42- THE ROMAN CAPTAIN

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Cornelius was the Captain of the Roman troops in Capernaum. His huge house was always guarded by soldiers. Matthew, the tax collector, often went to see him because he was a friend…

Cornelius: Will you have some more wine, Matthew?

Matthew: Yes, a little more. It’s very good, is it from Cana?

Cornelius: Yeah….

Matthew: Hey, you haven’t drunk anything… Is anything the matter?

Cornelius: I’m just worried, Matthew.

Matthew: What’s wrong? Are the zealots in another conspiracy?…

Cornelius: No, it has nothing to do with politics.

Matthew: What’s your problem then…? Do you need money? If you want… I can lend you…

Cornelius: Nothing of that sort. It’s about…. Mark.

Matthew: Who’s Mark?

Cornelius: One of my servants, who has been with me for ten years.

Matthew: What’s wrong with him? Is he leaving you for another master?

Cornelius: No, but he’s sick. He’s been very weak lately and hasn’t taken anything to eat. He has terrible pains. I’ve sent for all the doctors in Capernaum and they say his condition is serious, that he’s gonna die…. I keep thinking about this, Matthew.

Matthew: For the love of the Almighty, how could you be so concerned about a servant, Cornelius? C’mon, pour me some more wine, my cup is empty…

Cornelius: I love him like a son, you know. I trust him more than anybody…. I don’t want Mark to die….

Matthew: Well, I don’t know… If he’s very sick…. I don’t know….. Hey…. maybe….

Cornelius: Maybe what?

Matthew: Nothing, this wine is putting ideas into my head… I dunno… but I’ve heard about Jesus, the Nazarene, well, you know him too, I guess. They say he’s a healer. They say he cleansed the skin of a leper, and cured an insane man. They even say that there in Naim, he brought a dead man back to life… I think these are just stories invented by people. But it seems this Nazarene really has a knack for healing… There are farmers who know a lot about herbs….

Cornelius: And… and so?

Matthew: Tell him to see your servant. You don’t lose anything by trying. What do you think, huh? Don’t tell me this is a silly idea, dammit!

Cornelius: I also thought about that last night, Matthew, but…

Matthew: But what?

Cornelius: This Jesus is something…. but he’s spoken hard against the Romans and we know it. We have spies all over the place. Besides, the men he goes with… well, we know their leanings…

Matthew: They’re agitators, and Jesus isn’t far behind. But that’s another matter. Didn’t you say you were so worried about this servant of yours? Well, ask Jesus to see him.

Cornelius: Do you think he’d come, Matthew? I’m a Roman soldier… and you Jews are so fanatical… I dunno…

Matthew: Well, if you don’t have the courage to ask him, then I’m gonna do it, dammit! He’s a friend of mine. I invited him to have dinner at home and he went… I think he can help you, Cornelius.

Cornelius: I think so too, Matthew.

At noon, when Matthew had finished collecting taxes from the caravans from the North, he went to the fishermen’s barrio by the wharf to look for Jesus in my father’s house…

Neighbors: The devil’s publican! Go join your own kind, you filthy bastard! Traitor!

He was wobbling, as always, because of the alcohol in him. The people spat at him, as expected, as they insulted him. But the spirit of the wine numbed his hearing. We were having lunch when Matthew arrived…

John: Hey, filthy man, what’s your business around here?

Matthew: I’m looking for the Nazarene.

John: And may I know why?

Matthew: It’s personal. Is he here?

Jesus: I’m here, Matthew, what do you want?

Behind Jesus were my parents, James and his wife. People also began to mill around the narrow street… They were curious to know what Matthew was looking for in the barrio. Zebedee, my father, was the first man to raise his voice. Then the yelling spread like wildfire….

Zebedee: What are you doing here, sonovabitch? Don’t you dare set foot in my house!

James: You haven’t lost anything here, drunkard! Go to the other corner and do your thing there!

