“For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Matthew 8:9
A Liberationist Historical Interpretation of the Centurion Who Asked Jesus to Heal His Servant / Son
One might speculate the the appearance of a centurion in Matthew’s narrative inherently implies a character that has become, in the language of liberation interpretive principles, the subject of his own forward-moving history. The centurion is inherently a historical figure not because he is a finite, concrete man with a name and address in the antique world, stabilized as an unnamed character in Matthew’s narrative, and excavated and transported through time by professionals into the present.
Rather, generally speaking he is historical because he or a forebear was a character whose very existence implies one who at some point in time made a conscious decision to activate socioeconomic change through time by entering the Roman Empire’s only fully vertical socioeconomic conduit, a conduit established in part to reinforce the imperial national security state, i.e. for reasons of power.
I am suggesting that the centurion was a historical figure because he consistently engaged in constructing an autobiographical narrative about change, i.e. ever larger accruals of socioeconomic power and prestige, over time.
I also am suggesting that the centurion was a linchpin figure in the historical empire’s subjectively shaped narrative about change, i.e. in its own ever larger accruals of militarily-backed territorial and socioeconomic power and prestige, over time.
Matthew’s narrative clearly makes it possible to understand the centurion as an historical figure. He moves through space, decisively choosing to go to Jesus who has returned to his home in Capernaum. He speaks, pleading with Jesus to respond to his paralyzed and ailing παις.
I want to linger a moment over Matthew’s use of the word παις to describe the object of Jesus’s healing.
Matthew does not use the word δουγος, as did the gospel writer Luke in a similar story, to describe the one the centurion wants healed. That would have indicated unambiguously that he was a slave. Nor does he use the word υιος which would have indicated unambiguously that he was the centurion’s son.
Instead, Matthew made the decision to use the word παις which indicated a son who is a servant (a socioeconomic inferior) or a servant who is a son (a potential equal). Inherent in the word is that this is a tangled relationship with socioeconomic and familial meaning. So, I have translated it here as servant / son.
The centurion is a historical figure, too, because he attempts to manipulate Jesus by deferring to Jesus’ authority. He suggests how Jesus might activate a cure: “speak the word only” (8b). He presses Jesus by analyzing the nature of the empire and his equivocal place in it. He does not emphasize, as one might anticipate under the terms of Matthew’s movement-oriented narrative, the mobility implied by his place in the empire. Instead, in the only speech he delivers he emphasizes its authoritarianism — he obeys orders of the one above him as do the soldiers and servants beneath him: “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it” (9).
Most significantly, the historical centurion gets what he wants. He is the subject of his own narrative, altering its historical trajectory.
The historical centurion is not unlike this story’s historical Jesus who similarly moves through space by entering Capernaum, equivocates as to whether he will heal the παις, marvels at the centurion’s analysis thereby deciding to provide the requested healing, delivers his own speech concerning the movements of various groups of people who have a relationship to the kingdom of heaven, and heals the centurion’s servant / son. Like the historical centurion, the historical Jesus alters the trajectory of his own narrative, i.e. he shapes his own story along the axis of change over time.
The point of inquiring about the historical centurion is not to stabilize an identity and an interpretation once and for all and thereby underwrite the reliability of Matthew’s story. Rather, the point is to use a historical interpretive principle in order to create a centurion which can be activated to the benefit of tortured and paralyzed (ahistorical) men, women, and children (those who are analogous to the centurion’s παις) on the edges of current national and global narratives.
The centurion was a historical figure because he was the subject of his narrative about change over time and may be activated in current narratives about change over time.
Conversely, I want to suggest that the παις was an ahistorical figure who by contrast languishes paralyzed, tortured, and mute at the edge of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus’s interest, and current “historical” readings. Whether there was an historicist, factual παις is a dead-end, pointless question.
His ahistorical nature is underscored by the difficulty of drawing a comparison between him and current identities. The reality is that, unlike the centurion or Jesus, we can give him no real historicist identity. Was the παις male or female? Was he / she more servant than child? More child than servant? Was he accustomed to being struck? Was he loved by the centurion as Luke may have indicated? All are equivocal possibilities inherent in the word παις.
More to the point, however, is the fact that we can give him no historical identity as I am using the term. The healing, when it finally comes, comes at a distance, at the request of the centurion, and only in response to the pleading, speech, and analysis of the centurion. In other words, the παις is by no means the subject of his healing. He never asks for healing or for anything else. Implicitly, then, unlike the centurion he is in no position to get what he wants.
Rather, he is the object of his healing, a healing that comes only because the centurion and Jesus have interests in healing him. Moreover, under the terms of this narrative, there is no reason to conclude that the servant / son’s socioeconomic status has been altered by his healing. Apparently he has been healed only because it is of interest to the centurion.
One may legitimately conclude, then, that insofar as this story per se goes, both the centurion and Jesus, who appear here roughly as historical equals, are accomplices to his marginalized existence rather than his liberators.
Conclusion — Who benefits?
Matthew wrote a story which includes a cast of characters (Jesus, a centurion, a servant / son, the centurion’s off-stage soldiers, Jesus’ followers who overhear the exchange between Jesus and the centurion, the ones off-stage who will inherit or be disinherited from the kingdom of heaven), plot (a centurion approaches Jesus asking him to heal his paralyzed servant/ son), conflict (Jesus’ initial response can be read as an equivocation), and resolution (Jesus heals the centurion’s servant / son). His story is historical (a story about human change over time) in which he enters various first-century discursive arenas.
In other words, he says something about Jesus’ relationship to Capernaum, something about the Roman Empire’s military apparatus, something about authority, something about Jews and Gentiles, something about the Kingdom of Heaven, something about inheritances, something about faith, and something about the power of Jesus’ word to heal even at a distance. These apparently (in other words I cannot definitively nail down his discursive intentions) are the things he intends to say something about in this story.
What is more problematic for the reader approaching Matthew’s story with an ideological commitment to people currently languishing at the margins of state, national, and global socioeconomic systems, i.e. with a liberationist interpretive principle (rather than with a commitment to safeguarding the Bible or Jesus), is what he does not intend to say.
In other words, what is more problematic is his (apparently) unpremeditated ideological orientation in favor of the status quo as regards the unequal relationships of power surrounding the servant / son which is also manifest in this story.
Neither the centurion nor Jesus demonstrates any interest in the παις striding boldly across Capernaum, speaking, analyzing, and demanding. Neither demonstrates any inherent ideological affinity for the liberation of the one at the margins of the Empire’s oppressive socioeconomic system and at the margins of Matthew’s story.
This discouraging verdict does not take into account, of course, that Matthew at this point has not been allowed to finish his narrative — his historical project has not yet been concluded
One way out, if a way out is desired, is to argue that one of the biblical projects was an historical one — it was intended to activate the continuing unfolding of a liberationist human narrative about change over time.