Matthew and the Centurion: A Liberationist Interpretation, Part 1


The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaens, 1625

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


In The Social History of Rome, Geza Alfödy makes the intriguing observation that the

only institutionalized path for upwards [sic] mobility from the base [e.g. slavery] to the top of the social pyramid [i.e. the emperor] was the career of a centurion who entered the equestrian order through the primipilate.

Alfödy goes on to make the argument that the military position of the centurion provided the Roman social system with the “elasticity [which] was essential to its strength and stability.”

In other words, because it was an “elastic” institutional position, it was about change over time. Yet, because it was change over time that existed in order to shore up the stability of the Empire, the position fundamentally was about opposition to change. Indeed it ultimately served the interests of the status quo.

This institutional safety valve which provided elasticity and mobility for the few ultimately served to underwrite the oppressive lack of mobility of the many. Moreover, Alfödy notes that social demotion was a rare occurrence in the early Empire. Once a centurion or other imperial servant acquired them, privileges such as freedom, citizenship, or membership in an ordo usually were revoked only for criminal acts.

Matthew’s story about the centurion is helpful for liberationist purposes for two reasons:

1. History, as we historians say, consists of stories about change over time.  A centurion, whether an imaginative or factual figure, was inherently an “historical” figure because he was about change over time. This change constitutively was about socioeconomics, i.e. upward mobility in terms of status, standard of living, and power with the threat of downward mobility for actions (as opposed to beliefs, for example) which opposed the power of the Empire.

2. Matthew’s story about the centurion also was constitutively a narrative about power because the position of the centurion not only was about protecting the Empire from external military threats it was about protecting the Empire via an institutional advertisement for the benevolence of the state. In other words, the position of centurion had ideological value for the Empire.


The purpose of this blog post is to develop and point out the value of an “historical” liberationist hermeneutic or method of interpreting the Bible.

I do this from my perspective as a professional historian who understands history fundamentally to be about multifarious, competing, and often high-stakes human narratives developed along the axis of change over time.  These narratives always are situated within the historian’s own worldview, constructed by the historian, semantically encoded by the historian, often told in the context of cultural discourses of interest to the historian’s audience, and have premeditated or unpremeditated implications about the status quo or its opponents.

I also do this from my perspective as a theologian influenced primarily Latin America’s theologians of liberation including Leonardo Boff, Oscar Romero, and Ernesto Cardenal.


One of the collective strategies of Latin America’s liberation theologians has been to appropriate and redefine the term “historical”. Part of the rationale for this has been the perceived necessity of countering Western Europe / Northern Hemisphere modernist projects which, they conclude, definitely have been implicated in the subjugation, domination, and exploitation of non-Western / Northern people, their cultures, and their economies.

Modernist projects include defining “history” in a way that I am calling “historicist”, i.e. as that which is finite, concrete, and past yet excavatable, transportable and objectively subject to ideologically neutral reconstruction in the present — by professionals.

It is a project which emphasizes the importance of the antique past to what have been Christian academic concerns including desires to reconcile religion with nationalism, colonialism, and capitalism.

One solution has been to stabilize the Bible via the discovery of biblical “facts” and their perceived inverse — biblical “myths”. In biblical studies circles this translates into historical criticism including “quests for the historical Jesus” and by extension the historical Bible, the historical Matthew, the historical centurion, and so on, as well as for the presumed “lessons of (biblical) history”.

While purporting to be non-ideological, the upshot is a definition of Christian “history” which often works to the advantage of the status quo and its self-aggrandizements and in opposition to calls for socioeconomic and other types of systemic change.

In part this is because the definition of history as finite, concrete, excavatable and transportable places a premium on what is past. It is the past itself which is given value, i.e. it is an inherently reactionary — and consequently highly ideological — religious project.

Because of its emphasis on the past as an ideological standard of value (or a value related to power), as liberation theologians have underscored, modernist biblical interpreters’ understanding of history is, in fact, an historicist, inherently reactionary approach serving the interests of the status quo.

I am striving to develop a distinction between “historicist” biblical readings which benefit the status quo and “historical” biblical readings which have the potential of benefiting those who are in opposition to or are harmed by the status quo.

