The Faith of the Centurion
1 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, "This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue." 6 So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: "Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."
9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel." 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
A few years back we had some friends ask if they could take our kids with them and their children for a day of fun at a museum and a few other places. We thought that that sounded like a great idea and quickly agreed. We reminded our children about what proper behavior would look like as they spent the day with another family and sent them on their way. As they all returned they recounted what a wonderful day they had but our friends were a little disturbed about something. As I asked them how our kids behaved they said that this was what they were worried about. “Were our kids a problem,” I asked. It wasn’t our kids, my friend responded, but their own. In fact they said that our kids were extremely well behaved all day and that they had no problems whatsoever with our kids. It was their own kids, they said, who were rude and disrespectful all day and who seemed to have a real problem with their authority. They wondered what they were doing so wrong if other kids were so respectful of their authority while their own children seemed to not have nearly the same respect. I assured them, that although they surely had some things that they needed to work on with their kids, that this was not an unusual phenomenon. For many different reasons, many parents report the disturbing phenomenon of having offspring that seem to behave better for other people than for them. It’s just one of those frustrating truisms of parenting, but oftentimes your kids will show more respect for the authority of others than for you on a consistent basis.
Throughout the first six chapters of Luke, our author has done a masterful job of weaving together several important themes including Jesus’ authority, the lack of respect and acceptance that he would receive from his own people, and the hints that his ministry would be inclusive of all people, including Gentiles. These themes all intersect here in this one encounter involving Jesus and a centurion. The big focus in this story is not the healing of the servant but rather the faith that this Gentile demonstrated. The perhaps odd thing about this account is that the faith that this man had and the respect for Jesus’ authority, far out-stripped any such respect shown by any of the Jews that Jesus had encountered to this point. And there you have it. It’s that same frustrating reality that so many parents have faced. Jesus is about to experience an outsider who seems to get the concept of true faith in his authority far more than any of his own people. In fact, that is one of the important points of this whole scene.
Luke has been dropping hints from the very beginning that what God is doing through the Messiah will be the fulfillment of the one family that he promised Abraham so long ago. This would be the one family, the true people of God, who would have their sins dealt with and through whom the whole world would have the possibility of being blessed. The strange thing was that God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of one family but also of many nations. What Luke has only hinted at so far and what he will continue to point to in Jesus’ actions in accounts like this one, he will make clear in his follow up to the Gospel of Luke, the book of Acts. The good news of the coming Messiah will not be just for the Jewish people but will truly be for all nations. All people of all nations would be able to enter into this one family of faith that had been promised to Abraham.
It seems quite probable that this event in Jesus’ life brought some clear allusions of the account of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 and Luke seems equally intent on drawing that story to mind. Luke has already referred to the account of Naaman in Luke 4:27 and the parallels between the two accounts are striking. Both Naaman and the centurion are well-respected Gentile officers (2 Ki. 5:1; Luke 7:2, 4-5). In both accounts, an intercession is made by Jews (2 Ki. 5:2-3; Luke 7:3-5). The centurion does not actually meet Jesus before the healing and neither did Naaman meet Elisha (Luke 7:6-9; 2 Ki. 5:5-10). And in both accounts, the healing takes place at a distance from the healer (Luke 7:10; 2 Ki. 5:14).
The main point of this story, though, is not the healing of the centurion. Luke has included this healing because he wants to highlight the faith of the centurion. That is the centerpiece of this story. This is the intersection of authority and faith. Luke has been busy demonstrating the unquestioned and unrivaled authority of Jesus, the Messiah, but that authority must be met with faith at the human level or it will not flow into someone’s life. Jesus does have all authority, but in keeping with the very nature of God, he will not force that authority into anyone’s life and he never overwhelmed anyone with his authority. Jesus’ authority was always subtle and deniable but quite open to anyone who would respond to his authority with faith. He continues to work that way with us. Jesus’ authority in our lives is always quiet, subtle, and prone to being ignored or drowned out, but it is always there if we just respond in faith.
