A Short Exegesis on Luke 7:1-10 or the Centurion’s Servant
The story of the Centurion and his servant has always intrigued me. I think it was the immense faith of the Centurion that held the attraction. How could such a prestigious man have such a humble and trusting faith in a man from Nazareth? Furthermore, Jesus himself was surprised of this faith. In high school, I would read this pericope repeatedly, trying to inspire such a faith within myself, and longing for that same approval from the Christ. Perhaps the most profound moment concerning this pericope was when I realized the connection it had to the Latin form of the Mass: “Lord I am not worthy [for you to enter under my roof], but only say the words and I shall be healed…” When I realized where this statement originated, and connected it to the receiving of the Eucharist, I was profoundly changed and my devotion to the Eucharist grew. Every time I was to receive the Eucharist, Jesus entered under my “roof”, and I could exhibit the faith of the Centurion.
The text of this pericope is set specifically within the synoptic Gospel of Luke and is a redacted version of the same story in Matthew chapter 8 (Gagnon, 123). A discussion of the differences between these two pericopes will be discussed later. This pericope in Luke is in the first section of chapter 7, which is located in the larger fourth section of Luke dealing with Jesus’ ministry throughout Galilee (Senior, 97; Buttrick, 24). In Luke, it is presented chronologically (v1. “When he had finished all his words to the people, he entered Capernaum”), whereas in Matthew it is presented as part of the Sermon on the Mount section (Shaffer, 38-39). This pericope mostly likely comes from Q, as it is found both in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark (Buttrick, 128; Gagnon, 123: Shaffer, 42).
Within the pericope, scholars have debated the specific meaning of a few words. Additionally, there are words, which though they are not controversial, they can help the reader better understand the meaning of the passage if the words themselves are understood. In the second verse, the reader encounters his first problem in translation concerning the word “slave or servant”. In the Revised Standard Version, the text reads “a slave…who was valuable to him”, whereas in the King James Version the text reads “a servant…who was valuable to him” (Buttrick, 129; RSV, 67). In Matthew the term παίς [pais] is used, meaning either “servant, or son”, whereas in Luke the term δουλος [doulos] is used, meaning either “servant, or slave” (Shaffer, 40). Jack Shaffer argues that the word should mean “servant” (40). He states that the term παίς is ambiguous, and though it is used 24 times in the New Testament, it is used only once as the word “son” in John 4:51 (Shaffer, 40). In verse 6 the word “master” is used, deriving from the Greek root Κυριος [Kyrios] which, at its least is a sign of respect, and was the sign of faith from a Christian (Harrington, 118). Finally, in verse 8 the Centurion states that he is “one subject to authority”. The Interpreter’s Bible states that this translation is confusing and perhaps misinterpreted because the Centurion would not likely have said that Jesus was “subject” to authority (138). However, according to the Sacra Pagina, the word authority comes from the Greek root Εξουσιαυ [exousia], which means “authority of those higher in status” (118). With this translation, it makes sense that the Centurion would say “subject to”, in the realization of Christ being set under the authority of God the Father.
When compared to Matthew 8, many problems arise concerning the seemingly incongruous differences they both present. The most obvious problem concerns Jesus’ interaction with the Centurion, which in Matthew is direct, and in Luke is mediated through third parties. Additionally, the textual problems previously addressed have caused some scholars to claim that there is “disharmonization” between the texts (Shaffer, 36; Gagnon, 122). The question is how both events can be so radically different while still being true and inspired by God. Here Shaffer suggests that one take into consideration the emphasis and message that each author was trying to portray (46). Shaffer argues that only a plausible explanation is needed to satisfy the disunity, and so the best explanation is that the Centurion very well could have visited Jesus in actuality, but that Luke omitted this information because it was not necessary for his message (Shaffer, 46). Gagnon is in agreement with this statement when he says, “the double-delegation motif coincides with certain theological, social, and political leitmotifs in Luke-Acts” (123-124).
Various characters move the plot line of the pericope forward. First, the reader sees the omniscient narrator, who can move freely about the environment not restricted to time or space. Furthermore, the narrator can tell what any other character is thinking. Also in the passage but not directly appearing are the Centurion and his servant. Though not directly making an appearance, they both play a crucial role as they provide the vital background information for the story to occur. In addition, the fact that the Centurion does not appear in Luke’s version, but does so in Matthew’s is important for reasons that have already been discussed. Finally, there is Jesus, whose relationship with the Centurion is the focal point of the Lucan narrative.
The next characters the reader encounters are the “elders of the Jews” (Lk 7:3). The Interpreters Bible states that these were representatives of a local synagogue (129), whereas the Sacra Pagina expounds on this and states that they were probably not a group of Sanhedrin who would normally have caused problems for Jesus (117). Next, there are the friends of the Centurion who deliver the second plea from the Centurion. Finally, there is the crowd which Jesus addresses, which contrasts their faith with the faith of the Centurion.
