“I tell you the truth; I have not seen such faith even in Israel!”
An awful lot has been said about this incident between the Roman centurion and the Son of Man. People have interpreted the centurion’s comments about being “a man under authority” in all sorts of ways. Some of them are definitely weird – like claiming that this teaches that the Kingdom of God is a hierarchy like the Roman Army – but others seem to make some sort of sense.
It’s a puzzling statement, though, and I thought we might take a look at it.
The situation is that one of the local Roman occupying troops’ commanders has a servant who is seriously ill.
In a time before antibiotics, the understanding of germ theory or modern medicine, the likelihood was that if you got sick you would probably die. And even if you survived, you might be seriously weakened or blinded or something like that. This isn’t a mild case of a 24-hour stomach bug or something. In fact, Luke makes it clear that the man’s servant was near death.
But the man is a Roman, an oppressor. A member of the army of occupation tasked with keeping the people of God down. If this was the American Revolution, he’d be a commander of the Redcoats. If this was World War 2, he’d be in the Gestapo.
But this man isn’t like your regular run-of-the-mill oppressor. He seems to be what was known as a “God-fearer”; that is, someone who respected and worshipped Israel’s God, but who had not taken the step of getting circumcised as a full Jew.
Some respected members of the local community come to Jesus and ask Him to do something about the situation. Apparently the centurion had heard about Jesus and put them up to it, but whether because he thought they’d stand a better chance of persuading Him, or as a tactful way of approaching someone who might be the Messiah without looking like he was coming to arrest Him, we are not told.
Asking the One who might well be your long-awaited Messiah-King to do something nice for someone in your oppressors’ army is potentially an impolitic thing to do, but the community elders have an answer for that.
“This man deserves to have You do this for him because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue!” He may be a Roman, but he’s demonstrated that he loves our nation and our God as surely as Rahab hiding the spies or Jael taking a tent peg to Sisera. You can do this without compromising Your Messiah-hood.
There may be an element of works mentality here on the part of at least the elders who come to Jesus asking Him to do this. I’ve heard it said that this shows that they thought that it was the man’s works of building the synagogue and loving Israel that made him merit Jesus’ help. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. And in either case, it is evident from what follows that the centurion himself was under no illusions in this regard. All the giving to build the synagogue that the Bible records that he had done was done out of pure love for God, not to try and make God love him. God loves him anyway, whatever he does or doesn’t do. This is what “unmerited favour” means.
Jesus agrees to go to him, but while he’s still some way from the house, the centurion sends a messenger, with the message that has prompted so many thoughts and interpretations.
“Lord, I don’t deserve to have You come under my roof. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one ‘go’ and he goes. I tell that one ‘come’ and he comes. I tell my servant ‘do this’ and it is done.”
I know I’ve done nothing that should merit Your special favour. I didn’t build the synagogue just to earn points with You. But if You want to do this, just say the word, and I know it will be done.
I know that no mere man has the authority You do to heal diseases and cast out demons. That authority is God’s, and He exercises it in You. And the reason I know this is that my authority isn’t my own, either; it comes from above. That’s the reason I can just issue a command to my men and have them do it. They are being commanded by the Roman Army, not just me. If it was just me in my own self I’d have to stand over them to make sure it was done, but it isn’t. To my men, I embody the Army. It’s the Army issuing the commands. Just say the word, because I know that it’s the same as God saying the word. You embody Him; He acts through You.
It really is an extraordinary demonstration of faith, not just that Jesus could heal at a distance but in Who Jesus is.
Somehow this Roman had stumbled into faith that Jesus is God before even the Twelve had got there. No wonder even Jesus is amazed!