The situation was that this Roman centurion was living in the Capernaum area. One of his valued servants had become extremely ill with an unnamed illness and is on the verge of death. We are not told what this centurion knew about Jesus and how he came to have such respect for him but this was a soldier. This was a man who understood what a person who had true authority looked like. Perhaps he had seen Jesus perform other miracles and knew from the way Jesus carried himself, that he was something quite different from ordinary men. Military men tend to be no nonsense guys who appreciate others who operate within the proper authority structure and who get things done. Jesus was the embodiment of proper authority and this Gentile seemed to know it.
But there is, it seems, another layer to this story about simple authority and faith. The culture of the Roman Empire was a system of patronage and honor. Social relationships that were based on patronage and putting someone else in your obligation were an extremely common form of controlling the actions of someone else. This centurion had been quite respectful to the Jewish culture around him and he had served as the patron to build the local synagogue which would have fostered local peace but also would have put the Jewish leaders in his debt. We simply don’t know whether this man had genuine respect for the Jews and their faith or whether he was simply extremely shrewd, but it makes little difference. Either way, they were in his debt in the Roman world.
The first group from the centurion that approached Jesus was comprised of the Jewish leaders. They did not approach Jesus and appeal to this man’s need or their genuine affection for him. They, instead, appealed to the concepts of insiders and outsiders, obligation and honor. This man was an outsider but he had put the Jews in his debt by building the synagogue for them. Thus, as a Jew, Jesus should feel obligated to answer this man’s patronage. The Jewish leaders demonstrated, by their own words, that they were beholden to this system of Rome rather than taking actions consistent with God’s true family.
We might ask, then, why Jesus would continue towards the man’s house. The reason was a demonstration of his words from chapter six. This kingdom is about loving enemies not just putting them in your debt. It is about turning enemies into friends by loving them. Jesus has outlined a new worldview for his family and he will now show what it looks like to live that out despite the attempt to manipulate him.
The fact that the centurion sent friends as Jesus got closer rather than sending the Jewish leaders a second time might indicate that he was not happy about them trying to put Jesus into his debt. He apparently did not want to do that and so he sends friends who appeal to him on a far more respectful level. He recognized Jesus’ authority and believed in it without question. In fact, he attempted to show the ultimate deference and respect for his authority by urging Jesus to not come to the house of a Gentile and make himself unclean. He knew that Jesus had such authority anyway, that coming any closer was not necessary. He had an authority over nature and illness that the centurion could not explain but could certainly recognize and respect. He knew well what it meant to give an order to a man and have it obeyed without question on nothing more than that man’s fear and respect of his authority. He knew that Jesus had that kind of authority and could dispel this illness at nothing more than a command from a distance.
What Luke has shown his readers is a snapshot of the Jewish elders who were captive to a worldly system that was being rendered null by the coming kingdom of God. It was not they, but the Gentile who saw and recognized Jesus’ authority and it was he who abandoned that system of obligation and patronage, and appealed to Jesus on nothing more than the fact that he had faith in Jesus’ authority. That’s all he needed. That’s all we need to have for Jesus’ authority manifest itself in our life.
This account brings together many of Luke’s themes to this point. Jesus’ identity was clear to this man and he would , just as Jesus urged in chapter 6, respond to that identity and his authority by trusting in Jesus. This Gentile amazed Jesus which was quite a switch for a man who usually had that effect on others. He had more sensitivity, perception, and pure faith in Jesus than anyone Jesus had encountered in Israel thus far, and his faith was not misplaced. At the moment that this man’s faith connected with Jesus’ authority, his servant was healed. At some level, perhaps even underneath his obedience to Jesus’ authority, this man seemed to sense that the God of Israel and all of his authority was somehow present in this one man.
Think of the faith of this centurion, though. Do you have this kind of faith? Is your faith in Jesus so strong that you are willing to go against the currents of your culture and live by nothing more than that faith? Do your prayers reflect the kind of faith that this man showed where you ask boldly and know that the answer might be no, but that Jesus has complete authority to answer any prayer you might offer up? If this centurion had that kind of faith, why can’t we?
Do you have the kind of faith that would amaze Jesus? Do you obey Jesus’ word for no other reason than your faith in his authority? Where is God calling you in your life right now to increase your faith and submit to his authority?