We were only eleven when the slave traders abducted us. Came and snatched us as we were playing in the fields, back home in Ethiopia. My twin brother and me, like two peas in a pod we were; even our parents sometimes got us muddled up. The slave traders were delighted with us; black slaves were highly valued in the Roman markets. Something of a status symbol, you see, out of the ordinary, and especially us Ethiopians, with our jet-black skin; we’d grow up tall and handsome and very strong, obedient and loyal. And to have bagged the pair of us, we were valuable merchandise.
After changing hands several times, we were finally auctioned off in Alexandria, where an army officer called Marcus Cornelius Flaccus bought us for a high price. He was fascinated by the way we kept jabbering away to each other in our native language. I can’t tell you apart, he said, so you can be Chatterbox One and you can be Chatterbox Two.
Well, for slaves, we had really struck lucky with Marcus Cornelius. He looked after us well, gave us enough to eat, saw that we were taught enough Greek to understand orders, only beat us sparingly when we had got something wrong. When his leave in Egypt was over, he took us back to where he was stationed in Galilee. Although this district was nominally under the jurisdiction of a puppet king called Herod, the Roman government found it politic to keep a small garrison there, just to keep an eye on things. And Cornelius was centurion in charge of this small force, unobtrusively stationed near an obscure little town called Capernaum. He’d really made himself at home there, become interested in the local religion, on visiting terms with the clergy and other Jewish dignitaries, even paid out of his own pocket for them to build a meeting place for their religious observances.
Our master, the centurion, was a generous and kind man. He was good friends with Jews and Greeks and Romans, and especially a good friend to us, his Ethiopian slaves. He soon came to see my brother and me not just as expensive merchandise that must be kept in tip-top condition, but almost as a father relates to his sons. He wasn’t married, you see, middle ranking Roman army officers didn’t marry – wives and families would only distract a man in authority and under authority. So when my brother got that terrible fever, and looked like dying, our master’s distress wasn’t just because he was about to lose valuable property. It was almost like that of a father in danger of losing his son.
Of course, we’d all heard of the preacher and wonder-worker Jesus. He’d made Capernaum his base, and my brother and I had even seen him at a distance, as people crowded round him asking him to heal their sick friends and relations. So when my master’s Jewish friends suggested that they should ask Jesus to come and do what he could for my brother, my master agreed at once, and sent me with them.
Well, what happened next you’ve just heard in your Bible reading. The kindness and generosity of my master was just a mirror of the kindness and generosity of Jesus, who, after a full day’s preaching to his Jewish compatriots, set off at once to help an officer of the hated occupying force and his young black slave. Jesus was taken by surprise by my master’s faith, by his belief that this Jewish preacher could and would help a dying foreign slave. Being a man under authority himself, my master realised that Jesus didn’t need to come to my brother’s bedside in order to heal him. That’s worth remembering, when you pray for someone. Jesus was impressed. This foreigner, he told his people, this Gentile, this Roman officer, has more faith than the lot of you.
You heard too of my dear master’s humility, how he had an instinctive awareness of the goodness and holiness of Jesus, and so felt himself to be unworthy to receive him under his roof. I mean, you might’ve thought that a wandering Jewish preacher would feel highly privileged to be invited to the house of the Roman officer in command of the local garrison, and yet here was the Roman officer feeling himself unworthy to receive such a guest.
Well, a couple of years after this incident, our master received a new posting. A kind of promotion, I suppose it was. The new job was in the capital city, Jerusalem, and it was a far cry from the easy-going, almost comfortable, posting up in Galilee. There was a lot of rebelliousness and political unrest in the city, with various Jewish rabble rousers trying to stir up the people against Roman rule. There was plenty of work for the occupying forces, trying to keep the lid on it all.
My master realised that Gentiles as well as Jews could be received into the band of Jesus, and was baptised, and we with him, as was the custom in those days. When his time came to retire from the army and settle down as a veteran and take a wife, his parting gift to us was our release from slavery and becoming freemen.
We settled in Jerusalem, earning our living as waiters at rich people’s banquets. A matching pair of skilled waiters was considered very prestigious, so there was plenty of demand for our services. And we joined the ever-growing group of Jesus-followers who met regularly for prayer and on the first day of every week for the breaking of bread. Eventually we were chosen to accompany the Apostle Matthew on a missionary journey to the country of our birth, where we were instrumental in founding the most ancient church in the world. But that’s another story.