“Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15:37-38)
“Creation was subjected to futility. . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly while we wait for the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:20-23)
This second quote is not our reading for the morning, but it is what came to mind as I reflected on our text and reflected on Lent as we draw closer to Easter. Paul is coming a little late to the story. He was not a disciple during the life of Jesus and does not seem to have been present during the events surrounding Easter. And perhaps for that reason Paul seems to be hit all at once with the futility of creation and how humanity exists within it.
There is a certain type of futility that must be faced as we approach Easter. At Palm Sunday crowds are ecstatic, celebrating their potential Messiah, their king, but Jesus does not mount a war horse rather he ambles in on a donkey. Pilate, the one in charge, examines Jesus and seems to be more interested in the crowd’s response then in executing justice. The soldiers let off some steam adding insult to injury with their mocking punishment of Jesus. The whole story seems to be a practice in futility. No one really gets what they want. The people do not get what they want and they do not give Pilate what he wants. And Jesus seems to be deliberately instigating a denial of these desires. Jesus evades the religious, social, and political expectations imposed on him that keep us from feeling the futility around us. To recognize Jesus then, it seems would simultaneously be to recognize a certain futility, the futility of trying to build a kingdom that does not fit creation.
In light of this context what sort of recognition did the centurion offer staring at the cross and the dead Jesus? The words out of his mouth were simple, This person really was a son of God. Some scholars read the statement as an extension of the soldier’s mocking of Jesus. Jesus dies, the whole trial and ordeal is over and here, this man who couldn’t even last on the cross as long as other convicts, have a look everybody this man is truly a son of God. The irony and the mocking continue. The centurion remains hardened, he has probably seen it all before and at some point it always ends up this way. Hopes are ignited, expectations are frustrated, and the powers re-assert themselves. Another reading of the text interprets this statement as the very first conversion after at the death of Jesus. At Jesus’s death this Gentile centurion sees the light of salvation, makes his confession of faith, and becomes a member of the kingdom of the God of Israel.
I think these two interpretations reflect our tendencies in how we encounter the seeming futility in life at times. Sometimes we simply buckle under it. We resign ourselves to the fact that nothing changes and nothing will change and so we find our expressions tainted with cynicism, sarcasm, and despair. The other tendency is to respond to possible futility by creating beautiful and symbolic visions that can help transport us out of some of our more difficult material realities. We have hope in what is possible through faith expressing itself in work, prayer, and imagination. This position does not buckle under the futility but it can also lead us into illusions and denials about some of the realities in the world.
So which was it? Was the centurion’s statement a hardened cynicism or an enlightened confession? There are grounds for both interpretations. On the one hand it is truly hard to imagine a centurion uttering these words affirmatively because it equals treason as Caesar the ruler of the Roman empire is called the son of God. And second, there seems to be no implications to his statement. The centurion goes about his work following Pontius Pilate’s orders in the following verses. On the other hand it is also clear that early interpretations of this passage viewed the centurion as offering a faithful confession of Jesus as divine. While still open for interpretation both Matthew and Luke offer slightly different accounts that seem to view the centurion as being much more affirming as a confession of faith.
This morning I want to consider the centurion as someone stuck between the possibility and futility of the world. In the Roman army a centurion is essentially one step up from a regular soldier. A centurion commands a group of one hundred soldiers. Centurions were often soldiers promoted from within the ranks. As a soldier there was a chance for advancement. A centurion would have known and experienced that change and improvement was possible. It was possible to imagine and work for something within the larger faith of the Roman Empire.
But there seems to have been catch with becoming a centurion. The pay and standard of living would have improved somewhat, but with that advancement you became the most accessible target of a soldier’s frustration and unrest. The first century Latin historian Tacitus offers several accounts of how soldiers direct their discontent against their centurion leaders. At one point Tacitus refers to centurions as “the customary targets of the army’s ill-will, and the first victims of any outbreak.” But in reality the centurion seemed to hold little authority beyond his small group of soldiers. In fact the blame could also be passed down onto the centurion from higher ranking figures. After Caesar Augustus died under unknown circumstances Tiberius become the new Caesar and leader of Rome. After Tiberius became emperor it so happened that one of his rivals also died. When the death was investigated the centurion who killed the man was called to testify. The centurion said that he was following the orders of Tiberius. And as you might guess we find out that Tiberius said that he never gave the orders.