Although not an abundance of knowledge has been gathered about Luke, scholars have drawn conclusions on several points. Luke was well educated in Greek, and though he writes in unsophisticated Greek, it is as close to classical Greek as anything else in the New Testament (Thimmes, 2). Luke uses large sections of Mark’s Gospel, as well as sections from Q, and so likely wrote circa 85 A.D. (Thimmes, 2; Buttrick, 13). Finally, though there is no way to tell where exactly Luke wrote, many scholars think it likely that it was somewhere in modern day Turkey (Thimmes, 2).
Luke’s community probably consisted primarily of Gentiles (God-fearers), with a large number of Jews, and some roman soldiers or officials (Thimmes, 3). The term God-fearer usually applied to gentiles who were sympathetic toward Judaism, or in other words, those who participated in Jewish ceremonies and were benefactors (patrons who later may have had Jews or Christians embedded in them), but never formally converted to Judaism (Thimmes, 3). Luke goes to great lengths to show that the “Roman politics were not at odds with Jesus’ ministry and God’s purpose” (Thimmes, 7).
One of the main characters in this narrative is the centurion. The centurion was the crux of the Roman army, who relied on the soldier to command a group of soldiers called a century. Being a veteran soldier, he had much prestige and was paid approximately fifteen times that of a normal soldier. In addition, the centurion would often be a patron, who would broker the imperial resources to the local population that he inhabited (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 326; Freedman, 790-791).
Thus, present in this pericope is the idea of a patron-broker-client relationship. Within the culture of the ancient Near East people, there was a system of hierarchy that carried with it levels of honor and status. Embedded in this system of honor and status is the economic system of “market exchange” or a patron-broker-client relationship.
One’s status and role as a patron or a client (have’s vs. have not’s) was relatively fixed and could not change, and so in order to enter into a relationship with one of higher status, one would usually use economic means. This market exchange system typically occurred when one of higher status approached one of lower status with a good or service as “favor” (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 326). Because these relationships were based primarily upon the principle of reciprocity, the client (the one who received) was expected to, at the request of the patron, pay back the patron in the manner that the patron so desired (tend flocks, give part of harvest, accord honor/praise by speaking well of the patron, etc.) (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 327). These relationships were relatively socially fixed, with some families handing down their patron-client relationship through generations (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 327). In some cases, it would be a three-tier system, where a “broker”, or intermediary, would mediate resources between the patron and the client (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 328).
In this reading, the author presents two parallel three-tier systems of market exchange. The first system is that of Caesar, the Centurion, and the Jews; the loyal Centurion is the client of Caesar who supplies him with a very comfortable living style and relative riches (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 329). In return, the Centurion client serves his patron by fighting for him and defending his empire. In addition, the Centurion is the patron of the Jews (a broker between them and Caesar), with whom he has entered into an economic and probably faith relationship. It is likely that the Centurion was a God-fearer, as discussed earlier in this section (Barton & Muddimun, 955; Molina & Rohrbaugh, 329). The Centurion has shown his patronage to the Jews by funding the building of their synagogue as a gift, and thus is recognized as a generous man by the elders (Barton & Muddimun, 955; Molina & Rohrbaugh, 329). Because of this, the Jews are in some way embedded in the Centurion, and are therefore obliged to repay the Centurion in the way he sees fit the moment he desires (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 327).
The second three-tier relationship one sees in this pericope is that of the Father, Jesus, and the Centurion (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 329). “The language of grace [as a gift] is the language of patronage” (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 328). In the New Testament, both in the Gospels and the Pauline letters, there is the consistent image of Jesus departing grace (God’s gifts) upon those who are faithful enough to ask for it. This is the constant image of the patron-broker-client relationship of the Father, Jesus, and his disciples. The Father departs abundant gifts to His people through the meditation of Christ. All that is needed to receive this gift from Christ is faith in Him and His Father. The Centurion is familiar with this system of brokerage, and thus realizes Christ as the broker of God’s power (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 329). Thusly, he sends his clients, the Jewish elders, to ask Jesus to bestow God’s gift of grace upon his servant. When that fails, he further sends his friends (his social equals and envoy that speak as if him) to intercept Jesus with the message, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof” (v. 6), as well as pointing out that he is also (in addition to Jesus) one “in authority” as well as “subjected to authority” (v. 8). By stating the he, like Jesus, is one in authority as well as under authority, he recognizes that they are both brokers of gifts and resources (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 329). However, the Centurion also states that he is “not worthy” thereby not only acknowledging Jesus as a broker in general, but as patron to the Centurion, who is under Jesus and “subject to His authority”, thus admitting he does not intend to make Jesus a client (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 329). Jesus realizes that the Centurion acknowledges Jesus’ lordship over him, and in effect brokers the grace to him (Molina & Rohrbaugh, 329).
