The Healing of the Centurion's Servant
Matthew has just finished cleansing a leper in last week’s passage. The leper was unclean. He was not allowed to enter into the congregation of Israel. He had to remain outside the community as an outcast to society. Jesus healing of him if followed in obedience by following up and showing himself to the priest would allow him to reenter the community. He could be included again on what the Jews would have considered “the people of God.”
Today we will meet another outcast. He did not have physical leprosy but would have been considered in the same light by the Jewish population. He had a need just as great as the leper. Would Jesus intercede for this untouchable as well? Would he be able to gain admittance to the community of God. Let us see.
Exposition of the Text
In this morning’s passage, Jesus is approached by a centurion who had a son or a beloved servant who apparently had been paralyzed in an accident. The Greek literally says that he was thrown into paralysis and remained in that condition. A centurion was a low level officer in the Roman army who was in charge of a hundred soldiers. The equivalent rank in today’s army would be that of lieutenant. The centurion had to pass down orders or issue orders to his men, so he would know both how to receive orders as well as to give them. There were detachments of Roman soldiers dispersed throughout Palestine. Part of this was to maintain order as a kind of police department. The other purpose was to integrate the conquered Jews into the larger roman society, a process known as Romanization. By sword or by carrot, his role was to maintain order and make good obedient servants of the people.
In his interactions with the people or perhaps in direct observation, he had become aware of Jesus of Nazareth. It was his job to know what was going on. Perhaps he looked with cool indifference for a while as a spectator interested only in the interests of Rome in maintaining peace. But adversity can make people think differently. After this young lad became paralyzed and was convulsed with pain, the centurion acted by coming to Jesus. Jesus appears to have been busily engaged in teaching, healing, and casting out demons as He had been accustomed to doing for some time. He told Jesus about the boy’s condition with an air of desperation.
Jesus’ reaction was one of compassion. He said He would come in person to heal the boy. Because we are accustomed to see Jesus as compassionate to all who will come, we overlook at how shocking these words of Jesus would have been in that mostly Jewish crowd at Capernaum. He was saying that He would enter into a house of a Gentile dog, and a Roman at that! We can see how entrenched this taboo was in the book of Acts when the Lord had to use the vision of the unclean animals with Peter as well as a direct command to enter the house of another Roman Centurion, Cornelius.
The incident recorded in the Gospel of Luke reinforces that the crowd was perfectly aware how unusual this request was. There were some in the crowd who felt that they needed to vouch for the character of the centurion. They said that he was a good and deserving man. He wasn’t the usual Roman. He had had his men build the community a synagogue. These people believed that a Jewish Rabbi would never stoop to help a hated Roman without their intercession.
Jesus did not need and does not need to be informed about the character of a person. As God the Son, He knew what is in everybody’s heart anyway. And Jesus does not need to take advice from any man or woman of how to do things. He was willing to come to this man’s house and heal the boy. This was even beyond the wildest imagination of anyone in the crowd, including those who interceded for the centurion. This was an outrageous statement.
The centurion himself shows that he had studied the Jewish people well. He knew how out of place Jesus’ statement was. He did not want to stir up trouble among the populace. He knew by Jewish standards that he was unworthy of Jesus’ attention and said so. And perhaps this went beyond his understanding of the racial and religious barriers. But he also wanted the boy healed. So he showed unusual insight by simply requesting that Jesus simply speak the command from where He was. He believed on Jesus. The same Jesus who could heal in person also could command healing from a distance. He was a centurion and understood authority. Someone in Rome or Caesarea could issue a command to the centurion to do something, and he would see that it got dome. He could issue orders to his men to build a synagogue, and it would happen. The centurion believed that the Lord had command over the elements. This is not to say that he perfectly understood Jesus and had an advanced faith. But he believed on Jesus.
