When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.
Matthew 8:5-13 (NRSV)
For the most part, Jesus’ mission in Matthew has been defined by restoring Israel. Matthew tells us in 1:21 that Jesus will save “his people” from their sins, thus defining the very reason for Jesus’ special birth in terms of rescuing Israel. Certainly, his acts and his teachings have targeted Israel and her particular situation at that point in history.
That’s what makes this story stand out. It is singled out because it is remarkable. It is an anomaly.
Not only is this man a Gentile, he is a Roman centurion. As the story spells out in painstaking, repetitive detail, he is a man with authority. He commands the very legions that occupy Israel. He is, in the flesh, the covenant curse. If anyone is destined to be destroyed in any typical way of interpreting Israel’s story, it’s this guy. This is exactly the sort of man who is supposed to go toe to toe with the Messiah and end up on the business end of a spear, paraded victoriously through the streets.
And yet, this man calls Jesus “Lord” (which you don’t want to be doing out loud in the Roman Empire) and recognizes the authority Jesus has on earth, comparing it to his own authority over soldiers and slaves. He recognizes what the scribes will not in Matthew 9:1-8 – that Jesus is the Son of Man and has been given authority on earth to forgive sins and destroy the works of the devil, including the new creation work of healing.
Matthew points out that Jesus was amazed. We get so used to Jesus knowing what’s going on with people, diagnosing their motives and predicting their actions, that it’s good for Matthew to let us know that this situation is so terrifically out of the norm that even Jesus is surprised.
We might wonder why Matthew would include a story like this that is so irregular. Is it because we have an example of a Roman soldier bowing the knee to Jesus – perhaps a foreshadowing of the Empire’s future? Is it because this points us to Jesus’ work leading to faith from the Gentiles who hear about him?
Those may all be facets of what Matthew has in mind, but what he explicitly shows us is that the centurion story is in here as an indictment against that segment of Israel who will not recognize Jesus as their king and do not believe he is the Son of Man given authority to save them.
Jesus makes the staggering pronouncement that people will come in from the distant corners of the known world and participate in the fulfillment of the promises given to Israel’s Patriarchs while many who are the “heirs of the Kingdom” will find themselves shut out of it, sad and enraged. This is a theme that occupies a lot of Matthew and, honestly, is a major component of Jesus’ teaching no matter what Gospel you’re in: the people who are sure they are on the “inside” will actually be shut outside, and the people you are sure would be on the “outside” will be welcomed in. The Jew/Gentile distinction would be the strongest and most indisputable dividing line for the Jews.
The very notion! These same Gentiles who trample the courts of the Temple – some of them will be welcomed into the presence of the Patriarchs? Some of them will inherit Israel’s promises? While actual Israelites may be cut off from those promises? This story introduces this idea in a powerful and striking way. And we know this will be true because the soldier’s servant is healed – vindicating both the centurion’s faith and Jesus’ message.
Matthew is showing us that, in light of the coming of Jesus, a new distinction is being drawn – the distinction of faith. Do you believe Jesus is the king, anointed with God’s own authority here to make good on God’s promises to Israel? Or do you believe he is some up-jumped pretender out to reform Judaism with his particular zealous interpretations and cause trouble with the Empire? Or do you simply not care one way or the other and are just trying to make your comfortable way in the world with your head down? Matthew confronts his audience with these choices, and to the Jewish readers, he underscores that a Roman Centurion had a faith in Jesus that was virtually unheard of even among the very people he was rescuing.
And what of our faith? Yes, obviously, we are challenged to believe in what God has done in Jesus. But this is a stepping stone on the Church’s journey with her God. We have seen Jesus conquer the Roman Empire, and we have seen that Empire fall, and we have seen the Christendom that Empire established go with it, and it is receding at breakneck speed. We may be slower to see this in America than, say, Europe, but the cultural impact and status Christianity enjoyed under the structures of the West is by and large gone and getting goner every day, and no amount of yelling or protesting or voting is going to get it back.
Instead, we now find ourselves with a story nobody wants to hear worshiping a God who has, in the minds of many, become irrelevant – so much so that there is little practical difference for most whether He even exists or not. New gatekeepers have risen up to offer certainty to the people, and the old ones are viewed with distrust – somewhat deservedly, perhaps.
In this situation, who are we? What is our story? What is our purpose? And pertinent to our reading today, what do we believe God is doing? Do we believe God will leave the world like this? Do we believe He is at work? Do we believe He will act to preserve His people into the next age and the age after that and the age after that? Do we believe there is yet a master stroke to overturn the systems of injustice and pain that plague creation? Do we believe that He will keep His promises?
I know what you say you believe, but what do you believe? The centurion stands before us as a question: do we have this faith? Do we, who are insiders, have the faith that an outsider might have who has heard these things for the first time? Will we discover that even though we said all the right things and went through the proper motions of worship that this will mean little in the age to come, while those who believed God’s promises – however “outside” they might be to traditional Christianity – are on the inside?
Maybe we are at a liminal moment in history where we can begin to answer some of those questions honestly.
- A Roman centurion expressing faith in Jesus would face a number of obstacles and difficult questions. What are the things that make faith difficult for you? What are your difficult questions?
- Are you discouraged when you look at the state of the world around you and compare it to God’s promises? Are you discouraged by the delay? Are their periods in Israel’s history with God that you might find resonance with?