Neighbors: Out, out!

Matthew: Go to hell, all of you! I said I came to see you, Nazarene!

Zebedee: Jesus, what have you to do with his kind, huh?

Jesus: I don’t know what he wants, Zebedee. You haven’t allowed him to speak yet… Did you say you were looking for me, Matthew?

Matthew: Yes, and the rest can all go to hell!

Jesus: Okay, what’s the matter, Matthew?

Matthew: Cornelius, the Roman Captain, wants you to go to his house.

Jesus: What for?

John: This is a trap, Jesus. Don’t trust him.

Matthew: His servant is ill. He wants you to see him.

James: Tell the Roman Captain and his servant to go to hell! You can join them too!

Matthew: Now you talk too much, redhead, and so do all of you here, but when you had to build the synagogue, you had to ask the Captain to grant you permission….

John: Ah, but that was a long time ago!

Matthew: Yeah, what about last year, when you were in trouble with the prisoners… You had to look for the Captain to help you get out of trouble, huh?

Zebedee: Will you shut up now, swine? You’re a good for nothing leech! Get outta my sight before I squeeze your neck! I don’t even wanna see your shadow around! Get outta here!

But Matthew did not leave. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his tunic and looked at Jesus…

Matthew: So, are you coming or not?

James: Of course he ain’t comin’!

Jesus: Hey, James, let me answer that, will you? Yes, I’m going with you, Matthew.

Zebedee: Listen Jesus: once you set foot in this Roman Captain’s house, you will never come back to my house, ever! Do you hear? Do you hear me right?

Jesus: I’m not deaf. No need to scream, Zebedee. Let’s go, Matthew.

Jesus and Matthew forced their way through the people and headed down the street. My father, red with rage, pounded the wall with clenched fist, then went inside the house. All of us followed him. Outside, tongues wagged furiously as they talked about what had happened.

Captain Cornelius’ house was at the outskirts of Capernaum, beside the headquarters. Jesus and Matthew, closely followed by a bunch of curious people, left the city and headed for the Captain’s house….

Matthew: I hate your friends, Nazarene.

Jesus: They return the favor, Matthew. Hate begets hate. Its always the case.

Matthew: As you can see, this doesn’t matter to Cornelius. Your friends may detest him, but he’s always tried to help them, whenever possible…

As they were nearing the Captain’s house, Cornelius went out to the street. The people pressed hard against Jesus while Matthew tried not to miss a word they were saying…

Cornelius: Greetings to you, Jesus! I’m glad Matthew has persuaded you to come.

Matthew: I had a hard time doing it. That old man Zebedee even cursed him for having agreed to come to your house… He also says Jesus can’t set foot in his house anymore.

Cornelius: Zebedee said that?

Matthew: Yes, and more, he spat on me when I knocked at his door.

Cornelius: And who are all these people with you?

Matthew: The nosy ones as always. For lack of entertainment here in Capernaum, they gotta look for something to amuse themselves.

Cornelius: I’m really sorry, Jesus. I never thought this would cause you so much trouble.

Jesus: That’s all right, Cornelius. And don’t worry about Zebedee. Barking dogs don’t bite.

Cornelius: They also say that an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Look Jesus, I’m not really worth all the hassles you’ve gotten into by coming to my house. As you’ve seen, I didn’t even dare look for you myself…

Jesus: Matthew told me your servant was sick.

Cornelius: Oh yes, Mark. I’ve heard about your having cured several sick people. I’m helpless, you see. He’s burning with fever. I thought you….

Matthew: Cornelius wants you to cure him, if you can….

Jesus: I would like to see him. Let’s go….

Cornelius: No, Jesus. I don’t mean to give you problems. Look, the God you believe in – as you Jews always say – is the master of life and death. If He can command sickness to go away, then Mark will be healed.

Jesus: Do you believe so, Cornelius?