Jesus was amazed at this response. The divine Son of God who knows all things can still be amazed. It is hard to grasp this. This is one of the mysteries of the faith. He expresses His amazement with a solemn Amen. He told the centurion that He hadn’t found this faith among the Jewish people. This statement was just as much a bombshell as his willingness to enter a Gentile home. He had been all over Israel from one end to the other and had not seen a faith like this. This indicates that He had been looking for it. The Jews had the privilege of receiving the oracles of God in the Law, Prophets, and the Writings. Yet they did not have the understanding of the person of Jesus that this Gentile Roman had.
If this wasn’t offensive enough to the Jews, especially their leaders, what Jesus was about to say would be enraging to them. People from all over the world from the east to the west would recline at the banquet table in the Kingdom of Heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the use or what is called “merism” to mean from all over the world. What! Gentiles were going to eat at the banquet table with our Jewish ancestors in the Kingdom! Outrageous! Treason! And when Jesus tells them that these Gentiles that they would be taking their place at the table, Revolting!
We see here in this text that the Gospel of Matthew was not written to Jewish Christians but to the new People of God. These people would come from everywhere, some from Israel, and some from the Gentile nations. The qualifications for the Kingdom was not race but faith in Jesus. Faith in Jesus is what makes one a member of the People of God. Old distinctions have passed away. Israel has been redefined. It is not where we came from but where we are going.
By this time in Matthew, we should not be surprised at this proclamation of Jesus. We have already seen the inclusion of Gentiles in the genealogy of Jesus himself, a son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We saw it in the coming of the Gentile Magi. We see it in the lack of mention of circumcision. We saw it in the return of Jesus from Egypt to reside in Galilee of the Gentiles to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. We have seen it at the end of Chapter 4 where Gentile and Jew both come together to hear the Sermon on the Mount. We will see it in the healing the daughter of the Syrian woman, the feeding of the 4,000 in Gentile regions, the trip to the Gadarenes, the trip to Caesarea Philippi. We will finally see it in the call to make disciples (Hebrew Talmudim) of Gentiles.
I have to admit that I once thought that Matthew was a Gospel written to the Jewish-Christians. But careful reading of the text has taught me otherwise. I have now come to see that Matthew is the Gospel of the Church, an assembly from all nations, Jew and Gentile. Even Matthew’s Greek tanslations are not those of the Greek translation of the Jewish bible called the Septuagint. Instead it appears he translated from the Hebrew into ordinary Greek. This might not seem like much at first, but there is this leveling influence between Jew and Gentile. Matthew is as far advanced in his theology of the church as is the Apostle Paul.
What does this mean to us in the church today? If we are to be the church, then we need to build upon Jesus Christ using the blueprint he revealed to His apostles. How can we better reflect the church that God has called from one end of the earth to another? Should we even have a hyphenated church? Should we have national churches? Should we have churches for country people and another for city people? When we hyphenate the church, we separate it rather than unite it. A hyphenated church is an oxymoron. God wants Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, American and Chinese, male and female, young and old, black and white, educated and uneducated, boomers and millenials, or whatever merism of opposites you want to describe the church by. We simply cannot continue with the most segregated hour in the week as usual.
This might sound to our ears as an outrageous statement or at least highly impractical pie in the sky thinking. But part of the church’s witness is to reflect the reality of the coming Kingdom here and now. Who is coming to our church suppers? Are they people just like us? If so, then we are saying that we are hyphenated Christians. We are saying that something other than Jesus Christ is our common denominator. The trouble with hyphenated Christianity is that it emphasizes what is on the left side of the hyphen and not the word Christian?
Look at the witness of the church of Antioch in the Book of Acts. There God put people of all nations and economic statuses together as one church. What a witness to Jesus Christ they were! People who would have no association with one another in this world were now worshiping together. The power of the Holy Spirit in that church is proof of God’s blessing upon this. Sure they had problems putting it all together. There were those who wanted to gaze on the left side of the hyphen. They had to have a council at Jerusalem to come to an understanding. In the same way, we will struggle with what Jesus’ radical vision for the church which is His body, over whom He is Lord is. But if we want God’s blessing of us as a church, we must work at it.
God is looking for the centurion's faith in the church. Will He find it?
The hyphen will be abolished in heaven. Why not start now.