Jesus and the Centurion

OVER THE past weeks I have been thinking and praying a lot about faith. Christian faith is a central element of our lives and a theme that Jesus brings the reader back to over and over again in the Gospels. I have read through the parables and gospel passages where Jesus praises a person for their faith and encourages others to learn from their example.

Only on two occasions does Jesus praise someone for their ‘great’ act of faith and on both occasions it is a Gentile: the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman who appeals for her daughter’s healing (Mt 15:28).

One gospel passage that stayed with me particularly, and which I wish to tease out with you, is found in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. It is the story of the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant (Mt 8:5–13, Lk 7:1–10). I found it helpful to take both passages and spend some time in prayer reflecting on how they differ and how they complement each other. It is important to remember that each author is writing for a different audience and this greatly influences how they write and where they put the emphases.

For example, Matthew, a Jew, has Israel in mind, while Luke, a Greek, has his fellow Gentiles in mind. Matthew is reminding the Jews of Jesus’ warning not to neglect their personal responsibility to put their faith and hope in God instead of civil or religious institutions. Luke instead in his account encourages the proud Gentiles to ask for help with their problems. He does this by showing that the centurion asked the Jewish elders to plead with Jesus for the healing of his servant.

While these historical influences are important, in that they help us to understand discrepancies between two accounts of the same incident, I prefer to look more closely at Jesus and the centurion and what passed between them. There is a great richness here. If we even scratch the surface just a little and invite the Holy Spirit to guide us by opening our hearts and minds to the words of Jesus we will come to a deeper understanding of what it means to have faith, even great faith like the centurion.

I can’t help thinking that this Roman centurion must have been exceptional for his time. He was a man of authority with at least one hundred men under his command. Luke tells us he was generous to the Jewish community: ‘ … he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us’ (Lk 7:5). Again Luke tells us he is humble and feels unworthy to approach Jesus; ‘When he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save his slave’ (Lk 7:3). Most tellingly we see that this man had great admiration for Jesus, so much so, that in hearing that Jesus was only a short distance away he sent friends with a message to Jesus saying ‘Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof’ (Lk 7:6).

Although I prayed with both passages of scripture from Matthew and Luke, I felt more drawn to Matthew’s version. Probably because it features Jesus and the centurion speaking face to face. When I close my eyes I can enter into this scene with Jesus and observe the whole encounter.

The centurion is someone who cares deeply for the wellbeing of his family and servants. His first words to Jesus are: ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully’ (Mt 8:1). His first word; ‘Lord’, shows how much respect the centurion has for Jesus. He has heard about Jesus and he has a deep respect for Jesus and sees him as something more than a rabbi; he is a great healer. It is his response to Jesus that reveals his great faith. Jesus simply says: ‘I will come and cure him’ (Mt 8:7). The centurion responds simply: ‘Lord I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof: only say the word and my servant will be healed’ (Mt 8:8).

The centurion is moved by great compassion at his servant’s suffering. He must love him very much to take such trouble as to go out of his way to approach Jesus. We do not know anything about the illness but that the servant is at death’s door. The centurion knows that by asking Jesus and by believing that Jesus can make his servant whole again, his servant will be healed. This tells us a number of things are necessary for healing to take place.

The centurion approaches Jesus humbly, respectfully but with deep faith. His servant is at deaths door but the centurion knows that Jesus only has to say the word and his servant will be healed. He is confident, full of hope and trust. He has the vision of his servant as someone whole not someone dying. His faith tells him that his servant is healthy and vibrant, going about his day’s work. He does not allow any doubt to enter his mind. He brings the situation back to his own experience when he tells Jesus ‘For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it’ (Mt 8:9). In this statement we have the essence of the centurion’s ‘great’ faith. He knows that Jesus’ healing power comes from an even greater authority: that of God the Father.

Personally, I really love this gospel passage, there is a lot to reflect on and it tells us so much about Jesus. He is moved by the compassion he observes in the centurion. We can ask ourselves how we understand compassion. Compassion moves us to action, pity keeps us inactive. The centurion was moved to take action so he went to the person he believed had the power to heal his servant, Jesus. But more importantly he was filled with the belief that his servant was healthy and going about his work. He held that vision in his heart and that is what he communicated to Jesus. There are three words uttered by the centurion which sum up the depth of his faith: ‘only say the word’. Can you imagine what great miracles would fill our lives if we could utter those same words with faith each time we pray?

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