The Third Sunday after the Epiphany


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Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities… stretch forth thy Right hand to help and defend us…
Romans 12:16-21
Matthew 8:1-13

Matthew’s story of Jesus and the Centurion is dramatic enough and yet not so dramatic as Luke’s (Luke 7:1-10) where the Centurion has so much faith in the effectiveness of Jesus that he does not even come himself to ask for a cure for his servant but sends Jewish elders to plead on his behalf although, it must be said, the utter transparency of the Centurion is somewhat compromised by the elders saying that he had has built a synagogue, a clear attempt by the occupying power to curry favour with the locals.

Matthew is much less complex and reflects his customary concern with power, politics and the faithlessness of the Jewish religious authorities. The Centurion wishes his servant to be cured of palsy and asserts that the physical presence of Jesus is not required. This is in sharp contrast with miracles performed at the behest of faithful Jews and Jesus remarks on the faith of the Centurion, the like of which he has not seen. The Centurion explains his attitude to power and we can see its extent from Acts 21:31 to the end. Yet there is more to it than that. The occupying and supposedly brutal Centurion is an iconic figure contrasted with the supposedly devout Jewish authorities (Notably Matthew 27:54). That contrast is underlined by Matthew’s customary summation of the punishment for unfaithfulness, the “Weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Such stern measures for unfaithfulness are, Paul reminds us, reserved to The Lord. We are to overcome evil with Good and leave any repayment to the almighty. In one of those flashes of deep pastoral insight, Paul recognises the difficulty of what he preaches when he says: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” The Collect, in a memorable phrase, calls upon God to “stretch forth thy right hand”. Incidentally, we should not, carried away by the Centurion’s faith, forget the lowly leper at the beginning of the Gospel who worshipped Jesus and expressed a simple faith. The religious authorities are therefore clamped between the leper and the Centurion.

Although the Centurion is very matter-of-fact when he describes how he gives orders and how they are carried out and although it is easy to be swept along by the way that Jesus effects his acts of power, what makes the Centurion and Jesus in some way similar is that their very great respective authorities are derived from on high. Although slow communications (cf Paul’s Wintering in Malta in Acts 28) made delegation inevitable, Roman military hierarchy went right up from the Centurion to the God/Emperor whereas Jesus says his authority derives from the Father.

The idea of lines of authority would have come as second nature to 16th Century subjects of an almost absolute monarch who, in turn, claimed to derive authority directly from God (and not, therefore, from the Pope or any other ecclesiastic). Perhaps we have greater difficulty in an age of dispersed and in many respects global power in grasping the clarity and simplicity of the power model we are being offered here. Taking an example of the economist J.K. Galbraith, if we think about a multi national company: it is not subject to the law of a single country; it is driven by the need to produce shareholder value; but the shareholders, who are often the pension funds of the company’s own employees, have to rely on managers even though they are nominally in control through the board of directors; and the whole enterprise is subject to massive internal pressures (such as labour surpluses and shortages) and massive external pressures (such as world prices). It is difficult, says Galbraith, to see who has any power at all. We might better think of the enterprise as operating like an ant colony. For that, and other reasons associated with our suspicion of arbitrary power, we might view the Centurion’s self assurance with some distaste. We believe that authority needs to earn consent rather than simply impose it. This, however, should not obscure the truth behind what the Gospel tells us. The point is not what the Centurion has but the value he assigns to it. What he has is nothing compared with what Jesus has. All that has been given to him in his limited sphere is useless in the face of his servant’s palsy. The man in his strength realises his weakness just as the leper in his weakness recognises his weakness.

Lying behind all the readings is the idea of the precariousness of existence: the Collect talks about “infirmities… dangers and necessities”; the Epistle refers to “hunger (and) thirst"; and the central figure of the Gospel, off stage like the hero of a classical Greek drama, is the servant taken suddenly and fatally ill. Faced with such worldly vagaries it is tempting to worship God in the hope of achieving some kind of appeasement, praying as if some kind of deal can be made but the Centurion sums up the truth, his prayer acting as a counterweight to his subsequent lecture on authority: “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst come under my roof; but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed.” After all power and authority has been put by, after all the propitiation and supplication has been set forth, we are left with this simple prayer which we should apply to ourselves as we prepare to receive Holy Communion.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Compare the figure of the Centurion in Matthew and Luke; and consider the typology of Centurions in the New Testament
  2. Contrast the dangers of centralised and dispersed power
  3. Are you the Centurion or the leper?
  4. What are the strengths and dangers in Paul’s pastoral qualification?
  5. How might the Gospel be understood differently by people living in countries which are or have recently been occupied?

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