In the Gospel [this Saturday] we proclaim and reflect upon Jesus’ healing of the slave of the righteous centurion (Lk 7:1-10), or perhaps we should say “God-fearing” centurion, for this was a technical term used by Jews for righteous Gentiles who had not converted to Judaism or received circumcision.
First of all, we ought to note that the institution of slavery, while not respecting the full dignity and hence freedom of the human being, was not always as cruel in ancient societies as it was in America in centuries past. Perhaps it simply depends on the benevolence of the master, in whatever place or age. But in this Gospel we see that this particular slave was “dear” to his master, who went out of his way to seek healing for him when he was seriously ill. Not only that, the centurion humbled himself before a member of a race that was considered inferior by the Romans, who had occupied their land and maintained their rule by military force.
So it is not surprising that the theme of worthiness is prominent in this Gospel. The centurion had never met Jesus, but had only heard of Him. What he heard was evidently enough for him to enlist the aid of some Jewish elders to entreat Jesus on his behalf. The elders “besought him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him…’” This was because they knew the centurion to have been generous to them, even to the point of building a synagogue for them. So he already must have believed in, or at least had respect for, the God of Israel.
The Jews deemed him worthy, but he himself proclaimed that he was unworthy—twice, but with two different words in the Greek New Testament. When the Jews said he was worthy, the usual term for worthiness, axios, is used. But when the centurion said he was unworthy that Jesus should come under his roof, a different word (ikanos) is used. This connotes that he is unqualified, inadequate, that it is therefore unfitting that he should receive someone such as Jesus into his house. This is a further humbling of himself, for if a leader of soldiers admits he is unqualified, incompetent, or in any way inadequate, he loses all respect and authority. Finally, when he says he did not consider himself worthy even to approach Jesus in person, he uses the usual term for worthiness, which easier lends itself to the state of a sinner before God. Then he further expressed his faith in Jesus by declaring that just as a centurion can say, “do this,” to a soldier or a slave and have it done, Jesus can do the same even with bodily diseases.
So the Jews said he was worthy, and the centurion confessed that He was unworthy. Now the deciding judgment belongs to the Lord, who does declare him worthy. He doesn’t use the word but clearly implies it in two ways. First, He marvels and exclaims that He has not found such great faith even in Israel—which must have astounded the bystanding Jewish elders. Second, he instantly heals the slave. But He goes one better than even the centurion believed. The centurion asked Jesus to “say but the word” and his slave would be healed, for he knew the power of command. But Jesus healed the slave simply by an act of the will. He didn’t go to him and lay his hand on him, and He didn’t even utter a word of healing. He just praised the faith of the centurion and instantly the slave was healed.
We need to have, for ourselves and for those for whom we pray, the same kind of faith that the centurion had, such that it causes the Lord Himself to marvel and to respond immediately to our requests. If we are slaves of God and of Christ, as St Paul and other biblical authors describe themselves and us (e.g. Rom. 1:1; 6:15-22), then let us realize that we are slaves dear to God, as the centurion’s slave was to him. God is concerned for us and He wants every good thing for us that will work toward our eternal salvation. So we pray to Him, “say but the word and my soul shall be healed,” or, “say but the word and my friend or relative will be healed.” If the Lord finds sufficient faith in us, and if this healing is compatible with his will, then He will do it.
In the Latin Church, the petition of our unworthiness to receive Jesus into our souls is offered just before receiving Holy Communion. We ought to realize that we are in fact unworthy on both counts that the two Greek words describe. We are unworthy as sinners to receive the holy Son of God into our bodies and souls, and therefore it is unfitting and inappropriate for such inadequate, unqualified, incompetents to dare to approach Him—except for one thing: his everlasting, divine, merciful love for us sinners. And so we say, “Approach, with the fear of God and with faith!” Let our faith, then, and our love, our repentance, our humility and our gratitude be such that the Lord will marvel with delight and joyfully give Himself to us, unworthy though we be. And we will find that our souls have been healed.