1.10 Synoptics -- The Centurion's Servant
Mat 8:5-13, Lk 7:1-10. This is the account of the Roman centurion who came to Jesus because his servant was severely sick. Jesus was willing to come to his home, but the officer declined, believing that Jesus’ Word was sufficient to heal. Jesus marveled out loud at the man’s faith, and healed the servant at a distance.
Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour (Mat 8:13).
This story is noteworthy for many reasons. One is the variations in the accounts. Matthew says that the centurion came and spoke to Jesus directly. Luke says that the centurion did not approach Jesus himself, but sent some Jewish elders and friends as intermediaries. Mark omits the incident, and John substitutes a similar incident in the same city, where an official sought Jesus’ help for his son.
The first thing to note is that this event proves that Jesus' ministry was well-known to and followed by Gentiles. They not only knew "about" him, but they knew the nature of his ministry.
Second, this story offsets the negative stereotypes from the Sermon on the Mount. Ooops, apparently some Gentiles sought for more than food and clothing.
Third, both Matthew’s and Luke's accounts show remarkable cultural sensitivity – on the part of the Roman officer, who is the last person in the world whom one would expect to have these traits. In his reluctance to come to Jesus in person, or to have him enter his house, he showed that he knew that his very flesh was repulsive to Jews, especially holy Jews. When he said, "I am not worthy," he meant it – according to the religious standards of the Jews, he was a Roman dog, not a human being at all. He knew that Jesus might not enter his house, because that would make him unclean.
"The Gentiles should, as far as possible, be altogether avoided, except in cases of necessity or for the sake of business. They and theirs were defiled; their houses unclean, as containing idols or things dedicated to idols." -- Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah)
The soldier knew that there was a good likelihood that Jesus would reject his request anyway. But he was so concerned about his servant's life that he was willing to be publicly humiliated on the chance that his servant would live. This is more than just strong faith in Jesus’ ability to heal, it is a public obeisance of a Roman officer to Jesus. When the man said he is a man under authority and in authority over others, and that he is not worthy to receive Jesus in his home, he was putting Jesus above himself in the chain of command.
This is an extraordinary act that puts him in a league with the Canaanite woman (Mat 15 below), another "dog" to the Jews. Like her, the soldier provoked Jesus to astonishment. It is another case of "crossing categories," such as occurred in the Old Testament in the Book of Ruth. And there are several more incidents in the New Testament involving Samaritans, including the parable of the Good Samaritan. The common factor is that unholy people, people with no share in God's Covenant, even the uncircumcised (like this Roman), may have authentic faith – faith that touches God for answered prayer. Under the religious system of the Pharisees and Sadducees, this was not supposed to happen – or very rarely. It could not be totally denied, because of the precedent of Ruth. Yet, the contemporary Samaritans and Romans were another matter altogether. The religious leaders were the keepers of the gates, the maintainers of the standards of holiness, and they were particularly zealous to avoid any incursions of Gentile compromisers.
Fourth, Jesus "was astonished" (NIV) or "marveled" (RSV):
When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith" (Mat 8:10).
Was it the faith that astonished him, or the fact that a Roman exercised it? Again, there is a scandal here that Scripture passes over. The point of the entire Old Testament – the Exodus, the Law and Sacrifices, the invasion of Canaan, the judges, the monarchy, the prophets, the Exiles -- all of these were intended to build up a community of faith. God had lived among them for 2000 years, so that they could learn His ways, fellowship with Him, worship and obey Him. And after all this time, God sent the Teacher to give the class their final exam. After all the instruction, all the preparation, all the legacy of God’s intervention, Jesus showed up to spring a 'pop quiz' on them. What was he looking for? Bible knowledge? Strict conformity with the social laws? Proper length of prayer shawls? No, he was looking for faith to believe in his power to do the impossible, and the humility to publicly admit one’s own need. And an upstart Roman polytheistic invader wandered in and aced the test!
This was a scandal! In fact it upset the world-view of the orthodox Israelite. It was one of the reasons the leaders rejected Jesus as the authorized Test-giver, the true Messiah. Jesus in Matthew underscored the implications of the Roman’s faith:
"I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mat 8:11).
Bash! Here is a wall-breaking statement! It is both blessing and rebuke. Notice that Jesus plays the same two notes as in the Beatitudes: validating the Old Testament, but adding a new element, this time an explicit inclusion of Gentiles. They will actually sit at table with the Heroes of the Faith! The idea was an affront to the Jewish practice of eating apart from Gentiles. Even more outrageous, many Jews will be cast out, excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven. Was he going out of his way to bait his audience? This is the sort of statement that shook the foundation pillars of the Temple establishment. And all because a Roman made a public confession of faith to Jesus.
Luke quotes this same saying, about outsiders coming to sit with the patriarchs in the Kingdom of Heaven, but he changes the occasion. Instead of appearing as a response to the centurion’s faith, it is given as a reply to another man’s question about how many people will be saved (Lk 13:22-30). Luke also adds "prophets" to the list of Old Testament heroes. The effect is not at all the same as in Matthew.
Lastly, Jesus’ response is interesting for what he did not say or do:
1. He could have rejected the centurion’s request: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” This would have been the politically expedient course. By showing that he was a hardliner on the Gentile problem, he would have gained popularity with the crowd and with the religious leaders.
2. Both Matthew and Luke record that, although Jesus healed by “remote control,” he was willing to come to the centurion’s house. This would probably have been equivalent to his visit to the home of Zacchaeus the tax-collector (Lk 19), a man of similar notoriety in his community. Visiting the Roman’s home went against the grain of public opinion.
Summary: Jesus did not seek this encounter, but he did not reject the Roman’s request. He used the incident as an opportunity to explicitly open the Kingdom of Heaven to Gentiles, and to warn that many natural sons of Abraham would be condemned. This episode is one of the cornerstones of Gentile participation in the New Covenant.