The Healing of the Centurion’s Servant

The Healing of the Centurion’s Servant

The Healing of the Centurion’s Servant.

Please read Matthew 8:5-13 or Luke 7:1-10 (or both).

PARALLEL PASSAGES. In Matthew, the Roman centurion came to Jesus personally, asking for help. In Luke, the centurion sent a group of Jewish elders to represent him in asking for Jesus’ help. Either, one of these two writers didn’t quite get the story right. Or, maybe this helps to explain the contradiction: In that culture, dealing with a person’s representatives was the same as dealing with that person directly. So, either way, Jesus was seen as dealing with the centurion in this story. If these accounts are seen as contradicting each other in this minor matter, don’t worry about it. The Bible remains inspired, and the authors are still human, capable of minor discrepancies as they tell their stories.

CONTEXT. Jesus must have been exhausted. He just completed an intense summary of His core teachings with His followers: The Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew), or also known as the Sermon on the Plain (in Luke). Jesus put everything He had, well, not quite, into this extended time of teaching. He wants His disciples to know the fundamentals of the Kingdom. He wanted to share the secrets of a faithful life, how to treat each other, the attitudes that reflect His heart, the actions that reveal the gospel values. Jesus invested a lot of thought and energy into this long sermon, and when He finished, He wanted to return to the comforts of His adopted home in Capernaum.

On this return trip to familiar territory and friends, Jesus healed a man with leprosy. Faced with this opportunity to show mercy, He couldn’t help Himself. He jumped at the chance to reveal to those around Him that compassion was a core ingredient in His character, whether or not He was tired. Interestingly, Jesus told the healed leper to be quiet about the healing. Don’t tell anybody. He didn’t want big crowds to try to force a Palm Sunday just yet. The time for the Passion and the ultimate sacrifice has not yet come. The timing wasn’t right. Also, He probably didn’t want to become known as simply a miracle worker. That was only one aspect of His ministry.

THE CENTURION. While walking around in Capernaum, Jesus is confronted by a request to heal a Roman centurion’s servant. Remember that for the most part, the Jews despised the Romans. They were the oppressors, the enemies of the people. The Romans occupied the Jewish homeland and were a major interference in daily life. But this Roman centurion was different. He was seen as a friend of the Jews. He actually built the Jews a synagogue, and actively supported them. The Jewish people of that area loved and respected this representative of Rome, a captain over 100 soldiers.

The Roman officer was easy to respect. For one thing, he was unusually kind and considerate of his servant, someone in a totally different social and economic caste. To show compassion for someone of lower estate was very Christ-like. It was clear to everyone that the centurion loved the Jewish people, and that he had a generous, open, and magnanimous heart. Surprisingly, he was humble where he could easily have been proud, if not arrogant. After all, the Romans portrayed themselves as superior, and they had no hesitation to show their supremacy over the Jewish people at any time. This impressive centurion also revealed his deep humility by recognizing the authority of Jesus. Jesus had power where the centurion didn’t, and the centurion freely accepted that. The centurion’s faithful humility accepted the fact that, though he had the military authority to manage 100 soldiers, he didn’t have authority over disease. The centurion recognized that, just as he had the power to command men, only Jesus had the power to command illness to depart from his paralyzed servant. The centurion’s humility was on full display when he told Jesus, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor.” Amazing humility from a Roman officer. Those words are still quoted in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Finally, the centurion proved to be insightful in his faith when he told Jesus, “…I am under the authority of my superior officers.” The centurion implied that, just as he was under authority, Jesus is likewise under authority, the ultimate authority of the Father.

DELEGATION. The centurion told Jesus that he has control of his command, as far as his authority goes. He can tell a soldier to do something, the soldier will have to do it. The centurion believes that Jesus has similar control over His healing powers, that if He tells the illness to depart, it will depart. The centurion says that all Jesus needs to do is give the word, give the command even from a distance, and the healing will occur. Just like at creation, a word is all that’s needed. A healing from a distance. The centurion is saying to Jesus, “You’re just like me. I delegate all the time. I am asking you to do some delegation of your healing Spirit. Delegate your healing power to my poor servant.”

JESUS. a. Jesus could hardly take this in. Such faith from a Gentile, and from a Roman officer at that! He is looking for just this kind of faith as He wanders around in Jewish territory. And here he finds it, but not among the Jews, the chosen people of Israel. The centurion’s combination of humility, compassion and faith has not been found anywhere by Jesus until now. There are only two times in the gospels when Jesus is said to “marvel.” Once, when He was in His home town of Nazareth, and He “marveled” at their unbelief. And the only other time is here with the Roman centurion, when Jesus “marveled” at the officer’s faith.

b. Looking at Matthew 8:7, some Greek scholars have read it as a question. Instead of Jesus saying, “I will come and heal him,” many scholars translate it as saying, “Shall I come and heal him?” Interesting. Did Jesus speak this statement with an upper inflection at the end, turning it into a question? Was Jesus expressing a legitimate hesitance, wondering if He wanted to perform this healing of a Roman, or if He wanted to go into this Gentile’s house that was ceremonially unclean? Or was He pretending to be hesitant to see how serious the centurion was in his request? Any way you look at it, as it ended up, Jesus was ready, willing and able to heal the officer’s servant.

c. Some of the more zealous Jews could well have been perturbed that Jesus would stoop to help the oppressive regime in this way. A faithful Jew, helping a Roman enemy? But what an opportunity for Jesus to walk His talk. He just finished telling His followers to love their enemies. “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid… You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:35-36). Perhaps Jesus was glancing at the zealots in His band of disciples as He performed this healing. The message is clear and unmistakable. Love your enemies, even the Romans.

d. There are only two stories in the gospels of Jesus healing from a distance. In all His other healings, He may not have touched them, but He did see them. In these two cases, He didn’t even lay His eyes on the healed person. And they were both Gentiles… the Roman centurion’s servant is one case, and the other is in Mark 7:25-31. This second healing involves a Gentile from Syrian Phoenician, when she begs Jesus to expel an evil spirit from her young daughter. After a short time of teasing and testing her persistence and faith, Jesus compassionately performs the exorcism long-distance. Jesus’ spiritual power is so overwhelming, He can kick out a demon without every seeing the person effected.

THE FEAST. After lifting up the Roman centurion as a model of faith, Jesus starts referring to the Kingdom feast… “Many will come from east and west, and dine with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 8:11). Jesus is highlighting that the Messiah’s blessings and message are meant for everyone, Jew and Gentile. Jesus is standing on the prophetic shoulders of Isaiah and Malachi with this observation. “My name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night. All around the world they offer pure offerings in honor of my name. For my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Malachi 1:11). “In Jerusalem, the Lord of Hosts will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet.” (Isaiah 25:5). “Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say,  ‘The Lord will never let me be part of his people.’ I will also bless the foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord, who serve him and love his name. (Isaiah 56:3, 5). The salvation of the Lord is meant for all people, even Gentiles, even Roman officers.

THE DARKNESS. Jesus here is warning the unrepentant Jews who thought they had an automatic entrance into the kingdom because of their Jewishness. “The sons of the Kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew. 8:11). The imagery here is that of one being put outside of a well-lighted banquet hall, where there was darkness. And the further one is away from the feast, the darker it gets. The outer darkness is well away from the banquet hall, in the deepest darkness. Those in that state, the unbelieving ones, will weep and wail and grind their teeth from the anger, sorrow and frustration of not being able to attend the feast. Jesus is noting the irony of a Roman soldier being invited to the feast, while certain Jews are not.

The Big Question: What did we learn about Jesus in this story?