Two weeks ago I was asked to be a part of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Disparities in Health Care Symposium. My role was to find members of particular religious traditions who had medical experience to participate in a panel. The symposium’s purpose was to educate medical students about minority health disparities in cancer treatment and also Spirituality and Health matters for religious minorities. In other words, what is the role of spirituality in health care, especially for minority groups? How can doctors, nurses, and other health practitioners partner with faith-based organizations to improve health outcomes for people? I worked on the questions for the panelists with members of Jefferson Health faculty. I spoke with the panelists. I sat with the nurses, students, and doctors. I heard the presentation of the main speaker, Mr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. I learned about the various cancer statistics and how certain communities have less access to quality care.
But the morning didn’t get really interesting until the panelists started to talk about faith and healing. One of the panelists, Dr. Rehana Jan, a Muslim woman, shared how in her faith community’s tradition, a chaplain or a priest/pastor is not part of the equation. When someone is sick or in the hospital, the Muslim community goes to that person. She shared a story about being in the hospital on her shift and hearing a question from one of her doctor colleagues. “There must be someone really, really important in that particular room. There are crowds of people spilling out of the room over there.” Dr. Jan laughed. “Well, that person is not a celebrity. He is a Muslim, though. And his community is there to be with him, to pray with him. That is what we do.”
Another panelist, Dr. Gity Etemad, who is of the Baha’i faith, shared that in her tradition, when a person is sick or hospitalized, the Bahai’s get to work praying. One calls another. Then another calls someone else. And so on. It is not all that formal, but it just happens. She shared a story of a Baha’i man who knew that he was at the end of his earthly life. He called his friends in the faith community and asked them to stay with him during his last days. Each day, and most of the hours of each day, a different person went to sit with him. And they prayed. That is what he wanted. He passed away with members of his faith community at his side.
Those present at the symposium were energized. The medical students asked surprising questions related to faith, prayer, healing, and partnerships between doctors, nurses, and people of faith. By the end of the morning, it was obvious to me that people were truly wondering: what role does faith play in medical care and healing?
Today’s story in Luke’s gospel—a tale about a Roman soldier, a sick servant, and Jesus’ absentee healing power—is a treasure-filled narrative full of surprises. It comes right after Jesus gives his famous sermon on the mount. This story has characters we need to examine more closely.
First, the Centurion. What’s a centurion? Well, a centurion was a professional soldier in the Roman Empire’s army. A centurion could command up to 100 soldiers. In the first century, centurions were part of the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee. They were the oppressors. And yet, this centurion shares the spotlight with Jesus of Nazareth.
Look, it gets even stranger…
This centurion, who is used to ordering people around, tells some Judean elders to find Jesus. Apparently, one of the centurion’s slaves is very sick and needs healing. Shockingly, the elders go to Jesus without hesitation and actually beg Jesus to help the centurion’s slave.
He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.
This centurion seems to be somewhat smart. First of all, he knows that he himself cannot approach Jesus to ask for the healing. That would be too dangerous. A Roman soldier begging a Jewish rabbi to heal a servant? But the centurion also was familiar with Jewish faith practices in the home. He understood that inviting Jesus, a Jew, into his Gentile home would be considered unclean.
But it keeps getting stranger. The centurion stops Jesus before he gets to the house. He says:
Do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.
Humility from a centurion?
But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.
But only speak the word.
The centurion then goes on to compare himself to Jesus. He as a Roman officer has authority over other soldiers. They jump when he says jump, they come and go as he tells them to. Jesus, to the centurion, had the same authority, though not as it pertained to orders.
The centurion recognized Jesus’ authority to heal.
And the surprising finish to the story is Jesus’ reaction to this Roman.
Jesus was amazed.
He turned to the crowd following him and said:
Not even in Israel have I found such faith.
And oh, by the way, just in case we have forgotten, the slave did heal.
There is so much to explore in this story. First, the Gospel of Luke’s audience. We must keep in mind that Luke is aimed at Gentiles, or in other words, those who were not Jewish. The authors of Luke seek to show that the message Jesus taught was a message also meant for Gentiles. This Gospel wishes to illustrate, via the stories, that the Gentiles [and Jews] who followed Jesus were actually now Roman citizens trying to make their way in the world without more violence. Luke is a collection of Greco-Roman stories for Greco-Roman people. They received Jesus’ message in a way that would have made sense to them. They would have understood the connection between Jesus having authority from God and the centurion having authority from Rome.