In large part, I am drawing on my professional historian’s understanding of history simply defined as narratives about change over time. In deliberate opposition to an historicist understanding of biblical history, an historical approach would emphasize several aspects of “history”. An historical approach to biblical history would emphasize that history by definition consists of multifarious, competing and often high-stakes ideologically situated human narratives, constructed by historians along the axis of change over time, told in the context of cultural discourses of interest to the historian’s audience and with power implications vis-à-vis the status quo or its opponents.

An historical understanding of biblical history underscores its inherent subjectivity and volatility (orientation to change) rather than its presumed objectivity and stability (orientation to the status quo). It seeks to activate and orient on-going historical narratives now being constructed. In particular, it seeks to orient and direct those narratives about change over time to the advantage of peoples currently existing on the socioeconomic and other margins.

To Be Continued . . . .




The Resurrection Question

Leigh Anna and Tad died on the Friday following Easter. A few months later, on a Communion Sunday, I offered a sermon (preached seems the wrong verb) in which I described my death and resurrection. A number of people told me that it helped them in their deaths, too. Here it is for you.

“Texts Job 14:14, “If mortals die, will they live again?”

Luke 22:19, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

I Cor 11:24, “and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

I Cor 15:55, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Good morning.

Death has many agents—mobs that cry “Crucify him!”, war, physical laws of the universe which mandate without any appeal that if you are slammed into by a car traveling at 60 miles an hour while you are standing still you will die. The list of the agents of death is endless. Cancer. The list is endless.

The issue of how long is the list of the agents of death is not crucial to us. The issue that is crucial, the question we struggle with in the midnight hour of our souls, is “Does death have the last word?” Job raised the question. Jesus and Luke raised the question. Paul raised the question. The death question. Does death have the last word?

I am obsessed with the question right now. I am desperate to know whether the after life I’ve heard about as long as I can remember is true or a delusion meant to comfort people like me trying to face up to the next thirty years. I am desperate to know exactly where Leigh Anna is, exactly in what state she is. For me, right now, the question about Leigh Anna and Tad is agonizingly abstract, agonizingly inscrutable, and agonizingly imprecise. It is an agonizing, abstract question with agonizingly abstract answers. What I need is a question to which there is a concrete answer.

And so I turn the question to its flip side, to the question Job and Paul raised—the resurrection question. And I find that the flip side question—the resurrection question—has an answer that, for me, is concrete, knowable, and precise. And as it was for Job and Jesus and Luke and Paul— part of the answer to the resurrection question—can we live again—is found in that which we celebrate this morning—communion. Or to put it better, I think, communal union. Does death have the last word? Or can we live again?

It occurs to me that Jesus gathered the disciples around him for one final pre-crucifixion meal in part because he was in the midnight hour of his soul. It occurs to me that in this particular moment, Jesus was gathering strength, not from the promises of God, not from the church universal, but from his intimate group, his soul mates so that, like me, he could face a future he did not want to face. “Let this cup pass,” he said later.

And for him these old companions were the answer to the question. They had all been in communal union; they were part of him. He needed to know they cared about him; he needed to know they would remember him. And so, he asked them to remember him with small, but important concrete actions— not with abstract theological conclusions. Later on, he said, will you gather together and talk about me? Later on? Would you do the things we used to enjoy? Would you eat bread again? Would you drink wine again? Don’t forget me.

The Bible says that only one person, Paul, quoted Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And I think it is significant that Paul was also facing an inevitably violent death given his theological politics that chaffed at the Roman authorities—the Roman authorities who had announced in three languages that when it came to the death question they had the last word. And what Paul wanted to proclaim more than anything else was the certainty that when God resurrected Jesus, God defiantly announced to the Roman authorities that God has the last word over death, not they.

Paul was profoundly aware that how the church at Corinth behaved—whether the members were in communal union or individuals divided—was as important to the future of the resurrection question as any individual’s abstract theological conclusion. Would Jesus’ resurrection continue to be proclaimed and be the church’s foundation? Or would it pass away from human memory because the group at Corinth couldn’t get its act together? Would death have the last word? Or would mortals die but live again? Job had his reasons for raising the resurrection question. Jesus had his. So did Luke and Paul. And I have mine.

I’ll be searching for a long time for the answer to the ultimate resurrection question when it comes to Leigh Anna and Tad. But I want to put aside the question of Tad and Leigh Anna’s resurrection, just for now, and talk about my own. Because I have experienced it. And I want to tell you about it.

