The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
This episode in Christ’s ministry puts all concerned in a delicate spot. Jesus has just preached the Sermon on the Mount and, as expected, when He’s finished, the crowd follows Him. People are eager to hear more from Him and perhaps watch Him in action. Their curiosity is soon sated when He cures a leper. There’s hardly any controversy here outside of Christ’s unbiased approach. Without a moment’s thought, He touches the leper, ignoring a huge, fear-based social and religious taboo. In comparison with what’s next, though, His gesture is tame.
Jesus barely sets foot in Capernaum when a Roman centurion seeks Him out. This is big. Although Matthew provides little color commentary, no doubt the crowd tenses as it parts to clear a path to Christ. Will Jesus get arrested? That’s usually the case when Jewish preachers draw vast crowds and surely by now news from the hillside has reached town. But why would a centurion come—without a soldier detail—to take Him into custody? This is most unusual. All eyes and ears fasten on the two men, straining to find out what’s going on.
The centurion’s come to Christ with a personal matter. A servant of his is gravely ill. Hearing this, the crowd upgrades its take from most unusual to truly bizarre. They’re also suspicious. If living under occupation has taught them anything, it’s a Roman never asks favors of a Jew. In fact, Rome never asks, period; it demands. Jesus must recognize He’s in danger here. Yet before the centurion even asks for help, He volunteers to go heal the servant. The crowd takes an enormous gulp. Taboos are shattering on all sides. The Roman defies norms by bringing his private problem to Jesus. Jesus risks everything—His reputation, credibility, popularity, and worst of all, His Messianic claim—by offering to help the centurion. This makes no sense. Why would a pagan expect healing from God? And why would Jesus intervene for an oppressor of God’s people?
Right about here, one imagines hard-nosed political and religious people breaking off in disgust, muttering, “We’ve seen enough. This guy opposes everything we stand for. He’s not from God.” And they’re right. Jesus isn’t from God—He is God, which elevates Him above human understanding and expectation. It’s too bad they leave so soon, though, because they need to see how all this wraps up and hear what Jesus says as much as—probably more than—the rest of the crowd.
The centurion declines Christ’s offer! “I don’t deserve such kindness,” he tells Jesus. “Just say the word and I know my servant will recover.” The officer’s response is an astute awareness of Jesus’s authority based on experience. The centurion explains, “I know how things work. I answer to a higher authority, who gives me power to command soldiers and servants at will.” He implicitly confesses absolute trust in Jesus’s claim as The Christ and His God-given power. Such astonishing faith prompts Jesus to tell the crowd, “I’ve not seen anything like it in Israel. I promise you, unlikely people from every corner of the globe will enter heaven, simply because they exhibit this kind of faith.” He says to the Roman, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” (Matthew 8.13)
It’s no coincidence the first two miracles following the Sermon on the Mount smash deep-seated myths about whom God accepts and who can believe. God ordained these unprecedented acts of mercy to establish ground rules for the New Order His Son proclaimed. We can yank up every obscure scripture we can find to support exclusion of anyone who behaves unlike us. But they all wither in the love, tolerance, and willingness Jesus displays here and consistently throughout His ministry. In John 6.37-38, He confirms His welcome to all in no uncertain terms: “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”
With utmost love and respect for those who disagree, Christ’s words and actions only lead to one conclusion. As the embodiment of His ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection, the Church is not a boy’s club, an organization of cloned sheep, or an honor society. It’s a thriving organism ingeniously, even defiantly comprised of unlikely parts that, in any other arrangement, could neither fit nor function as a whole. That’s the miracle of it. Any believer who, unlike the centurion, permits taboos to keep him/her from Jesus has stopped believing. It’s when we ignore nay-saying conformists that our faith astonishes Him and He rewards us. We don’t need others’ approval. All we need is for Jesus to just say the word.
The centurion’s faith ignores taboos and astonishes Christ.
(Tomorrow: Foolish Spending)