Luke 7:1-10 | The Art of War | The Healing of the Centurion's Servant
Welcome back to the Bible is Art where we explore the literary artistry of the Bible and this week we’re going to explore how the healing of the centurion’s servant is told as a battle.
The story is in Luke 7 and is only 10 verses, so let’s read the whole thing:
After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying 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 say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too 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 servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
The scene is narrated as a battle or a reverse battle, or a battle against death. Notice, Luke narrates this story with words and concepts from war. There is death, the centurion’s servant is at the point of death, there is a Centurion, an officer in the army, messengers, like in war, and when the messengers talk to Jesus, their discussion includes topics of soldiers and authority in an army. Notice, the Centurion’s name is not given, but only his military vocation, a centurion and its repeated three times in a short story. That is, the narrator wants his military identity to be his main characterization.
The movement is also warlike. You have two camps, with two leaders, Jesus and the centurion. And they progressively move toward each other. Jesus first enters the city then he comes to the house, but he never enters in. But like I said, this is a reverse battle. So notices the contrasts to real warfare.
Instead of two enemies, you have two worthy men. Instead of destroying buildings the centurion is said to have built the synagogue. And instead of the centurion wielding his authority over his subservients, sending them into battle, he is going out to get help for his sick servant.
When the centurion talks to Jesus, through the messengers, he characterizes Jesus as a military ruler. He says that Jesus doesn’t have to come into the house because he gives commands to his soldiers and they carry out the task, just like Jesus. So we have two military leaders, one coming to help another.
After the centurion’s speech to Jesus, Jesus marvels, the only time in the Gospel. And at that point we get the greatest reversal of war, Jesus restores the servant’s life. In war, life is taken, in Jesus’ war, life is given.
But, Luke our narrator, describes the healing slightly more opaquely than a normal healing. He doesn’t actually tell us that Jesus healed him. The narrator says that “when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.” That is, the statement of the centurion about Jesus being like a centurion who commands soldiers to carry out his commands so that he does not have to carry them out himself happened. And if that’s true, then Jesus does indeed have authority over many. And he is indeed a centurion, fighting a war. But his war is a war against death, returning life.
The centurion encompasses much of what Jesus’ ministry is about. He’s the first gentile in Luke’s gospel and he is the only thing Jesus will marvel at in the Gospel. Like the prophet said, this centurion has turned his sword into a plowshare, using his energy to build a synagogue and in the end Jesus will return this great soldier life.