So with the centurion we seem to have someone who can experience very real change and yet, in the end, may still find it hard to believe that anything really changes. At the cross he saw the soldiers under his charge mock and abuse Jesus and he saw Pontius Pilate above placating to the crowds and he was in the middle of it, striving for advancement but forever the target from below and at the whim of those privileged above. The soldier in doing his job well becomes a centurion and this promotion makes him the scorn of former comrades and the scape-goat of his superiors. And so maybe there was something about this event and encounter with Jesus that simply proved too much to take and something changed.
Thinking about the story in this light the centurion reminded me a little of the characters in some of Franz Kafka’s novels. Kafka was a German novelist who wrote in the early twentieth century. What I have noticed in Kafka’s novels is that they often start with some dramatic change but the implications and awareness of that change are not fully evident. In his novels The Trial and Amerika the protagonists both find themselves in completely new situations, in The Trial Joseph K. is placed under arrest without being told his crime and in Amerika Karl Rossmann leaves his native Germany in disgrace and arrives alone in the United States. In both these stories the protagonists believe, in good faith, that the place and the system they find themselves in will yield positive results so long as they learn and abide by the proper rules. But in each case the rules themselves are always able to steer and bend things away from their favour. Kafka is devastatingly relentless in how far he will depict people willing to work with the system only to find themselves further under the system’s power. And, in turn, how a system (like the legal system or like a country’s culture) is able forcibly, even if subtly, to bend your will and change your beliefs, like the centurion who believed in the work and possibility of Rome.
So if for the centurion his encounter with Jesus is a confession and a conversion experience then it is a strange one, one that we don’t know how to talk about anymore. It is not yet the promise of Jesus lifting the burden but may be a conversion to the full and crushing awareness of the burden that the world exerts. It is to be with Paul who hears and utters the true groaning of creation under a system and power that is able to reach and apply its pressure on all people. This is what Paul calls sin, and it is pervasive.
Towards the end of Kafka’s The Trial we find Joseph K. who experienced just how deep and smothering the legal system is and how it thwarted any good work and intention he might throw at it. Joseph is talking with a priest, who is also a prison chaplain, someone inside the system of the law. The priest tries to explain some aspects of this system telling him that it is not truth but the belief that it is necessary that is important. Joseph responds to the priest saying, “Depressing thought. It makes the lie fundamental to world order.” This might be one way of interpreting the centurion’s confession. In seeing Jesus’s death the centurion also sees clearly the system that surrounded and imposed itself on him. And perhaps like some Kafkaesque character the centurion has changed but does not fully know it himself.
In perhaps his most well-known novel The Metamorphosis Kafka depicts a character waking up one morning only to find out that he is now a giant bug, a monstrous vermin in some translations. The change is stark, extreme, and definitive but the character does not yet know what to make of it. He tries to go about his day as usual but he cannot, his body does not work the same, he does not fit as he once did, despite his continued attempts to fit under the old conditions.
So the centurion continues his duties after his confession not understanding what happened. But maybe he begins to notice that his helmet does not fit properly anymore. Maybe his spear that was once an extension of his arm now looks foreign and strange. The commander’s voice that directed his every action was now emptied of its authority. The gods that watched over Rome become impoverished images and meaningless rhetoric. He begins to see that in this situation he will always be despised from below and rejected from above.
For the centurion and for anyone who encounters the way this cross, this death, this person who brings into focus the order of the world, the question becomes how you will live out of the change. How much and or in what way will we continue to invest in trying to fit into in a system that seems to be based on a lie.
As we encounter the death of Jesus and the opening of the Temple curtain how do we continue to try and fit within the world? I used to think I knew some of those answers. I used to think I had to change myself but what if, like in Kafka, the change has already happened and we are trying to figure out how to live into it? And here we need to take Kafka seriously. In his stories some characters will go to any length believing they will find redemption in the order and system established around them. Many of these stories do not end well.
So do not stifle the groaning you feel at the parts of this world that do fit the form God has given you. Do not stifle the groaning that others feel at the forces that push down on them to try and conform or distort them into something they are not. You are not alone if at times you feel like some monstrous vermin in the light of the powers and the pressures of this world. It is, after all, a false light. So continue this Lent as we approach the darkness, lose your orientation to the light of the world’s powers, and wait.