My all-time favorite Bible character (yes, yes, excluding Jesus) is the centurion whose story is told in Luke 7. I don’t know much about him, yet I’ve loved him to the point of tears since I was a child. I suspect that one reason is that he, like me, was an expatriate. Both of us spent years away from home, in a foreign culture, representing a richer, more powerful nation and surrounded by people who had every reason to resent us. (Just for background, I grew up in Bangladesh, Germany, Greece, and South Africa as the child of a US diplomat, and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia and a missionary in Kyrgyzstan as an adult.) I reread his story recently and realized that he is an example not only of faith, as is often cited, but also of cross-cultural interaction. All of us citizens of wealthy nations would do well to imitate him.
Mostly we’re directed to St. Paul to learn about cross-cultural outreach, and I don’t want to detract from him at all. Paul understood how and when to strip away the cultural trappings surrounding the new faith and how and when to adapt the faith to the culture. An elderly devout Jew told me once that if it weren’t for Paul, there would be no Christianity, only another sect of Judaism. I think he was right; Paul showed the early church how to become the universal Body of Christ that God promised to Abraham centuries earlier. But still, Paul did not have to learn another language in order to be a missionary, as far as we can tell. He traveled frequently from place to place but never left the Roman Empire of which he was a citizen. Outside of Palestine he was a minority, which gave him an immediate connection with other minorities. In many ways he was more in the position of, say, a Hispanic American missionary traveling within the United States.
But members of the majority race from wealthy Western countries – especially the US – who work overseas are more like the centurion. They face the immediate resentment of the people who surround them. In English-speaking West Africa, for instance, I was often followed by young men who would hiss “CIA!” at me. (In the francophone countries the insult was “Mafia!” instead – different movies, I guess.) Central Asians just emerging from communism called me to my face an Imperialist, a cannibal, and even “Shaitan,” or Satan. Romans in Palestine faced the same automatic hatred, and they, like we, had the same choices of how to respond. I don’t think anyone responded better than our centurion. Let me pick apart the obvious to extract some principles.
He valued his servant highly. I don’t know where his servant – slave, most likely – was originally from. Roman slaves came from many tribes on three continents. But wherever he was from, he was, like the Jews, at the mercy of Rome. The people of Capernaum were doubtless watching and could tell a great deal about this Roman by how he treated those in his power; a person’s character is most revealed in his domestic relationships. The centurion’s neighbors saw someone who loved the people entrusted to him and used his authority to help them, not oppress them. Even more, he obviously was devastated at the thought of this slave’s impending death.
He sent some elders of the Jews to talk to Jesus on his behalf. This tells us three important things: he was on good enough terms with the Jews to ask for a favor; he was humble, treating the Jewish elders not just as equals but as superiors; and he had made an effort to understand the Jewish culture and to act according to its dictates. The passage tells us that the elders pleaded earnestly with Jesus on the centurion’s behalf – really? Good Jews interceding for the representative of a hated oppressor? What had the centurion done to earn their trust and affection?
He had built the Jews a synagogue. The Soviet Union during the Cold War shipped a load of snow plows and toilet seats to Guinea, a country with no snow and few sit-down toilets; the centurion, on the other hand, provided the help that the Jews wanted and appreciated. How did he know what they wanted?
He had obviously spent some time in Capernaum and was not just serving his term and counting the days to get out. The text doesn’t say exactly how long his stay was, but if he had made friends and built a synagogue, he was not a short-termer. I wonder what language he used to speak with the elders. Whether he spoke Aramaic or Greek, he knew how to bridge the racial and cultural gap between him and his neighbors.
He loved their nation. This can’t be faked. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he liked the climate or the food or didn’t miss the amusements of his home; it does mean that he treated the Jews as people, respected their traditions, and mingled with them as a man and not a Roman centurion. It’s easy enough to “love” a nation in the abstract, but he was friends with people.
He didn’t take advantage of his position to impose. Another US Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia once shocked me by saying, “What are you doing standing in line? We don’t stand in line, we go right to the front!” The centurion, on the other hand, didn’t think he deserved to get in line at all. Whether he sent friends to stop Jesus as Luke tells us, or whether, as Matthew reports, he spoke with Jesus himself, his message was “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” Back in Rome his powerful compatriots sent slaves with whips down the street to clear a path through the unwashed masses. He didn’t want to inconvenience a dusty rabbi. How much of his reluctance was humility in the face of an acclaimed holy man and how much of it was an appreciation for the complications of Jewish law, I don’t know. But in his behavior we see acted out the advice that St. Paul tells us later, to put others above ourselves.
All his interaction with Jesus was on someone else’s behalf, not his own. Given his humility, I don’t suppose the centurion would ever have bothered Jesus on his own account. I’m extrapolating here, but I imagine that the centurion was intrigued with Jesus. Maybe he felt curiosity about this traveling preacher or even a deep spiritual hunger; still, he asked Jesus for nothing himself. He only interceded for someone he loved. He knew he was unworthy; perhaps he thought that the blessings Jesus brought were only for Jews. Did Jesus’ praise for his faith move him to hope that he too might be blessed? In any case, he unselfishly asked only for his dying slave – whom Roman law allowed him to beat to death if he wanted to.
So here, in the person of a soldier of an oppressive empire, we have a model of cross-cultural interaction. Love, humility, generosity, commitment, knowledge, and selflessness shine through this brief account.
All of us would agree that these are important qualities in any exchange, cross-cultural or otherwise. But they are so hard to practice! They’re hard enough in our own culture, but they become a fierce challenge in a foreign country. As I planned this essay, I thought of recounting for you appalling failures of overseas mission work to show how necessary those qualities are – I could tell you lots, and you might enjoy reading them and tut-tutting with me. But I realized I don’t need to look at others for examples. I can look back in shame at my own years overseas and know how far I fell short myself. I see more clearly now the barriers I set up around myself even as I tried to speak, eat, dress, and act like the people I was with. I recognize the inner frustration I felt with a culture I had a hard time respecting. I regret my desire to aggrandize myself in compensation for sounding like a two-year-old when I was learning the language. I rue my impulse to defend and even glorify my own culture in response to insults or ignorance. I was often grudging and selfish and lazy. I wish with all my heart I could have been more like the centurion.
I can’t go back and redo my years overseas, but it’s not too late to imitate the centurion here and now. All human interaction is cross-cultural in a sense, since we are foreigners to each other even if we grew up in the same family. Love, humility, generosity, commitment, knowledge, and selflessness are never out of place.
Tradition, so I’ve heard, identifies our centurion with the one who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and praised God, saying, “Surely this was a righteous man,” or “Surely this was the Son of God.” His name was Longinus and he became a Christian, so the story goes. I hope that’s true, and I hope I meet him one day – or at least can send a kind friend to tell him how much he has meant to me.