Monday, July 19, 2010

Matthew 8:5-13 - "And when he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him..."

Jesus moves from healing a leper with weak faith to granting the request of a centurion Gentile whose faith surpasses anyone's that he has seen in Israel. In the eyes of Jesus this Gentile man's faith is a foreshadowing of the great gathering of the Gentile nations into the kingdom from the far corners of the world. They will eat at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while those in the Jewish nation who did not believe will become outcasts. This man who comes to Jesus is probably a Roman, and as a centurion he is in charge of many troops. There's a debate about whether the boy who suffers paralysis is his son or a servant of the house, but whatever the case the centurion is distressed over his condition and seeks out Jesus' help.

Jesus is willing to come to the centurion's house ("I will come and heal him"), yet the centurion prevents him saying, "Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof." Jews don't normally enter the homes of unclean Gentiles and the centurion wants to respect that custom even though Jesus is quite willing to break it. What impresses Jesus about this man is that he not only humbles himself in acknowledgement of his lowly status as a Gentile, but he recognizes that Jesus' offer to visit isn't necessary to the actual healing. He knows Jesus is only condescending to make this gesture to aid his own belief, and out of respect for propriety he is willing to decline because he believes a mere word from Jesus is all that's needed.

"For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes . . ." The centurion understands perfectly the nature of Jesus' power. He says, "I, too, am a man under authority," meaning that his own power to command his soldiers comes from the top brass. Likewise, Jesus is under the authority of his Father who gives him the power to command the evil spirits that were bringing this paralysis on his servant. So the centurion says, "Just say the word and my servant will be healed."

In our earlier passage we learned that Jesus condescended to the weak faith of the leper by touching him and affirming his willingness to heal him. Yet in this passage Jesus praises the great faith of the centurion because he asked for no promise, no gesture, no physical touch--just the bare command from Jesus' lips was enough for him. We may start out following Jesus with the faltering, fearful faith of the leper, needing all kinds of extra reassurances to prop us up, but it is the centurion's humble faith in Jesus' bare word that we ought to be aspiring to. Our tendency is to be like Thomas who refuses to believe unless he touches the nail prints in Jesus' hands and feet and the puncture wound in his side. Jesus does condescend to grant Thomas's wish but he also delivers this rebuke: "Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed" (John 20:29).

I had a difficult time thinking of how to apply this passage because it seems that everything in our modern Christian way of thinking encourages us more toward the leper's faith than the centurion's. In fact, it seems like having the leper's faith is considered spiritual and having the centurion's faith is considered cold and unfeeling. Our most loved worship songs are all about begging Jesus to come to us and touch us and reveal himself to us and let us hear his voice. We are encouraged to feel more and do more and ask for more tangible works of God in our lives. Sometimes our prayers tend toward bargaining. "Lord, I'll commit myself to you if you do this and that for me." "Lord, I need to feel your presence and then I can be at peace."

I don't think I've ever heard anyone echo the centurion's words and say, "Lord, really, don't bother to go through the trouble. I don't need to you show me a sign, or give me special comfort, or make your presence known to me. I already know you're real. I believe you, and your word is enough for me."

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