The first person to recognize Jesus as the Son of God was the pagan who crucified him. This is especially significant in the gospel of Mark where everyone keeps saying of Jesus, “who is this guy?” Even the disciples who camped out with him three years straight are still scratching their heads. No one can figure out who Jesus is!
When Jesus is manhandled then nailed to the wood, they conclude, “he is no messiah.” They are all too familiar with this plot. The messiah-claimant is proved a fraud and his disciples are hunted down. The cross was the final “nail in the coffin” for their dreams to be the oligarchs of the new Jewish Kingdom. If Jesus is no messiah, then he sure ain’t some son of God as he was wont to speak at times.
It should have been the same for the Roman Centurion, utter contempt of Jesus. The Romans took the crucifixion from the Persians and perfected it into the worst physical and psychological torture. It was a public shaming of the criminal. Romans were not crucified. Cicero warned his citizens, “do let the word ‘cross’ be on your lips.” Even speaking of it brought shame. And this Centurion was familiar with its machination. After all, he carried it out hundreds of times, every execution only confirming his contempt for the one crucified and unquestionably deserving of it. How else could he have continued on his job? We can’t kill a person with a human face. So he despised everyone he nailed and the more he hammered pikes into wrists, the more he despised them. But that day, when the dark suddenly fell at midday, something broke in his heart and a light came in. His confession was spontaneous so he did not know the full meaning of how own words, which made it more sincere: “Surely he is the Son of God.”
It was not the confession of a monotheist. It was spoken from the pagan world where there are many gods. In that sense, it wasn’t orthodox. Like all understandings, he said from the categories he was fed from birth. There are many gods. Gods sometimes couple with human beings and birth demi-gods. There are sons of gods who won great victories, like Hercules. Sometimes humans can become demi-gods through great military conquests like his own emperor Augustus who was crowned with the title Filie Dei (Son of God). Yet, even as the confession climb out of those pagan categories, it also breaks them. To see a man dying on the cross as victorious, to see a criminal, not even human, as the Son of God in par, at least, with the Emperor was a revolution.
Perhaps my own orthodoxy can get in the way of seeing who Jesus really is? Maybe I can learn from those who speak of Christ without the sophistication of a theologian or even the piety of the Christian? Maybe I should not judge the way pagans speak of Jesus because they might be on to something.