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!”
We know very little about the centurion who appears in Mark 15. He is first mentioned in verse 39, “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!’” A few verses later, when Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the dead body of Jesus, Pilate summoned the centurion to find out for sure whether Jesus had died (15:44). When the centurion confirmed Jesus’ demise, Pilate let Joseph have the body (15:45). That’s all the gospels tell us about this particular centurion.
If God could open the eyes of the centurion, if the centurion could encounter God in the course of his work, then surely God can make himself known to us as well.
Roman historians observe that the centurion was the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer in the Roman army. The name “centurion” implies that he commanded a “century” of one hundred soldiers. In the crucifixion account, the centurion would have been in charge of those who actually crucified Jesus, nailing him to the cross and making sure nobody rescued him.
We have no idea how the centurion experienced the crucifixion of Jesus. He could have been a cruel madman like the Roman soldiers pictured in the film The Passion of the Christ, though his response to the death of Jesus makes this unlikely. He might well have learned to shut down emotionally when he had to oversee a crucifixion. It was, after all, one of the most horrible aspects of his job, or of any job ever. Then again, it’s possible that the centurion in Mark 15 was somehow moved by Jesus as he was dying, though the text doesn’t say this. All we really know is that when the centurion watched Jesus take his last breath, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
The fact that a Gentile Roman officer acknowledged Jesus in this way has inspired centuries of Christian reflection. Yes, the response of the centurion to Jesus does foreshadow the eventual response of the wider Roman world to Jesus. But, today, I want to focus on something rarely mentioned among commentators. It is, simply put, that the centurion encountered God in his work. It’s not particularly unusual for people to meet God in their work. This happens — and should happen — all the time. But what is so striking in the case of the centurion is the kind of work he was doing when he had his divine encounter. He was supervising the torturous execution of three human beings, one of whom was the very Son of God. It would be hard to imagine work less conducive to encountering God. Yet, as he did his vile duty, the centurion looked upon Jesus and saw, not an executed criminal, but the Son of God.
Many of us would like to encounter God in our work, but our work seems to get in the way. We’re not supervising crucifixions, but we are doing work that seems far removed from God. Yet, if God could open the eyes of the centurion, if the centurion could encounter God in the course of his work, then surely God can make himself known to us as well. God, who is present with us always, will open our eyes to see him if we are open — and sometimes even if we aren’t.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
What do you think enabled the centurion to see Jesus as the Son of God?
Can you think of times in your life when you encountered God at work, perhaps in a most unexpected way?
Gracious God, how thankful we are that the centurion appears in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. Though we know little about him, his testimony to Jesus as the Son of God moves us. It also reminds us that you can make yourself known in the midst of our work, even work that seems far removed from you.
Help us, Lord, to be opened to seeing you in our work. May we be ready to welcome you into our work and to honor you in all we do. Even as you once surprised the centurion, surprise us with your inspiring presence. Amen.