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28 May 2018

The centurion’s servant—and his surprising faith.

A gentile whose level of faith surprised even Jesus.

Matthew 8.5-13 • Luke 7.1-10.

Luke tells this story after Jesus’s sermon on the plain, and Matthew after his Sermon on the Mount—but curing an infectious man first. Mark doesn’t tell it. And John… tells a whole other story, although certain Christians try to sync it together with this one. But not well.

The story begins with Jesus again returning to his home base of Kfar Nahum, and in Matthew encountering the local centurion; in Luke hearing from local elders about this centurion. Y’might know a centurion was what the Romans called the captain in charge of a century, 100 soldiers. I don’t know whether all 100 were stationed in Kfar Nahum, or spread out over multiple cities in the province; it all depended on how far the Romans felt they needed to clamp down on the people.

What we do know is this particular centurion had a home in town, and an employee who was either suffering greatly, or dying. Luke calls him a slave who was éntimos/“held in high regard.” Ancient slaves were either debtors, convicts, or had lost a war, and were bought and worked as punishment. Attitudes towards them are significantly different than American attitudes when slavery was legal here: Slaves were still considered fellow human beings. The centurion held his slave in high regard either because he was a good guy, a good worker, or had a valuable skillset. We don’t know which. Matthew calls him a servant, and maybe that’s how the Roman thought of him.

So the slave’s illness was enough to bring to the attention of a rabbi well-known for curing the sick.

Matthew 8.5-7 KWL
5 On returning himself to Kfar Nahum,
a centurion came to Jesus and encouraged him to help him,
6 saying, “Master, my servant has been bedridden in my home, paralyzed by terrible suffering.”
7 Jesus told him, “I will come cure him.”
Luke 7.1-6 KWL
1 When Jesus finished putting all his words in the people’s ears,
he returned to Kfar Nahum.
2 A certain centurion’s slave who had an illness was near dying.
The slave was highly esteemed by the centurion.
3 Hearing about Jesus, the centurion sent him Judean elders,
asking him, since he’d come, if he might cure his slave.
4 Those who came to Jesus encouraged him earnestly, saying this:
“The one for whom you’ll do this is worthy.
5 For he loves our people, and built us our synagogue.”
6A Jesus went with them.

In both cases Jesus had no problem with going to the centurion’s house to cure the slave. Now, compare our Lord’s attitude with that of Simon Peter, who admitted he still thought of gentiles as unclean when the centurion Cornelius called him to Caesarea. Ac 10.28 Jesus was happy to go; Peter had to first see a vision about butchering unclean animals. Ac 10.9-16 Why Peter hadn’t adopted his Master’s attitude about gentiles, I’m not sure. My guess is he had some very old prejudices, and they took a while to break off him. Paul still had to fight him on it, some 20 years later. Ga 2.11-14 But I digress.

Notice how Matthew describes the centurion and Jesus having a personal conversation, but Luke has the centurion send some of the presvytérus/“elders” to Jesus with a recommendation. These’d be the mature believers in the religious community, the Pharisees who probably founded their synagogue, ’cause synagogues are a Pharisee thing. They told Jesus this guy had built their synagogue—so we’re talking a believer who was willing to put his money into his faith. Worthy by their standards; maybe by Jesus’s too. In any event, off they went.

“Not worthy.”

No doubt the centurion realized that, according to Pharisee custom, entering a gentile home would automatically render you ritually unclean. Pharisees were big on cleanliness; you couldn’t go to synagogue if you weren’t. But gentiles weren’t fastidious about ritual cleanliness, so they put a blanket ban on interacting with them. Gentiles could’ve become unclean all sorts of ways. Bodily fluids, touching dead things, and touching someone else who was ritually unclean (i.e. other gentiles), would do it. And a sick slave would definitely be unclean.

Many a Christian insists Jesus could never be unclean; that he was so clean he made others clean, like lepers. This interpretation is popular, but wrong: They don’t understand how ritual cleanliness works, and confuse uncleanliness with sin. Of course Jesus never sinned, He 4.15 but uncleanliness isn’t sin. It only means you’re not prepared for worship. And while Jesus might touch dozens of lepers and still consider himself perfectly sound, the Pharisees would never let him in the building. So you can see why the centurion would care about inconveniencing Jesus.

So the centurion made it easy on him: You needn’t come.

Matthew 8.8 KWL
In reply the centurion said, “Master, I’m not worthy that you should come under my roof.
But only say a word and my servant will be cured.”
Luke 7.6-7 KWL
6 Jesus went with them. When he wasn’t far from the house,
the centurion sent friends, telling him, “Master, don’t bother.
I’m not worthy that you should come under my roof.
7 Nor am I worthy to come to you.
But say a word and my servant will be cured.”

Right after the elders told Jesus the centurion was worthy, he sent word he didn’t agree.

And it wasn’t even necessary for Jesus to visit anyway. The centurion believed Jesus could cure his slave from a distance. He didn’t need to be in the building; he just needed to give the word and the illness would go. He knew how giving orders worked.

Matthew 8.9, Luke 7.8 KWL
“For I’m a person under authority, with soldiers placed under myself.
I say this: ‘Go’ and they go, or ‘Come’ and they come; to my slaves ‘Do this’ and they do.”

Pragmatic guy. Contrast this to a different soldier, Nahamán of Syria, who kinda wanted the prophet Elisha to put on a bit of a show.

