When the President of the United States of America speaks, he speaks with authority. Power. Sometimes he goes to the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan and speaks in a colloquial tone with the workers. Sometimes he wears blue jeans, and a collared shirt with sleeves rolled up. On other days, he may be campaigning for re-election, at a town hall in New Hampshire hearing the concerns of senior citizens. Or, he may be dressed to the hilt speaking from the podium in the House Chamber for his state of the union speech. Regardless of where he is, and regardless of which President we’re talking about—when the President speaks—at least in public— he speaks with authority. With the full weight of the US government and military behind him. We may not like what he says. We may not have voted for him, we may not have voted at all. We may disagree with his policies, and many of us will vigorously debate what he says. But, for some strange reason, when the President of the United States speaks—we listen.
The Roman Centurion in Luke 7 speaks with authority. When he gives orders to his 100 or so men, he dispatches authority with the full weight of the Roman Empire behind him. These men under his command listen. But this powerful and decorated military man has met the limits of what is possible with Rome’s backing. He’s met the limits of his power in the way that many of us meet the limits to our power—through suffering. Through grieving. The centurion’s servant is dying, and he cares for this servant very much. He values him highly, as Luke puts it. The Greek entimos used here is stronger than mere “value”: the servant is held in honor. He’s prized, he’s precious. (There’s even some scholarship that suggests the centurion and his servant were lovers—apparently it was a common military practice of the time for Roman soldiers to have younger servants who were also their male lovers—if that’s true it would make this centurion today also a centurion with a broken lovers heart). That may or may not be the case, but what we do know is that this man is hurting. This precious and honored and valued servant of his is sick, and Rome’s armies can’t do a thing about it.
The centurion has heard about the authority of another leader, a different type of leader, a Galilean homeless Jew named Jesus of Nazareth. This other leader operates not under the power of Rome, but under the power of he calls God’s kingdom.
So the centurion sends two groups to speak with Jesus—first, Jewish elders and then second, a company of friends. The Jewish elders that he sends to relay his message are his clients or dependents—they have a lot to gain by staying cozy to Roman power. In first century Palestinian culture relationships were often ordered along what social science researchers call patron-client lines. A rich patron, such as a Roman military man, was expected to give back to the community, his clients, not unlike how we expect corporations Apple today to pay taxes. This centurion had fulfilled his patronage responsibilities—he paid his taxes, so to speak. The Jewish elders, his clients or recicipients of his generosity, plead his case to Jesus. “He is worthy,” they say. “He loves the Jewish people.” He’s not one of those centurions whose men brutally crucifies peasants in the countryside—he’s one of the good guys. “It is he who built our synagogue for us,” they say. So Jesus goes with them, and heads towards the centurions house.
When Jesus gets closer, the centurion dispatches the second group: he sends a few close friends. You see, his message didn’t quite get communicated. What he really wanted to tell Jesus was “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” I think he tried to tell the Jewish elders this message already, but their flattery overcame them. They probably debated what to tell Jesus on the way: “We can’t tell Jesus that the centurion isn’t worthy. We’ll lose our patronage. Half of the yearly synagogue budget comes form his annual donation. Let’s tread lightly.” So it falls upon these close friends, the ones he really trusts, to run out to Jesus before he arrives and relay the truth.
And here’s the crux of the passage: the Roman imperial centurion recognizes God’s power through Jesus as superior to his own. “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof...Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.” It’s a total reversal of social relations. The Roman general treats the Galilean homeless Jesus not only as an equal, but as more powerful. He assumes Jesus, like any Roman leader, can command by his word, and he defers to Jesus as the one higher in the chain of command. The one whose words can heal his precious servant. The one whose authority surpasses his own. If anyone had reason to think himself worthy in relation to God, this man did. A soldier of soldiers. A patron of the Jewish leaders. A faithful citizen of Rome. And yet this man, with the prospect of Jesus coming to his house to heal his precious servant says “I am not as powerful as I thought.” Rome’s power only brought me so far. It couldn’t heal my servant. It couldn’t stop my grief. I need a higher authority, a higher power, God’s power.
What is the source of power in your life? What keeps you going? Is it your money? Your intelligent opinions? The people you know? The esteem in which the community holds you? Is it anger or past resentments? Is it success?
As first world Americans, we can identify with the centurion. We will most likely not get a chance to speak with Presidential authority, but we still are the powerful ones. We are the new Rome. Our country makes up 5% of the global population but consumes 24% of the world’s energy. We are literally burning the planet. And so the story of the centurion reminds us of the limitations of power. The centurion models the surrender to God’s power that is needed for any true spiritual authority to be formed in us. It is exceedingly difficult for the centurion to come to the end of his resources and ask for help, because it’s much more challenging to recognize God’s power when we have a lot of worldly power ourselves. There’s so much more to lose and let go of. Jesus knows this, and praises the centurion, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” True spiritual power understands that it’s God’s power that heals and sustains and saves us—not Rome or America or our possessions or jobs or successes or education. May the power of God through Christ galvanize our lives.
 The article “Text, Culture, and Ideology in Luke 7:1-10” by David B. Growler is particularly helpful. See http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~dgowler/RobbinsFS.htm