13 September, Monday — Faith like a Roman Centurion

Sep 13 – Memorial for St. John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor

John’s (347-407) father died when he was young, and he was raised by a very pious mother. It was for his sermons that John earned the title ‘Chrysostom’ (golden-mouthed). They were always on point, they explained the scriptures with clarity, and they sometimes went on for hours.

As bishop, he criticised the rich for not sharing their wealth, fought to reform the clergy, prevented the sale of ecclesiastical offices, called for fidelity in marriage, and encouraged practices of justice and charity. St. John’s sermons caused nobles and bishops to work to remove him from his diocese; twice, he was exiled from his diocese. He was proclaimed Doctor of the Church in 451.

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1 Tim 2:1-8
Lk 7:1-10

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found faith as great as this.”

When I was allocated this day’s readings, I was intrigued by the passage about the centurion’s servant. I have heard it before, but I never really listened to it, nor understood the significance of the centurion being Roman but nonetheless well respected by the Jewish elders, and certainly never realised the great faith of this man that Jesus mentioned. And indeed, there is a lot to unpack from this passage.

I was reflecting on this passage while sitting with my daughter during her online CGS session and they watched a video about Matthew the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). At this, I very excitedly remembered that the words from today’s Gospel, “I am not worthy to have you under my roof” also appears in this passage! 

Actually no, they do not; I had remembered wrongly. The closest was Luke 19:7, where other people complained that taxman Zacchaeus was not worthy to have Jesus stay in his house. But since this line popped out at me, I followed it. 

The first thing that was significant is the belief in the power of Jesus by an apparent non-believer — a Roman soldier to boot. His faith is as great as the woman with a blood disorder, who only wanted to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and knew she would be healed. The fact that he had thought of seeking Jesus in the first place is telling. Perhaps he had nowhere else to go and no other physician to turn to. But to actually put his trust in Jesus’ power to heal does take quite a bit of faith.

How many of us faithful Christians truly believe and truly have faith? How many of us only understand, cerebrally, the faith? It was noticeable that the ones who had shown great faith and confidence in Jesus were the ones looked down on, despised, and self-identified sinners. Does it take being down and out to recognise God for who He is? If we are enjoying our lives, can we truly say with conviction that we believe God loves us unconditionally, and that we in turn can put our absolute faith and trust in Him? Or will that only happen when we have nothing left to lose?

The second thing that struck me (disclaimer: only after having read and researched on this passage a bit more) was that the centurion had asked some Jewish elders (that is to say the respected community leaders, NOT the Sanhedrin) to go and find Jesus for him; and they not only did that, they also threw in character references of their own accord. They spoke of his kindness to the Jews, and that he had a synagogue built for them. This shows us the deep respect the centurion had for these people, and that he treated them with dignity. Even though he had the authority and the power to lord it over them, he apparently did not.

A quick browse through social media these days will, more often than not, show up differences that lead to nothing but malice and disdain for one another. It is almost as if people cannot get along until they are exactly alike. While there are certainly moral issues that are non-negotiable, I believe it is still possible to agree to disagree on most other matters, instead of hurling insults. If your Facebook friend posts articles insisting that dinosaurs are a hoax and that the earth is flat, just scroll quickly past. We do not have to create strife unnecessarily. Like the Roman centurion, leave well alone if you can. 

And this just occurred to me: this centurion sounds like he would make an excellent class monitor. While in a position of power, he does not appear to abuse it. He lets the people get on with their lives and even assists them. Uphold the rules but only where necessary, and build a true relationship and rapport with the people. This is probably what St Paul was referring to in his letter to Timothy — to offer prayers and petitions for those in authority. Without a basic respect for the people you are ruling, how can one rule justly? And we most certainly need to pray very fervently for this intention in the world now. 

Third, the amount of self awareness the centurion displayed is eye-opening and a call to reflection. Granted, he may just have been fully aware of his socio-political standing and simply adhered to the norms of the place and time by not wanting Jesus, a Jew, to set foot in his house. When we consider the other people in the bible who have shown great faith, they have also known and referred to themselves as sinners and, as a result, outcasts. But while they felt themselves so distant from God, they were in fact so much closer to Him than the so-called model citizens. 

Now, we tend to throw about with a lot of scorn the label of ‘Pharisee’ onto people we do not agree with; people who appear as sticklers for rules, the stereotypical tattle-tales we loved to loathe in primary school. But wait. Assuming they are indeed nothing more than rigid teachers’ pets (religious version), it nonetheless remains that God loves them too. Whether they are doing everything right, or everything wrong, God loves them. That is what we proclaim after all, that God loves everyone. The moment we suggest that they are hypocritical and unworthy, we then become the very thing that we criticise. I wonder which group we would have placed the centurion in, non-believer, pagan, Pharisee, sinner? But it hardly matters. Jesus himself has spoken on the centurion’s faith — and if Jesus says so, we should follow. 

The last thing I gleaned from this passage is how the centurion even thought to ask Jesus to heal his servant. I guess he could not help but hear about the man who could heal the sick and raise the dead. Here’s the thing — a lot of people know about Jesus. But what kind of Jesus do they know about? Well, that depends on which Jesus we are showing them. The hippie Jesus that preaches love and feel-good emotions? The angry Jesus overturning tables in temples? The inclusive Jesus hanging out with undesirables? The obedient-to-a-fault Jesus who willingly went to His horrible death on a cross?

We as Christians are witnesses to our faith. We cannot run from this. Even if we were to renounce our faith, that is also bearing some kind of witness. I heard my daughter’s CGS class sing the song “open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus”. So many people are searching. We are the ones who can introduce Him, and show them His love for us. The worst thing we can do is to make someone, especially a child, start to fear or even hate Jesus because of our false witnessing. 

To sum up, the passage about the Roman centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant gives us an insight to the kind of complete faith we need to have. And this spills over to having respect for those who believe differently from us, because they too are people. Knowing where we stand with God is important for our own humility as every individual’s relationship with God cannot be judged by anyone else. All this leads to us being in the important role of bearing witness to our faith and bearing witness to God’s love for all humanity.

(Today’s OXYGEN by Felicia Zou)

Prayer: Father God, teach us to seek you in all that we do. May we always remember that You are the centre of our lives, and that all that we do should be a testimony of Your dwelling in us.

Thanksgiving: Thank you Father, for always loving and being there for us. Send your Holy Spirit to guide us in our journey.

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