And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
It must have been tough, disagreeable, even disgusting work. The centurion in Mark 15 was simply doing his job, overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus. No doubt he had done it before and would do it again. Romans made a habit of torturing their insurgents on crosses, and centurions had to supervise the dirty work.
It would be easy to imagine that the centurion had learned to harden himself, to bury his emotions, to do his work without feeling as he ordered the soldiers in his charge to nail human beings to pieces of wood so they might die, slowly and horribly. It’s possible that centurions could revel in hatred and vengeance, but the centurion in Mark 15 doesn’t seem to be that sort of person.
Rather, when watching Jesus die, he was deeply moved. He saw Jesus, not as a traitor against Rome, not as a criminal deserving a horrid death, but rather as something more. Much more. Thus, when Jesus breathed his last breath, the centurion said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:39).
Now, we should be careful not to read more into this than is historically plausible. It’s unlikely that the centurion saw Jesus as the Son of God in the way Christians would come to believe about Jesus, the second member of the Trinity. In Greco-Roman society, heroic men could be called sons of God. The Roman emperors could be called sons of God because their fathers were believed to have been deified after death. Yet, whatever the centurion actually meant, he clearly saw Jesus as an extraordinary person, as the last sort of person who should have been crucified. Christians, of course, hear in the centurion’s word a confession of faith that foreshadows our own.
What strikes me today as I reflect on this text, however, isn’t so much a matter of Christology as a matter of how God meets us at work. The centurion, in doing his job, had an unexpected encounter with God. This was probably the last thing he would have anticipated as he oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet, while doing his terrible job, there was God: God making himself known in suffering, God reaching out through the person of Jesus, God showing up when least expected.
I believe God continues to do things like this. Again and again, I hear from people how God made himself known in the midst of their work. Sometimes God speaks through the voice of a colleague. Sometimes God provides wisdom in the face of insoluble challenges. Sometimes God offers comfort when our work discourages us. Sometimes God gives us a new vision for how our work contributes to his broader work in the world.
The question I have for myself – and for you – is one of our openness and availability. If God were to make himself known to us in our daily work, would we notice? Are we looking for God’s grace and guidance? Are we attentive to the still, small voice of the Spirit? Or are we so focused on the work we’re doing that we would miss God altogether?
Recently, I’ve been working on a new practice in my devotional life. In the evening, shortly before bed, I try to set aside time to reflect on my day, to prayerfully consider what happened and what it means. Time and again, I find myself discovering ways God was present in my days, ways that I had completely overlooked earlier in the day. If you aren’t doing so already, perhaps you might join me in a late evening reflection. May this help you to see all the ways he is present in your life, including your work.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
In what ways have you experienced God in your daily work?
What might keep you from being aware of God’s presence and power in your work life?
What would help you to see more clearly what God is doing in, through, and around you?
Gracious God, thank you for helping the centurion to see Jesus, not as a criminal worthy of execution, but as the Son of God. Whatever the centurion meant, his words tell a profound truth. Thank you for helping him to see you as he worked.
Help us, dear Lord, to be open to ways you might reveal yourself in our workplaces, whether in our offices, studios, shops, or homes. Give us minds and hearts ready to attend to you, to respond to you, to rejoice in you.
All praise be to you, O God, because you are with us always. All praise be to you, O God, because you make yourself known to us in surprising ways and surprising places, and most of all, in Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God. Amen.