Sermon on Matt 8:5-13.
All of us are under authority. Most of us have some authority.
And Many of us have problems with authority.
A mother says to her son, “Go.” And the son says, “Send my brother instead. He’s not doing anything.” A priest says to his parishioners, “Come.” And they say, “Maybe we’ll come next time. We’re too busy with other things at the moment.” A manager says to his worker, “Do this.” And the worker says, “Do it yourself.” Maybe the worker gets fired for this, but it feels really good for a minute to tell off the boss. Many of us would like to say something like that to our boss, because many of us have problems with authority.
Of course, maybe the parent or the priest or the boss is an autocratic tyrant. That’s another kind of problem with authority – a failure of the authority to recognize that they are also under authority. There’s an important distinction between being authoritative and being authoritarian.
Our society is so given over to democratic ideas, we may be particularly bad at understanding and accepting authority – other than our own authority over our own selves. Nobody else better tell me what to do, we think. We forget – some of us – that heaven is a kingdom. And that Jesus Christ is King – not president – of every nation. But the government of God is not by the consent of the people – the δῆμος. Whether or not you have voted for Jesus Christ, he is your king. His authority over you and me is real and essential.
You see, real authority comes from above – from God – not from below – neither from the δῆμος or the demonic. But both people and demons seek to imitate authority – to seize power that is not theirs but truthfully is God’s, to assert their own will upon others instead of submitting to the will of God.
Well, the centurion in Capernaum (kuh-PERR-nay-uhm ) has something to teach us about authority – both about leadership and obedience. He lived and worked in a framework of authority – a chain of command – that helped him to understand the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word, who can heal the servant by his word.
A centurion in the Roman army was a person who had command of a century, which sounds like it would be a hundred soldiers but was usually around eighty. But he was also under authority. He was in the midst of a chain of command – both one to give orders and one to follow them. Maybe he can help us with our problems with authority.
He says to Jesus, “I also am a man under authority,” and, he says, “[There are] 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 he does it” (Matt 8:9). Such crisp obedience he speaks of. How alien to us! The centurion is a witness for us of both leadership and obedience.
Firstly, unlike autocrats, who are concerned first of all always with themselves – always with maintaining their own authority over others – the centurion, who bears his authority well, is concerned first of all for the welfare of those under him. This is to be the priority for those who lead.
The centurion’s servant “was dear to him,” according to Luke (7:2). He comes to Jesus full of concern and solicitude for his servant. He comes to Jesus and beseeches him – “with grief,” as St. Rabanus puts it – and says, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home in terrible distress.” And he says, “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.” He seeks what is good for his servant: healing from the true healer. He treats his servant with compassion. As St. Rabanus says, “In like manner, ought all to feel for their servants and to take thought for them.”
We can see easily enough, I hope, how good and appropriate it is for a leader to take care of those under his authority in this way. What we might miss if we don’t understand the historical-cultural context of this passage is how counterculturally the centurion is behaving.
He comes to Jesus about his “servant.” The word used for “servant” here is “παῖς.” Now, a παῖς is a boy – rather like a garçon. But the word connotes more than that. The next entry in the lexicon is παίω, which means to strike or to smite – to hit as if by a single blow with the fist. Now, these words are likely related because a παῖς is a boy whom you may beat with impunity – a punching bag, a whipping boy. A παῖς is really more a kind of slave than what we would think of as a servant. In fact, in Luke’s version of the story, he’s called a δοῦλος – a slave (Luke 7:2-10).
Now, you wouldn’t want to be a slave under Roman law. It was chattel slavery. It was almost – though not quite – as bad as American slavery. It was even permitted – and thought in some cases economically well-advised – to work your slaves to death, rather than wasting resources on feeding them and housing them.
But this is not how the centurion treats his servant. Even in defiance of his own culture, he cares for those over whom he has authority. A real leader must not succumb to the social and cultural pressures all around him to do other than what is best and right for those whom he leads.
The centurion does not seek the best way to use others for his own purposes and ends and goods, but seeks their own good with humility – admitting to the Lord that he is not worthy that the Lord should enter under his roof (Matt 8:8).
He is not first of all concerned with self-promotion or causing others to recognize his authority. He is concerned first of all with helping one under him who is suffering, and he does this by honoring the authority of someone else – namely, the authority of Jesus Christ over all things and his power to heal all sicknesses.
The centurion recognizes the real authority of Jesus Christ. He is intimately familiar with the workings of authority in ways that we – in our more democratic age – may not be. He even kind of identifies himself with Jesus. Pseudo-Chrysostom says that the centurion “clearly” does not draw a “distinction,” but points “to a resemblance… between himself and Christ.” Listen to the way he says to Jesus, “I also am under authority.”
What authority is Jesus under? Pseudo-Chrysostom says he is “under the command of the Father, in so far as [he is] man, yet [he has] power over the Angels.”
Then, it’s as if the centurion goes on to intimate, “I also wield authority. As one who has authority, I recognize that you have authority, too. I give commands and my soldiers obey. You, O Lord, give commands and the whole cosmos obeys. You order all creation by your word. Your authority is the source of all authority. Only say the word and my servant will be healed.” This is the absolute authority of Christ. What he says is so. Just like that. If he says, “Let it be,” then it is.
Let’s consider the authority of Christ for a moment. Authority – ἐξουσία – means literally that which comes out of essence or being. And Christ himself is the being one – ὁ ὤν – the one who is – the very God and ground of all being who reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush. When truth himself and the author of truth speaks, it is clear enough he speaks with authority. And, more than this, he is the ground of all authority that exists. We may covet power, authority over others, control of others, but unless the authority is given by Christ, it is no authority at all but only an illusion of authority.
And, if we have indeed been given authority, we must always remember, like the centurion, and even in some ways like Jesus, that we are also under authority. Leaders actually function in a long line of authorities responsible for guiding and protecting others. And the Lord – the true and highest authority – will hold leaders accountable for how they exercise their power.
Drawing on his experience in a chain of command, the centurion was able to see and understand the spiritual workings of authority in the Kingdom of Heaven so well that Jesus says of him, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Let us share his faith and wield our God-given authority as he does – with humility, with obedience to all who truly have authority over us, with awareness of Christ’s absolute authority, and with care, concern, and love for those we lead.