Just before midnight on April 17, my life was knocked out of me. Before I even reached the scene of the accident, I turned into a zombie. And I choose that word carefully. I became one of the living dead. I could still breathe. I could still talk. But I was an impersonator of the woman I had been only minutes earlier. And later on, at the house waiting for Whitney to arrive, I got up and without saying anything to anyone I went upstairs, not to cry, but to lie down and stare at nothing. And I felt like I’d never have the strength to move again—to live again. And I laid there for a long time, I think.

At some point, around 2 o’clock in the morning, I heard the front door opening and Whitney crying the most horrible cries and immediately I got up. I knew without even thinking about it that Whitney could not be victorious over Leigh Anna’s death if I could not because what happens to me happens to her. And so I began what for a very brief while felt like a solitary self-propelled quasi-resurrection.

But I was wrong. My full resurrection had begun before that door opened and I heard Whitney’s cries. Because hours earlier, many teenagers and adults had begun to get the news and had begun texting one another hoping that there had been some mistake. And so no one wanted to call us before they were certain. But Olivia and we have been in communion for a long time and Olivia understood that we had to be given the news and she mustered up great courage and called us to let us know there had been a terrible wreck and a fire and that Leigh Anna had been hurt. And after we returned from the scene of the accident and we understood that Leigh Anna and Tad had died, Abigail, who has been in communion with us for a long time, was sitting on the front porch. And later on Jana, who had been searching frantically for Leigh Anna at the hospital, arrived followed by Bodo and so many others with whom we have been in communion for a long time. And Charlene stayed up all night cooking so that she and Steven could be at the front door by 7 o’clock the next morning with breakfast.

So when I went upstairs to lie down and stare like a zombie you were already there, in profound communion with Al and Whitney and me, surrounding us, pulling us back to life again, encouraging our resurrections. We all have a strong communal union here. A union that is so profound that some of you even stepped in to experience what I could not. At the scene of the accident, Kelly wretched, violently, just as if Leigh Anna had been her child. And Eunice, who had come to the hospital to celebrate the day Leigh Anna was born, drove through the night from Atlanta to wail with me and for me and as me in the death of “my baby,” “my baby.” And while I was silent, Yvonne said that Leigh Anna’s death was the worst thing that had ever happened to her.

And bit by bit Olivia and Abigail and Jana and Bodo and Charlene and Steven and Kelly and Eunice and Yvonne and so many others of you pulled me back from death and pushed me just a bit farther again into life. And when Mitch gave me a wooden bracelet he had made he pulled me back just a little bit farther. And when Pat knitted a prayer shawl for Whitney and R. G. called her so many times, they pulled me back just a bit more. And when Dan and David arranged bike rides for Al they pulled me back just a bit more. And when Joyce and Jan and Norma came by after church and drank a glass of wine with us and laughed at nothing they pulled me back just a little bit more. And when Dean said he needed your patience while he grieved he pulled me back just a little bit more. And when Kim said she decided to get her family a tiny, bouncy dog named Leigh2 Bear to help fill the void in her home left by a tiny, bouncy girl she helped pull me back just a little bit more. And one of the most encouraging of my resurrection moments was the Sunday a few weeks ago when Elsie brought me a grocery bag filled with tomatoes out of her garden as she has for years. And the following Sunday I gave her a tin of homemade chocolate chip cookies as I have for years.

Life goes on. My life goes on. I started down a dangerous path with all this naming of names. I didn’t even mention Marvin and Claire and Ben and Linder and Jim and Rick and the choir and the Wednesday night group. The list of the agents of my resurrection is endless. Pat at my door with her first roses. The list is endless. So, in a few minutes, when we share symbolic bread and drink symbolic wine, I’ll celebrate the resurrected Lord, to be sure. But mostly, this morning, I’ll celebrate the resurrected me. And I’ll celebrate that, because of this powerful communal union we have, I am able to say as defiantly as Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory now? Where O death, is your sting?”

Lenten Sacrifices: What Ernesto Cardenal Gave Up

Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal

Last week, I wrote about what Nicodemus gave up in order to pursue holistic liberation. I am struck by how much he reminds me of Nicaragua’s Ernesto Cardenal. For those of you who don’t know about him, Cardenal is one of the most widely-read poets in the Spanish language and a Roman Catholic priest.