Faith is demonstrated as real by knowing and doing. Honor is a claim to status, and public affirmation of that status. In this pericope, the Centurion knew that Jesus was the broker of God (affirming Christ’s natural honor), and subsequently acted upon this knowledge. His unique faith in Jesus’ power as the intermediary of God, was so great that Christ proclaimed it as rare (v. 9), and even healed the servant at a distance, an act that occurs only one other time in the Synoptic Gospels: the healing of the Syrophoenecian woman’s daughter (Buttrick, 131; Mt. 15:21-28; Mk. 7:24-30). Luke’s message is this: generosity and faith in Jesus as Christ and the intermediary of God’s grace will lead us to receive grace from God (Shaffer, 48).
Point of View
In modern society, we no longer rely on a patron or broker for resources in the same sense as they did in ancient times. Capitalism is the new system, and we have become our own patron and brokers, needing faith in no one but ourselves to be healed of “economic sickness”. Because of this, we often lose sight of our origin and destination, and attribute much of our success to our own efficacy and ourselves. Following this view, we also lose sight of who God is, and the honor He should be accorded, and we forget that all things come to fullness in Christ, who is the broker of all things good.
The meaning of this passage for readers today is to be aware of a tiered worldview in order that they may change it. Though we may not be in an analogous social class to that of the Centurion, we still in some way are overcome by capitalism. Therefore, we must remember that though not explicit in our current system of government, Christ is still the ultimate broker of all things both indirectly in economic issues, but also directly through those issues that are spiritual. Though a small percentage of the world is cured of “economic sickness,” the vast majority still live in poverty and desolation, devoid of self-efficacy and in need of patronage. It is here where one must take on the persona of the Centurion, freely giving to those lower in honor than himself in recognition that his gifts come from a higher power (be that Caesar or Christ). It was his generosity in being a broker that allowed him to recognize Jesus as the broker of grace. In order for us to better recognize Christ, we must be giving to others so that we may better recognize the nature of what it truly means to do so.
Even more important than economic brokering is the need for spiritual gift giving. While basic economic goods are needed to provide the means for a fulfilling life, spiritual goods are the gifts that keep on giving, in this life and the next. By taking the example of the Centurion in this aspect, we must attempt to have radical faith in Christ, knowing his immense power as broker of God, and being able to give any needed gift even from a distance. We must also recognize that we are not worthy for these gifts, but that God still bestows them upon us if we demonstrate faith. Finally, these spiritual gifts are not only for us, but for us to use them and broker them to others as well. Just as the Centurion asked for healing for his servant, we must use our gift of faith to help heal the “spiritual sickness” of other’s. This is perhaps the ultimate message of the Centurion: that Christ brokers gifts, so that we may ourselves become stewards and brokers of those gifts for others.
The pericope of the Centurion’s servant in the Gospel of Luke is rich with biblical knowledge. The quality of Greek and the pericope’s relationship to the one in Matthew helps the reader to better understand the nature of how biblical texts were written to complement each other despite seemingly incongruous differences. The context from which Luke wrote (mixed, urbanite, upper class) combines with the idea of a patron-broker-client relationship to clearly show Luke’s message that generosity and faith in Christ will lead us to receive grace from Him. Finally, the message that Luke portrays to today’s society is one of vital importance as we are ever immersed in capitalism and self-efficacy. When reading this pericope, it will always be important to remember that one message bring communicated is that, in today’s society, we must recognize God as the patron and broker of all things both economic and spiritual, and that He also makes us brokers of his gifts for others in need of them.
Barton, John, and Muddimun, John, eds. Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford, NY: Oxford UP, 2001.
Buttrick, George Arther, et. Al. The Interpreters Bible. Vol. VIII. New York, NY: Abingdon Press, 1952.
Freedman, David N., ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.
Gagnon, Robert A.J. “Luke’s Motives for Redaction in the Account of the Double-Delegation in Luke 7:1-10”, Novum Testamentum. Vol. XXXVI, iss. 2. 1994.
Harrington, Daniel J. The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Mn: The Liturgical P, 1991.
Molina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis, Mn: Fortress P, 1992.
Senior, Donald, et al. The Catholic Study Bible. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Shaffer, Jack Russell. A Harmonization of Matt. 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. 2006.
The New Revised Standard Version. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Thimmes, Pamela. “The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostle’s: Making Peace with Rome”, The Catechist. Vol. 37, iss. 3. Dayton, Ohio: 2003.
© 2009 R D Langr