At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 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!’ (Matthew 15:34-39)
This is by way of a postscript to last week’s comments. Never mind the bystanders whose grasp of Hebrew/Aramaic is less than perfect (my grasp of either is nil!), and who give Jesus drink purely to prolong the spectacle (or do they actually want him rescued?). What has recently stood out for me is the centurion’s response. This man is not only a) a Gentile in the service of the occupying forces but also b) a man who lives by violence or the threat of it. And yet it is he who gets the point, while the others miss it.
You might expect this soldier to come out with his ground-breaking statement after Jesus has said ‘It is finished’ or perhaps after that touching scene with his mother and the disciple John. It would be even more appropriate, perhaps, if he were to make his profession of faith after hearing Jesus say ‘Father, forgive them’, and thus publicly renounce violence and embrace non-resistance. But he doesn’t. Instead, he speaks immediately after Jesus has cried his apparently most despairing utterance from the Cross. At this point, Jesus appears to be utterly defeated, throwing in the towel at his abandonment by his previously ever-present Father.
Yet it is here that the centurion recognizes the universal principle I suggested last week: ‘Power is made perfect in weakness’. Here, when Jesus is desperate, unable even to move, hardly able to speak, that a man of violence gains his insight into the victory that is expressed in absorbing violence, not returning it. Dare we act any differently, when we are threatened? Because when we meet violence with violence, our gospel is null and void. Only when we suffer violence and refuse to return it, do we have any good news for the world.