After preaching on the same Gospel readings dozens of times, one tends to draw a blank when it’s time to preach as they come around again. So what one often does is consult commentaries to try to get some fresh insight into the mystery, since one’s own little brain can only go so far into the unfathomable riches of Christ. So this Sunday (Mt. 8:5-13), one has turned to one of one’s favorite commentaries on the Gospel, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. What follows is, for the most part, either influenced by or shamelessly copped from that fine book.
The first thing we notice in the account of the healing of the centurion’s servant is that he came to Jesus. That doesn’t seem all that striking; it’s just the necessary stage-setting for the healing, isn’t it? Well, let’s see. The centurion has authority over a hundred soldiers. There are other, higher-ranking officials who have authority over him. But the highest authority, the one with supreme and unquestioned power in the whole empire, and the one to whom the centurion ultimately owes his allegiance and even homage, was Caesar. Why didn’t the centurion appeal to Caesar for his servant? Or even some other person who had more power than the centurion did? Why did he seek out a wandering preacher of a strange religion in a conquered territory? He seems to have known the difference between temporal and spiritual authority, between the power of force and the power of love. Perhaps he was also aware that Jesus had healed other people.
The centurion would have been required to address Caesar with divine titles. The Romans generally addressed Jews with contemptuous epithets. The centurion called Jesus “Lord.”
Jesus and the centurion had two things in common: they both bore a particular kind of authority, and they were both compassionate. The centurion could have just acquired a new servant if the present one was incapacitated and unable to work. But he evidently loved him, and pleaded for him to Jesus. The servant was not merely paralyzed, but in agony. The Greek says he was “terribly tortured” and the Latin Vulgate is even more descriptive: “He is being twisted in a bad way.” Jesus’ compassion is immediately aroused and, disregarding all ritual prohibitions concerning entering the house of a Gentile, He said: “I will come and heal him.”
What the centurion does next is amazing, not only to us, but even to Jesus Himself. He says to Him, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed.” Note that the centurion did not first present Jesus with his credentials. His calling Jesus “Lord” is much different than those whom Jesus mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount: those who said, “Lord, Lord, did we not work miracles and cast out demons in your name?” The Lord rejects those who come to Him reciting litanies of their own accomplishments—who say, in effect, “Lord, I am worthy”—but He receives those who come to Him saying (and meaning): “Lord I am not worthy…”
The question remains, however: why did the centurion say this? Perhaps he was acknowledging the religious sensibilities of the Jews. He is unworthy simply because in the eyes of the Jews he is an unclean Gentile. This in itself would be a striking act of humility. The Romans are the powerful ones, the conquerors, those with the wealth and the prestige. The Jews were poor and oppressed and of no account. But the second part of his statement tells us that it was more than his acceptance of being unclean in Jewish eyes. He is unworthy of the Lord Jesus because he knows that Jesus has more power and more right to be addressed as divine than even Caesar does. Jesus also has more power to heal than do the physicians, and more spiritual power than do the soothsayers and magicians. The centurion, somehow sensing Jesus’ unique oneness with God, declares his faith that with a single word Jesus can heal his tormented servant.
The centurion understands how authority works. He says to his soldiers or servants, “Go,” or “Come,” and they do. And he himself has to go or come at the word of his superiors. The marvelous thing about his faith here is that he believes that Jesus has a kind of authority that no general or ruler could ever have. Jesus can say “Go” to a serious illness, and the illness itself will go!
Jesus recognized this faith as being extraordinary, and he exclaimed that He hadn’t seen anything like it in all of Israel. This may have made his own disciples feel a little sheepish—those men of Israel to whom He had to say, “Where is your faith?” or “You men of little faith”—as they heard this Gentile being praised to high heaven by their own Master. But it really was extraordinary. Even the language of the text suggests that the centurion’s faith was a greater miracle than the healing of the servant. The usual word for “miracle” in Greek is thauma, which means a wonder or a marvel. Jesus’ reaction to the centurion’s faith uses a form of the same word: ethaumasen. The Son of God Himself marvels in wonder at the great faith of this Gentile who wasn’t even counted among his disciples!
Jesus said, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” It is significant that He uses the word “found.” That means He was seeking faith among his people. He came into this world, seeking a response of faith to what He did and what He revealed. In the Gospel of Luke He says He’ll still be seeking it when He returns in glory, but He’s not sure if He will find much: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8).
Erasmo drives the point home about not finding such faith in Israel, showing that it is not heredity, not a nationalistic spirit, not knowledge of the Law, not even observance of the Law that would cause the Son of God to marvel. All these, he says, “pale into insignificance in the light of the centurion’s dazzling confession that what Caesar Augustus is to Rome, and he, the centurion, is to his hundred men, Jesus the Lord is to the entire created universe.”
Then Jesus in the Gospel drives his point home: “I tell you, many will come from East and West and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…” The “sons of the kingdom” are those who think they have a right to the kingdom based on bloodlines or any other reason besides faith in Jesus Christ. It happens sometimes that those whom one would think are obvious heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus must cast out because He finds them faithless. Their pride in their supposed election has taken the place of living faith and the continual acknowledgment of their need for God—“Lord, I am not worthy, but save me in your mercy!”
Jesus says that those who believe in Him and do his will are going to recline at table in the Kingdom, while the faithless will be thrown out. There is a little wordplay here, because the words for “recline” and “thrown out” rhyme in Greek. The saved will recline; the damned will be thrown out.
Finally, Jesus does say the word and the centurion’s faith is rewarded, for his servant is immediately healed. Jesus says: “Let it be done for you as you have believed.” The word for “let it be done” is the same word used in the Lord’s Prayer when we ask that God’s will be done. It is also the same word God uses (in the Septuagint) when He creates: “Let there be light!” Let it be done! Christ has the fullness of divine power at his command, the power to create and to re-create, to heal and to save. Yet He does not exercise that power indiscriminately, but rather in response to faith.
That is a lesson we must learn from this Gospel. Christ still comes to us seeking a response of faith. This faith in his divine power, which is really his divine love and compassion—this faith that says, “Say but the word”—must be coupled with the repentance and humility that says, “Lord, I am not worthy.” When God finds this in us, He not only marvels but He acts in our behalf. “As you have believed, let it be done to you.” To believe is not merely to make an act of faith or recite a traditional formula—it is truly to put our whole trust in God, to place our whole life at his disposal. If we wish to hear Him say, “Let it be done as you have believed,” He has to first hear us say, “not my will but yours be done,” for then He knows that we are sincere and genuine, that we truly trust Him to give us what we really need. Then He will do whatever is good for our spiritual growth and our salvation.
So let us do this and not become complacent about the place at his table in his Kingdom that we suppose we will inherit. Let us, by our genuine life of faith and, paradoxically, by our profession of unworthiness, find ourselves declared worthy of a place at the everlasting banquet of joy with all the saints in the Kingdom of Heaven.