But if I do you this favor now, then I might ask a favor of you in the future and I will expect that you do me service then, even if what I ask might sound to you to be . . . unpleasant. — Al Pacino
I love that quote. It’s a variation on a Godfather scene and comes from a comedy that Pacino did, the name of which escapes me right now. My kids know the line very well. Whenever they ask me a favor to do something they should probably do for themselves I break out this line. They have started to reciprocate.
The strange reality is that Mediterranean culture works this way. (John Pilch, who inspired these reflections) I do for you — like build a synagogue for you — and you advocate with the prophet and faith healer on my behalf. In the process, you will talk glowingly of me. The centurion had the synagogue leadership in his debt deeply. He was their patron who had proven himself a benefactor who also, as a representative of Rome, could bring down the powers and benefits of Rome. He was to be heeded. He did large favors and you did favors for him and he would reciprocate richly in return.
He also knows how to defer to a greater one. This is contained in his message brought to Jesus by even more “friends” — likely over who also owed him. “I am not worthy to have you under my roof . . .“ is a not so subtle admission of subservience. The patron receives his clients, not the other way around and he has no wish to be seen as Jesus’ greater. He acknowledges that he knows that Jesus can bring down the powers and benefits of Heaven.
Would Jesus have gone to his house? The story suggests that he was on his way there. The incarnation requires no less. Yet, those meetings are full of peril. One does not meet as powerful patrons on either’s home turf without one suffering shame at the magnificence or power of the other thereby becoming the other’s client or sworn enemy. Better to meet in public or neutral places. So Jesus’ presence does ask a question: “Whose turf are we on and how did the meeting go?” When Jesus ascends into heaven a final question is answered: “Who is most honorable in this story of Jesus here on earth?” The answer clearly is: Jesus. And whose turf is it? Today’s story again drives home the point that Jesus is control of it so it it is his turf.
Our centurion friend is ahead of this honor game here. He knows he is dealing with a greater one and acts accordingly. Honor got things done in his world. You do me favors and time comes when I will be asked to do favor for you, and if you are greater than I then you do for me in magnificent ways that were not called for or necessary putting me even further into debt. Here, the system of favor and patronage got a servant healed.
This whole honor system is a foreign land to us. We have a different means of exchange: Money. Or good insurance which is pretty much the same thing. What need does “homo economicus” have of others? They can be bought or persuaded by proper amounts of money to do what one wants. In Star Trek language: “Let them keep their honor, you keep their money.” (Feringi Law of Acquisition #189 — no, totally true) The orderly exchange of value is built into the system that we live in today and that system devalues relationship in favor of transaction. Maybe our troubled relationship with God’s law is based on this. We see it as transaction and neglect the relationship that stands behind the Law.
Faith does not operate like that. Faith, seen as loyalty, the way early Christians would have understood it, really has no hard currency to be an intermediary between the benefactor and the client. Favors were done. Lots of them. Even unpleasant ones. (hear that kids?) It was not as reward or payment that favors were done, it just was a holy obligation of being in the world as one, it was a way of life.
The centurion lives with Jesus as a recognized “greater.” Pharisees do not. Jesus here proves to be a worthy patron who provides for the good of his clients. This will go on through the rest of the Gospel and be evident in the parables as well. It is also beautifully shown in the crucifixion story. “Forgive them fro they do not know what they are doing,” today you will be with me in paradise,” are moments of Jesus taking care of rebellious humans he none the less feels deep responsibility.
The pharisees on the other hand challenge him in all the Gospel accounts and Luke is no exception. Jesus sigh: “Not even in Israel have I found faith like this,” is a subtle complaint about this. They treat him as an adversary whose honor they must challenge for sake of their own honor.
Are we likewise challenging the honor of God? I would guess the answer is contained in how we see our relationship with Heaven. Is it one of mutually obligated holy life or a hard currency transaction? In our life and in our daily talk do we speak well of Jesus? Do we, by our living, give honor or disgrace to the Holy One? Are our lives clear in that we esteem God as our benefactor instead of something else? Who do you bow to?