman legions under Lucius Aemilius Paulus launched the final campaign of the Third Macedonian War in mainland Greece after King Perseus of Macedonia attempted to conquer all of Greece, threatening Rome’s eastern borders. In the previous two Macedonian wars, Rome did not attempt to conquer and annex territory, instead choosing to leave Greece independent and form alliances with military powers under Roman influence. However, continued instability led Rome to occupy and annex Greece – the beginnings of Rome’s quest to dominate the entire Mediterranean.

Perseus’s forces were formidable. They had nearly twice as many men, more cavalry, and were fighting in Greece on a battlefield of Perseus’s choosing. The Macedonian phalanx was legendary, dominating battles for centuries since Alexander the Great’s father Philip became the master of Greece with their tight formations and sarissas, 20 foot long spears, which moved in unison crushing helpless troops in front of them. When Roman officers saw tens of thousands of heavy Macedonian spear across the river from them at Pydna, they were said to have torn their clothes shouting in fear at their impending deaths.

The Romans didn’t fight with spears, nor did they fight in the heavy phalanx formation that Alexander used to conquer the world or that Athens and Sparta used to dominate Greece for centuries in defiance of much larger, more powerful empires. The Roman weapon of choice was the gladius, a short sword that had no hope of matching the reach of the Macedonian spears. The short sword allowed them to carry a larger, curved shield, but more importantly, Roman legionnaires were more flexible on a battlefield as their formations and soldiers could maneuver themselves to changing conditions. The phalanx, with its long spears, must keep tight formations at all times and can only move slowly and fight effectively directly in front of them.  But when used properly on even ground with their flanks protected and fighting in front of them, the phalanx was practically invincible.

The Roman advantage was their ability to manipulate their units and soldiers on the battlefield to changing circumstances and enemy weaknesses. Their formation, the maniple, consisted of units of (originally) 100 men called centuries led by an officer, the centurion. The centuries were designed to be flexible; they could detach from the larger formation and operate independently under the direction of higher officer or the initiative of the centurion himself. The Macedonian phalanx was designed to overwhelm opponents and relied on a top down command structure with everyone working together. The maniple was designed to exploit weaknesses and relied on middle officers, the centurions, operating quasi-independently or under direct command of the general.

Initially, the Romans were pushed back. The power of the Macedonian phalanx gave the initial advantage of the Battle of Pydna to Perseus. The Romans began to sustain significant losses. The phalanx pushed them so far back so quickly, that they left the battlefield entirely moving onto rocky foothills and amazingly, the Roman centuries under the command of their centurions didn’t break as the unstoppable wall of death was running over them. As the ground became uneven on the foothills, the Macedonian phalanx could no longer hold their lines, creating large gaps. The Romans saw their opportunity and the centurions ordered their men into the gaps of the Macedonians. The Phalanx began to break as sword and shield saw large advantage on uneven terrain attacking forward-facing spears from the sides at close range. Roman elephants and auxiliary troops attacked the crumbling flank of the Macedonians, and the battle quickly turned to disaster for the Macedonians. Perseus fled.

The Macedonian army was devastated. Their army of 40,000 plus cavalry saw as many as 20,000 dead and 11,000 men captured. The Roman army of 25,000 plus cavalry and elephants suffered losses of 100 dead and 400 wounded. Greeks wouldn’t rule Greece again for nearly 2,000 years. As Rome pushed eastwards, the old fragmented kingdoms of Alexander’s empire crumbled before them, encouraging local rebellions like the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BCE. 100 years later, Israel and Judea would fall to the Roman Empire and suffer under numerous, brutal wars from the Romans and their client kings.

The backbone of the Roman war machine, other than their unmatched economic output, was the middle officer and leader of the century, the centurion. In order to become a centurion, you had to be at least 30 years old. You had to have years of military experience. You had to be able to read and write – a rarity in the ancient world. And, you had to be large, strong, a skilled fighter, and, most importantly, terrifying.

