Connections 04.03.2016: Free Indeed

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Luke 7:1-10

Something about this story bothers me.

It bothers me that the centurion had a slave and that the text treats that as normal and okay. Now, I know that slavery was an accepted part of first century Roman culture. But I also know that for a human being to own a human being violates the humanity of both. To be human is to be free; to be human is also to know that no one is truly free until everyone is free. I am not fully human unless I want others to be fully human, too. I am not fully human unless I respect, desire, and promote the full humanity of others.

I also know slavery still exists to a surprising extent. According to the Walk Free Foundation’s 2014 Global Slavery Index, almost thirty-six million people worldwide live in some form of slavery, which the report defines as “human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, or commercial sexual exploitation.” That is shocking and sickening.

I also know the text says that the centurion valued his slave highly. That’s good, I guess, but I don’t know what it means. The purpose of a slave is to serve the master, so for the centurion to value his slave highly may just mean that he appreciates the service the slave renders. Some of us know from hard experience that an employer can value an employee as an employee but not really care about the employee as a person (it ought never be that way for a Christian employer, by the way). It’s possible that the centurion truly cared about his slave. It’s even possible that he loved him. But if so, why didn’t he free him?

Neither you nor I own slaves, and that’s as it should be. That doesn’t mean, though, that we’re off the hook. Our desire for cheap goods is one of the factors that create the demand for cheap labor that leads to people, including children, working as slaves in some countries.

And even if slavery disappeared tomorrow, we’d still have issues to work on. What do we really think about people whose rung on the status ladder is well below ours? Or do we even think about them at all?

How human are we, really?

To be Christian is not to be non-human; it is to be the best—by which I mean the most whole, the most complete—human beings we can be.

That’s a big part of what it meant, I believe, for Jesus to be fully human: he was whole and complete. He had full integrity all the time.

Yet, when the story is over, the slave is still a slave and the master is still a master. The difference is that the slave is a well slave instead of a sick slave. And Jesus leaves things that way. He doesn’t tell the centurion to set his slave free.

Forgive me. I’ve gone and turned a nice story with a happy ending into an ethical quandary.

Besides, there is something encouraging in the fact that Jesus sometimes worked within the social conventions of his day. Given the way people are, if he had only worked with in an open-minded, socially just culture that gets everything just right, he wouldn’t have gotten anything done. Not in the Roman Empire, not in the patriarchal family system, not anywhere.

Perhaps you’ll allow me to flex my imaginative muscles a little bit. With this story, as with most of the stories in the Gospels, we don’t know how things worked out in the long term. But in my imagination, some day—maybe it was in just a few days, maybe it was in a few years—the centurion, who never got over what Jesus did for him and for his slave, finally got full enough of God’s love and grace that he looked at his slave and said, “I set you free.”

“And here’s enough cash to get you started on your own.”

“And if you need me for anything, please come by.”

“And you’re welcome in my home anytime.”

“And you are now, and forever will be, my brother in Christ.”

Discussion

1. Within what social conventions does the church work where your congregation is located? Does your church make an effort to stay aware of those strictures and to try to overcome them? If so, how? If not, how can you move in that direction?
2. Why do you think Jesus didn’t tell the centurion to free his slave?
3. Why do you think the centurion first sent a delegation of Jewish elders to seek Jesus’ help, but then sent friends to say he didn’t expect Jesus to come to his house?
4. Jesus said that he hadn’t found such faith in Israel as he found in the Roman centurion. What was so great about the centurion’s faith?
5. Are there any ways in which we think about and treat certain people or “kinds” of people as less than human, or as less human than we are? What can we do to overcome such attitudes and actions?

Reference Shelf

As you prepare to teach or preach this passage, look ahead to the next one and to its conclusion in 7:16: “A great prophet has risen among us!” This miracle is something like Elisha’s healing of Naaman. Both stories involve a Jewish prophet who heals and a non-Jewish army officer; in both cases there is an intervention from a Jewish intermediary; and in both cases the healing happens without the prophet touching the Gentile. Luke, who loves to take stock stories and put a little twist on them, has seriously inverted this model. Naaman himself was sick, and it was his Jewish slave who first told him of Elisha. Naaman comes to Elisha to ask for help and is offended at the cure offered by the prophet; his slaves, presumably Gentiles, talk him into doing what the prophet suggests, and so he is cleansed, not because of his faith, but because of the faith of his servant girl, who first pointed him to Elisha, and of his manservants, who nudge him into taking the plunge. In Luke’s version, “Elisha” is willing to come to “Naaman” to cure the officer’s slave, and it’s “Naaman’s” faith that results in the cure—the same way the faith of the paralytic’s friends are part of his cure. In Luke’s version, “Naaman’s” Jewish servants—the elders of Capernaum—do not point him to “Elisha”—he already knows who Jesus is—but carry, and maybe miscarry, the message asking for help. And perhaps most interestingly, in 2 Kings 5, Naaman uses the “I am under authority” argument to get a special dispensation from the prophet that allows him to worship in a pagan temple, even though he knows that Israel’s God is the true one. By contrast, Luke’s centurion correctly assumes that Jesus’ relation to God is something like his own authority structure.

Luke, then, presents Jesus as a prophet like Elisha who can and will heal Gentiles as well as Jews, but with a twist: this prophet is willing to go to them, if need be. And in turn, Luke presents the Gentile who is healed as a model of how to respond to a prophet’s willingness to help in God’s name.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 208.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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