2 Kings 5.9-14 KWL
9 Nahamán came with his chariot and horses, and stood at the door of Elisha’s house.
10 Elisha sent an agent to tell him, “Go wash seven times in the Jordan. Your flesh will return to you, and be clean.”
11 Nahamán was angry and left.
He said, “Look, I told myself, ‘He’ll come out, come out;
he’ll stand, he’ll call his LORD God’s name,
he’ll wave his hand over the infected place, he’ll cure the infection.’
12 Aren’t Damascus’s rivers—Barada and Awaj—better than all the water in Israel?
Can’t I wash in them and be clean?” Angrily, he turned to go.
13 Nahamán’s slaves approached and spoke to him. They said, “Father, the prophet spoke a great word to you.
Why not do it? All he told you is, ‘Wash. Be clean.’ ”
14 Nahamán went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, following the God’s-man’s word.
His flesh returned, like flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

And y’know, sometimes Christians want a bit of a show. We want the pastor and elders of our church to come to our sickbed, anoint us, and pray a series of special healing prayers. We want hands raised and heads bowed. We want fervency. We want ritual. We don’t want remote-control prayers; it’s like they don’t care enough to come visit us.

To quote Jesus from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there’s no pleasing some people.

“Religious people” who don’t trust God all that much.

This centurion’s statement of faith, especially in comparison with all the unfaith Jesus usually ran into, startled our Lord. Especially since it didn’t come from any of his fellow Galileans. It came from a gentile, of all people. Somebody who grew up in a culture where you had to wave your hands and make showy incantations before anything might happen. Heck, even Pharisees expected rote ritual prayers. But a gentile who didn’t? Unthinkable till now.

Matthew 8.10 KWL
Hearing this, Jesus was stunned and said to those following him,
“Amen, I promise you: I’ve found nobody with this faith in Israel.”
Luke 7.9 KWL
Hearing this, Jesus himself was stunned. Turning to the crowd following him,
he said, “I tell you: I have never found such faith in Israel.”

It’s a little disappointing, too. You’d think some Israelis would trust God better than their gentile neighbors. Yet this was the subpar level of faith Jesus was running into. And I know precisely how Jesus felt: I regularly meet pagans who are more apt to believe in miracles than certain anti-supernaturalist Christians. It’s annoying: Don’t these people have any clue who their own God is?

Matthew includes this prophecy Jesus made to go along with this statement:

Matthew 8.11-12 KWL
11 “I tell you this: Many from east and west will come and recline at dinner
with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in heaven’s kingdom,
12 and ‘the kingdom’s children’ will be thrown out into the darkness outside,
where weeping and teeth-gnashing will be.”

Historically Christians have presumed Jesus was talking about the Jews: “The kingdom’s children” referred to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who were previously part of God’s kingdom, groomed to be God’s people, whose rejection of God disqualified them from their own birthright, so God replaced ’em with gentiles. Certainly that’s happened in church history, where the predominantly Jewish church evolved into the now-predominantly gentile church.

But we’d be morons to not recognize history repeats itself. Nor notice how people in “Christian nations” who consider themselves part of God’s kingdom, who grew up Christian but who’ve adopted some very unchristlike attitudes about God and their neighbors, are themselves gonna get replaced by former pagans who will follow Jesus.

This centurion, and people with faith like his, were gonna become the first generation of gentiles God adopted into his kingdom. If we don’t wanna be the last generation, we’d better embrace his level of faith.

Well, time for the happy ending: Of course Jesus cured the guy’s slave. What, did you think he wouldn’t?

Matthew 8.13 KWL
Jesus told the centurion, “Go. What you believed, happened to you.”
The servant was cured at that hour.
Luke 7.10 KWL
On returning to the house, the friends the centurion sent
found the slave in good health.

The centurion’s slave and the prince’s son.

I went through the story of the prince’s son, told in John 4. Various Christians try to make it sync up with the story of the centurion’s slave—and go through a lot of convolutions in so doing, because they’re not the same story. The two things they have in common is they both happen in Kfar Nahum, and Jesus cures somebody sight unseen. But the prince is Galilean, and the centurion is most certainly not; the prince acts in faith after Jesus declares his son well, and the centurion most definitely acts in faith before Jesus does a thing.

I’ll retell the story from John just ’cause.

John 4.46-53 KWL
46B There was a certain prince. His son fell ill in Kfar Nahum.
47 When this prince heard Jesus came to the Galilee out of Judea, he went to Jesus
and asked whether Jesus would come down there and heal his son, who was about to die.
48 So Jesus told him, “If there are no signs and wonders you people can see, you can’t believe.”
49 The prince told him, “Master, come down before my child is dead!”
50 Jesus told him, “Off you go. Your son lives.”
The prince trusted the message which Jesus told him, and went.
51 Now before the prince went back down, his slaves came to meet him, saying that his child lived.
52 So the prince asked them what hour the boy had recovered.
So the slaves told him this: “Yesterday, the seventh hour after sunrise, the fever left him.”
53 So the father knew this was the hour when Jesus told him, “Your son lives.” Jn 4.50
He believed—he and his whole house.

It’s entirely possible that the centurion knew this story, knew Jesus could cure the sick from a distance, and that’s why he had the faith to ask Jesus to do it again. True, it’s slightly less impressive if the centurion didn’t come up with the idea on his own. But it’s still impressive faith.

After all, it surprised Jesus. How many believers can we say that about?