Cornelius: Well, when they give me orders, I obey. When I command one of my soldiers to come, he does come. And when I dismiss him, he leaves. Isn’t your God the master of all of us? Then there’s no need for you to go inside. All you have to do is to command this sickness to go away in the name of this God you believe in, and it’ll obey you.

Jesus was amazed at what the Captain said, and he turned to the people who were following him….

Jesus: Dammit, this man who’s a foreigner has more faith in our God than all of us put together!

A Woman: What did you say, Nazarene?

Jesus: That the day will come when outsiders, like Cornelius, will sit at the same table with our father Abraham.

A Man: Now look who’s talkin’! How much were you paid by the Captain in order to give those compliments?

Jesus: Really, I’m telling you: they’ll enter the Kingdom of God, and many of those who are inside and are so sure of themselves, will be left outside.

Woman: But what’s this man talkin’ about?

Man: Are you with us or not, Jesus?

Matthew: To hell with all of you! If you’re not creating trouble, you’re out to promote dissent. Get outta here, you gossipers and scandalous lot, outta here, all of you!

Woman: You get outta here, you drunken traitor!

Jesus: Leave ’em alone, Matthew. Let’s go now. Stop worrying about your servant, Cornelius. God’ll grant what you expect from Him.

Cornelius returned to his house amid whistles and yells of the people… Jesus was peeved and raised his voice…

Jesus: You got eyes and yet don’t see, ears and you don’t hear.

Man: What the hell is there to see? Yes, that this Captain is a Roman beast. The Romans’re our enemies. He who praises the Romans is as much beast as they are!

Jesus: You got eyes but don’t see, ears but don’t hear.

Woman: There you go again! You’re the blind one, Nazarene!

Man: He’s not blind, but has sold himself. C’mon, show us how much this Captain paid you!

Woman: Down with Rome and with all traitors!

The disturbance lasted for sometime. When the people got tired of yelling, they returned to Capernaum and spread the story of what happened. Having taken another route, Jesus returned to the fishermen’s barrio, where we were waiting for him. Meanwhile, in Captain Cornelius’ house, Mark’s fever had subsided.

*Comments*
Although Matthew was not an official of the Roman Empire, but of Herod – because he had his customs office in Galilee – he maintained very good relations with the Roman soldiers. Rome retained Herod on his throne. Due to the strategic position of Capernaum, the city had a Roman garrison headed by a Centurion. He (the captain or commandant in our language) was the military authority over the troops, (the smallest unit of the Roman infantry =100 soldiers). The Roman soldiers were hated by the Israelites who considered them as the country’s invaders. They symbolized the imperialist power of Rome which, in those times, owned the greater part of the known world. National pride and the desire for freedom of the Israelites were a constant source of confrontation with these foreign soldiers. As far as Jesus’ friends were concerned, (who were greatly influenced by the zealot spirit – obviously nationalistic and anti-Roman) this hatred and rejection were difficult to overcome. If Jesus’ act of accepting Matthew, the Publican, marked the first serious conflict within the group of the apostles, his open attitude toward the Roman Captain would certainly be a cause for another crucial discussion among them.

As regards the Roman occupation, the Israelites were – and still are – an extremely nationalistic people. Their awareness of being the chosen people of God was at the root of this sentiment, which in most cases, discriminates against other nations and from which grew an attitude of contempt for foreigners.

In Jesus’ time it was generally believed that the coming of the Messiah would be the day of God’s judgment over all nations and therefore a time of vengeance against them. Jesus absolutely put an end to these ideas. In the gospel, nationalism is replaced by universality. Although Jesus associated with foreigners only on isolated occasions – one of which was this one – his acceptance of them was a sign that God does not favor any particular race or nation.

In this episode, the focus is not so much on the boy’s healing, as on its significance for our faith: The need to transcend nationalistic barriers or obstacles.

(Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10; Jn 4:43-54)

42- THE ROMAN CAPTAIN

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