The Roman legion was designed to be flexible, and the only way they can do this was to have middle officers who command absolute authority over their men. Centurions had to be smart enough to recognize opportunity and weakness. They had to be competent enough to act independently of central command. They had to be strong enough to fight on the front lines with their soldiers, often the first one in a fight. And, they had to be fearsome enough to command the respect of professional soldiers. If someone made a mistake, it was the centurion who disciplined them with the whip. If someone disobeyed orders, it was the centurion who carried out their execution. When occupying cities and towns, it was these middling officers who worked alongside locals, dispensing favors, mercy, and Roman justice.

Rome conquered the world through middle management.

Luke 7: 1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Pastors and interpreters often make a common mistake when reading Luke 7: 1-10 – they believe the centurion is a good and noble man. The text does not give us any reason to think this, and every honest reader should reject this interpretation. Luke 7:4, “When they (the Jewish elders) came to Jesus, they appealed to him saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ ”

Why believe the Jewish elders? These are the people in the story who repeatedly oppose Jesus. Just before this story, Jesus upends the social structure with elders and Romans on the top and the commoners on the bottom in the Sermon on the Plain. Where does the centurion get the money to build the synagogue? There is little chance he pays for this himself. The centurion likely gets it from taxes or by seizing it from the public to gain the favor of the elders. Who benefits from the synagogue? Mostly the Jewish elders who curry favor with the Romans for which Jesus criticizes them constantly and who ultimately conspire to get Jesus killed.

Believing that the centurion is “a good guy” is to take the side of the Jewish elders in a larger argument against Jesus and the Gospel writers: participation with and appeasement of oppressors vs peaceful non-compliance through faithfulness to God. The “good guy centurion” interpretation is not only lazy, but it’s in opposition to the message of Luke and the immediate narrative of the Sermon on the Plain. Maybe the centurion really is a worthy person, but we don’t know this from the text. All we know is that the common people who are following Jesus wouldn’t have believed the testimony of the elders and would have hated and feared the centurion.

The danger here is that this story becomes just another healing story and we miss how shocking it would be for Jesus to praise the faith of such a man. It would be as if a modern pastor praised the faith of a terrorist. There are only two instances in the Gospels in which Jesus performs miracles for Gentiles: here with the centurion’s slave in Luke 7 and the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter in Mark 7. Both are healed at a distance. Both miracles are Gentiles petitioning for a lower status person in desperate need. Both show a kind of faith that leaves Jesus in amazement.

When Jesus mentions similar stories from the Hebrew Bible of a Gentile woman and a foreign military commander in Luke 4: 24-27, the people of Nazareth attempt to murder him by trying to throw him off a cliff. These are scandalous stories precisely because they are about foreign enemies hated by local people.

In this case, the centurion is the symbol of Roman occupation and persecution. The centurion is the means by which the Roman Empire destroys the kingdoms of the old world and enacts a new order. The centurion is the backbone of the army that slaughtered tens of thousands in conquering the land of Israel, and the centurion is likely the Roman officer who dispenses order and justice to a local population who suffers at the hands of Rome. Jesus is amazed at his faith more so than the faith of anyone in Israel.

The purpose of the story is to criticize the lack of faith in Israel by religious leaders, especially the Jewish elders present in the story, claiming that their faith can’t compare to even the hated centurion. Jesus is criticizing religious leaders, the very ones that cooperate with and legitimize centurions. By falling for “the good guy centurion” and lifting him up as an example to follow, the preacher and interpreter are choosing the side of the Jewish elders in Luke 7 against Jesus.

A plea to preachers and interpreters: stop praising the centurion. Stop taking the side of hypocritical religious leaders and join Jesus in scandalously criticizing your colleagues who side with oppressors. Make sure people understand who the centurion is and what he represents. And if you’re in the pews and your pastor makes this mistake, maybe try Jesus’s strategy, praise the faith of an enemy foreign military leader and call it greater than that of your pastor. But, be careful. They might throw you off a cliff.

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