Luke is exposing this society to us. A centurion, clearly someone of high social status, an oppressor in an oppressive empire, is an unexpected character. After all, this guy has slaves. Yes, that’s right–slaves. We don’t like to say that word, but the silent [very important] character in the story is indeed a slave. Though we are reading about the Greco-Roman world of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel, Palestine, and Greece—it is impossible to ignore our own context. In the United States, slavery is part of our horrific past. Today, though we don’t use the word slave to describe individuals, this horrible kind of oppression still exists.
There are still many people in this country who are treated as inferior to others—they are manipulated, underpaid or never paid for hard work; they are bought and sold; they are often abused. Sadly, in our society, some still believe that certain human beings are superior to others. Some believe that God favors people over others. Some are oppressors and some are slaves.
This is a sickness of society.
Luke’s story takes us to that difficult place and pushes us. The Jesus we follow is the one who transcended such manipulative and oppressive social norms. He was the one who ate with sinners and tax collectors; he hung out with the outcasts; he touched unclean people who were sick or even dead; he said that the last would be first. Jesus served the God who loosens the chains of those in bondage and rains down justice on those who are downtrodden. The God of great mercy and compassion, working through this Jesus of Nazareth, set free the minds and hearts of those who were enslaved by many things: disease, addiction, depression, mental illness, religious oppression, and brokenness. In fact, this same Gospel of Luke has Jesus say that he comes “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed.”
So why does this centurion, someone who is an oppressor, amaze Jesus with his faith?
Maybe because the centurion also acted beyond social norms. He considered himself unworthy before Jesus, even when others called him worthy. In short, Luke challenges us all to not judge a book by its cover.
Maybe this miracle healing is about more than just a sick person getting better. Maybe this is about healing sickness in society, restoring healthy relationships, and embracing the full humanity of every person.
If you ask me, Jesus’ reaction to the centurion is much like his reaction to a sick, bleeding woman in another story—the one who reaches out to touch his cloak and is healed. You see, if we consider the Greek language in Luke, the text literally says that Jesus marveled at the centurion. Actually, this type of emotional response is very similar to the emotions expressed by other people when Jesus heals someone. This time, though, the tables are turned. Jesus himself marvels at the work of God in another. And that other happens to be a Roman soldier.
This story speaks to me and says:
Healing comes from all angles.
You see, we all have our ideas about how we heal. It’s not an easy thing to define, is it? Some people die of an illness at a young age. My sister-in-law died of cancer in her early thirties. Was there no centurion of great faith to heal her? Did Jesus choose not to pass by her house? There are others who suffer from addictions and need just as much healing. Their struggle is day to day. It never ends. Who believes in their ability to heal? Is it a lack of faith that keeps them from overcoming it?
I certainly don’t have the answers. But I do think that healing is bigger than how we define it. I think that there are people who are healed every day—mentally, physically, spiritually—because someone believed that they could heal and surrounded them with love and care. Because of those kind and patient people, they started to believe that they could heal, too. I’ve stood at deathbeds and watched people pass from this earth. No, their illness didn’t go away. But some of them were healed from other sicknesses. Sometimes they reunited with estranged family members or long-lost friends. Sometimes grownup children forgave past hurts and restored their relationship. Their bodies were overcome by disease, but they were still healed.
In every case, healing comes from all angles. God shows up when and where we don’t expect God at all. And then we are amazed. God shows up in the people who stand by us when we’re sick and in need of healing. God shows up on the day we choose to be sober and all the days we count after that. God shows up in the forgiveness in our families; God heals us from a tattered past and reminds us that every day when we open our eyes we have yet another chance to heal ourselves and to heal others.
God points us to this centurion and says:
You know all those times when you want to give up because you start to believe that lie that you are not capable of change, of love, of compassion, of breaking the cycle, of rising above social status?
Well, it is possible for you, too.
You can heal.
You can help others to heal.
You can marvel at a merciful God who doesn’t ever play favorites.
Healing from all angles—no matter where you are on your journey.
 (Luke 4:18;cp. Isaiah 61:1).