I’m a Chicagoan.
Been here – in spirit all the time and in body most of the time – for 50 years now.
So, I know, from experience, a thing or two about “clout.”
In the most generous rendering of it, clout has to do with the power – political, economic, social, personal and, yes, religious – to get something you want done.
A less generous rendering has it referring to use of that power by virtue of privilege or special advantage.
Someone with clout gets her or his way for herself or himself or for a friend, family member or some other kind of favorite, while someone without clout gets left out.
Chicago is known as “the city that works” – and that’s popularly attributable to the exquisite exercise of clout among the city’s elites.
The argument is, like the case for capitalism, that everyone benefits from that exercise of clout, even if some benefit a whole lot and others (most others) benefit just a little.
It seems that Capernaum of old had a lot in common with Chicago of the more recent past and present in terms of clout.
At the beginning of Luke’s seventh chapter, we learn of an officer in the Roman army (a “centurion”) who has a prized slave who is very sick – actually, near death.
We don’t know if this military official is an Israelite or not. But we do know he has clout – not just by virtue of office and rank, but also because he has used his wealth to court the favor of the Israelites he is ruling.
In fact, he’s put up the cash for the construction of a new synagogue. The Israelites there in Capernaum are indebted and beholden to him. And he knows it.
So, in order to keep his prized slave not just alive but also back to being a working slave, the centurion goes to the elders of that synagogue, whose construction he has just financed.
He tells them that he’s heard about Jesus and his capacity to heal people, and asks them (the elders) to do whatever they can to have Jesus come and heal his slave.
The centurion is exercising his clout. And it works!
The elders of the synagogue come to Jesus and explain the situation. Luke tells us that they said to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him.”
Jesus gets it. He understands how clout works. So he heads toward the centurion’s home.
But even before Jesus arrives, the centurion has some of his friends go meet Jesus and tell him, on behalf of the centurion, that Jesus doesn’t have to set foot in the house where the slave is dying, he just has to say the word and the slave will be healed.
The ambassadors for the centurion explain that the centurion himself knows all about authority and clout – that all the military official needs to do is give a command and it’s done – and what he is respecting about Jesus is that he has that same kind of authority and clout to save the slave.
Jesus evidently is impressed. He tells everyone around him that he’s amazed by the faith that the centurion has shown: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
And, sure enough, when the ambassadors of the centurion returned, “they found the slave in good health.”
What a great example of clout in action! What an endorsement of clout itself! And maybe slavery, too?
Many Chicagoans would be impressed and proud. Maybe even justified in the way their city works by virtue of clout and, for all practical purposes, slavery.
“No,” I can hear you say, “the whole point of the story is to show what the exercise of faith and trust, not clout, looks like.”
I suppose that might be the case.
But there seems to be some recognition in the text about the persistence of unfair, unequal, unjust structures and practices that the followers of Jesus have to work within until the full reign of God is fully realized – and how even these less-than-holy structures and practices may (and may not) work for the realization of a relative, partial but real good.
The centurion, after all, used his clout and the evil of slavery to save another life, whatever his mixed motives might have been.
He could have used that same clout and the institution of slavery to dispense with that life and simply look for another slave. He chose not to.
With whatever clout they can muster, some today are trying to deny sick and dying people access to affordable health care of high quality – to health and life.
Others seem ready to use whatever clout they have to help people overcome the slavery of poverty and illness.
What seems strange is how many people say they have the same kind of faith in Jesus as the centurion, but fail to use their clout to save millions, literally millions, of lives.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.