Our last two faith stories in October take place some 800 years after our visit with Elijah on Oct. 13. We are back in northern Israel, although now Roman domination replaces an Israelite king. Both this story of a Roman soldier whose slave was healed remotely by Jesus, and an awkward foot-washing account are no doubt familiar to Sunday school attenders. So I will instead touch on their cultural settings.
The soldier in Luke 7:1-10 is a centurion, Latin for a captain over 100 infantrymen. Though unnamed, he is used to being in charge — the final authority over his mini-empire of Galilee. He is stationed in Capernaum, a town by the sea, the same town where Jesus has made his headquarters. (I can picture this since I just visited ancient Capernaum last April, at the end of a five-day, 40-mile hike from Nazareth on the Jesus Trail.)
But first, a mistranslation. In the NIV, the centurion has a valuable servant who is ill. But the Greek word is doulos — an enslaved person. He is not a diakonos, a servant receiving pay for work. Translators often soften the word “slave,” imagining, I suppose, that Jesus would have spoken against this vile system had it really existed there.
But it did. Slavery was the economic engine of the Roman Empire, comprising 15 percent to 30 percent of the population, and no one then could have imagined otherwise.
In his book, Slavery as Social Death, the sociologist Orlando Patterson defines slavery as the “permanent, violent domination of dishonored persons torn from their birth families.” The centurion depended on this valuable slave, perhaps to keep his records or organize his household, perhaps also to use sexually, since a slave’s body was the owner’s property.
The centurion believed kindness is more effective than domineering cruelty. By maintaining good relationships with Jewish elders around Capernaum, he could get help from them when needed.
Though not a believer in Yahweh, the centurion understood power. He could use his political power in Galilee to negotiate with Jesus’ spiritual power over illness.
So Jesus saw the centurion’s political calculation of power and his kindness to social inferiors and called it greater faith than he had found in Israel.
Questions to ponder: What is “faith” in this context? If Jesus had power to heal the slave, could he also have negotiated his freedom?
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus confronts a different issue of social class (and gender). We meet Pharisees, often portrayed as villains in the Gospels but probably the social-political-religious party with which Jesus was most closely connected. In any case, it earned him a dinner invitation.
Any comparable incident in our world would be ludicrous. Imagine a group of male elders in a small-town conservative church who invite a guest evangelist to dinner to check out his theology. A brash woman of uncertain morals breaks into the dining room and proceeds to undress the guest’s feet and anoint them with expensive perfume! Can’t imagine it? Neither can I.
Charles Talbert’s commentary notes that “in the East, the door to the dining room was left open so the uninvited could pass in and out during the festivities.” They could sit by the wall and listen to the conversation. That explains how this woman got into the room. And in those days, foot washing before supper was common because of transportation only by sandaled feet on dusty or muddy roads spackled with animal droppings.
Still, the woman’s unusual behavior demands a backstory. In 7:47, Jesus tells Simon, his host, that the woman’s many sins have been forgiven. A previous encounter with her must have resulted in repentance. Her lavish, sensual act was gratitude for sins already forgiven.
The story centers on the act of “seeing” as perceiving. Simon sees the woman washing and anointing Jesus’ feet, and he concludes that Jesus can’t be a prophet if he cannot see that she is a sinner. Jesus’ parable about two debtors helps Simon see how it critiques his own judgmental perception.
Then Jesus drives home his point: “Do you see this woman?” Do you see what she has done for me in contrast to what you have not done?
Questions to ponder: Do you see this woman? What act of faith saved her? (verse 50). What loving or gracious acts by women in your church go unseen by men?
Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.