To understand Cardenal, you need to know that throughout most of the twentieth-century, Nicaragua was the U. S.’s primary Latin American client state. I don’t think its hyperbolic to say that Nicaragua existed at the pleasure of the U. S. Nor is it hyperbolic to say that the Catholic Church in Nicaragua existed at the pleasure of President Somoza and the Nicaraguan National Guard. So, in my mind, there is something of a parallel between the relationship of the Nicaraguan Church to the U. S. and the relationship of the Jewish Temple leadership to the Roman Empire.

As a young adult, Cardenal participated in a plot to overthrow the Somoza / National Guard dictatorship. However, because of the excessive violence of the reprisals against the rebellion, like Nicodemus, Cardenal had a “born again” experience in which he disavowed violence and decided to enter the priesthood. He went to Kentucky to study philosophical non-violence with Thomas Merton. At Merton’s urging, Cardenal later returned to Nicaragua where he founded a commune devoted to contemplation, the arts, and strict non-violence.

Along with Daniel and Phillip Berrigan as well as Thomas Merton, Cardenal became one of the key figures of the philosophical non-violence movement. Philosophical non-violence was indeed that which made them such exemplary Christians. It was a principle they knew was right.

But by 1972, Cardenal reluctantly concluded that priestly calls for non-violence would not end violence. Indeed, he began to conclude, it would only prolong the intense suffering of the Nicaraguan people. And so Cardenal scandalized his international admirers with a decision to publicly support the guerrillas who were gathering strength in their effort to overthrow the Somoza / National Guard dictatorship. He longed for fullness of life for Nicaragua and concluded that hope for Nicaraguan life was inconsistent with philosophical non-violence and its bargain with the dictatorship.

His decision was most welcome among the young guerrillas with whom he read and discussed the Bible at the front and among many other Christians in Latin America. Yet, it was most unwelcome among good Christians outside Latin America including Daniel Berrigan and Pope John Paul II whose criticism was especially hurtful. When I see video footage of the Pope wagging his finger at a kneeling Ernesto Cardenal on a public runway in Managua, I hear an anxious caution from the Pope: “Surely, no prophet will ever come out of Nicaragua!”

As with Nicodemus’s turn from that principle on which he had staked a calling and a career, Cardenal’s turn from non-violence coincided with preparations for a major Christian festival. On the morning of December 23, 1972, a violent earthquake struck Managua as the city’s elite were preparing for a lavish Christmas. Later, Nicaraguan poet Tomás Borge wrote that Managua shattered “like a castle of cards constructed by a Peruvian sorceress.” Approximately 10,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were injured or left homeless. The devastation to property was nearly incalculable. National Guard soldiers, often led by their officers, engaged in extensive looting. They enjoyed tormenting desperately hungry people chasing them by showing them tin cans of food which they would not give up. Massive amounts of foreign aid poured into Nicaragua. Most of it ended up in the already deep pockets of Somoza, his family, and his business and Guard cronies.

Cardenal concluded that the Nicaraguan Church’s bargain with the National Guard and Somoza would never lead to fullness of life for Nicaragua. Cardenal, like Nicodemus, responded to a political temple-cleansing Jesus who was the full-blown, apocalyptic, Word Become Flesh, Son of Man. He recalled Liberation Psalm 118 and Mary’s Christmas Magnificat and became reborn once again.

We are entering into the final days leading up to the major festival of the Christian calendar, the Easter festival, the festival during which we Christians celebrate more than any other the promise that fullness of life can overcome even the politics of death, It seems appropriate that we remember Nicodemus and Ernesto Cardenal. It seems appropriate that we recall that the political Jesus who cleansed the temple and died on the cross is the apocalyptic Son of Man sent to bring the whole world liberation. Most importantly, it seems appropriate during what remains of this Lenten season that we, too, examine that which makes us a good Christian. If being a good Christian is inconsistent with the full liberation of the whole world, are we prepared to give it up?

Lenten Sacrifices: What Nicodemus Gave Up

The story of Nicodemus is part of the fabric of John’s Gospel. Three things in particular strike me about this Gospel. One is the degree to which much of it revolves around discourses in which people are challenged to examine that which they know. The second is that John’s Gospel is filled with details of the politics of oppression and rebellion—Jesus moves in secret, Nicodemus moves in secret, there are repeated attempts to arrest Jesus and Jesus’ repeated escapes, there are trials, testimonies, judges, betrayals, persecutions, and detachments of soldiers with their lanterns and torches and weapons. Third, much of the action takes place in Jerusalem during major Jewish festivals.

Off-season, Jerusalem was a major metropolitan area set within a wall measuring about 4 miles in circumference. Within the walls lived a permanent population of perhaps 80,000 people including thousands of temple priests, their attendants, and temple police.

During the festivals, however, the population would swell to include as many as 250,000 pilgrims, along with thousands of terrified animals necessary for the festivals. Jerusalem during festival times was extremely crowded and noisy, people were overly excited and every corner bar did a land office business. Roman security was added at every gate and at the Temple, Jewish police officers were on the lookout for trouble makers. Every festival had the potential for trouble.

On top of this, Temple and Jewish leadership, including the Pharisees, existed at the pleasure of the Roman Empire. The job of the leadership was two-fold. First, it was to maintain Jewish law and ritual, and thereby maintain the ability of Jews to exist as a people of faith within an empire that was hostile to them. This in part was what made them exemplary Jews—exemplary men of faith. Second, their job was to keep the lid on Jewish rebellions so that the Jews could continue to exist as a political entity. So, in essence, the Pharisees had struck a bargain with Rome—allow us to exist as a people and a faith, they seem to have concluded with much justification, and we will keep Jerusalem rebellion-free. At best, the Pharisees had a difficult, unenviable job.

The difficulty of their job could only have increased during the times of the major festivals—Passover, the feast of Tabernacles, and the feast of Dedication because what were these festivals commemorating? Political liberation. Passover celebrated the liberation from Egypt, the fundamental event in Israel’s history. The feast of Tabernacles celebrated God’s protection of Israel in the wilderness. The feast of Dedication celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel from the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes and the cleansing of the Temple by the Maccabees.

And this is the volatile situation into which John’s Jesus Christ inserts himself. As Passover is drawing near, he goes up to Jerusalem, enters the temple, which has tightened its security, makes a whip out of cords and uses it to cleanse the temple. Adding insult to injury, he pours out the coins of the money changers and overturns their heavy tables shouting, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

It is after this that Nicodemus comes secretly, by night, to Jesus. One of the Pharisees whose job it is to maintain Jewish law and the Jews’ right to exist within a hostile empire, Nicodemus is a man of serious faith. He asks Jesus to clarify his theology of being born again, in other words, of what it means to be born anew into fullness of life. Nicodemus, it occurs to me, is beginning to question whether the bargain struck with Rome will ever result in the kind of true liberation which was at the core of these major Jewish festivals. I think he may be questioning whether the bargain with Rome is a bargain for life or a bargain for death. At the close of Jesus’ discourse, this intensely political Jesus identifies himself as the full-blown apocalyptic Son of Man sent by God to liberate the whole world.

And it seems to me that Nicodemus is beginning to conclude that the bargain the Jewish leadership has made with the Romans is a devil’s bargain. I think he has begun to conclude that oppression by definition cannot possibly be the solution for oppression.

Months later, during the festival of Tabernacles during which the faithful read Liberation Song 118 (sometimes known as Psalm 118), Jesus cries out, “let anyone who is thirsty come over to me.” And in what is a real shock to the chief priests and Pharisees, even the temple police begin to believe that Jesus is a prophet or even the long-expected messiah. Even one of their own, Nicodemus, says that Jesus needs to be given a hearing.

The people are going over to Jesus. The temple police appear to be going over to Jesus. And now, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, is going over to Jesus. And the Pharisees’ anxiety begins to skyrocket. “Search the scriptures,” they say. No prophet will ever come out of Galilee.”

So the chief priests and Pharisees call a meeting and say “What are we to do? If we let this man go on like this everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

And Passover comes around again, and many ordinary Jews are deserting to Jesus and believing in him. And when Jesus enters Jerusalem on the colt of a king and the crowd greets him with shouts of “The King of Israel!” the Pharisees say to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone over to him!” And in a desperate effort to hold onto their authority, the Pharisees begin to excommunicate those who go over to Jesus. And they assist the Roman soldiers in their arrest of Jesus who is tried and crucified.

I think that it is a testament to the degree to which Nicodemus has changed his orientation that, along with Joseph of Arimathea, it is he who takes care of Jesus’ body, bringing about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to place inside the burial linens, according to Jewish custom. And this is on the day of Preparation, the day when Jews remember that freedom day when Israel prepared to leave Egypt.

This is one way to recall Nicodemus this Easter. As one who examined that good thing which he as a good Pharisee knew, that good thing he gave up in order to claim the freedom, the liberation which had been promised by God.

To be continued . . .