The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
The Faith of a Centurion
5 When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
A parallel account of this miracle is in Luke 7:1-10. I have highlighted the differences in bold:
Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant
7 After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
Whether the centurion sought our Lord in person or sent local Jewish elders is less important than the fact that this Gentile — pagan — had not only a deep humility but true faith that Jesus was fully capable of healing the sick from a distance.
To better appreciate this miracle and the centurion’s mindset, it is useful to try and place oneself in that era. A supplicant centurion, even via emissaries, was surprising as was Jesus’s agreement to heal the servant. Matthew’s passage also includes our Lord’s prediction about the Jewish people and Gentiles.
Looking at verse 5, the backdrop is Capernaum, which Jesus had just entered. It is likely that this, as well as the cleansing of the leper, occurred shortly after He had concluded the Sermon on the Mount nearby.
A centurion approached Jesus. This was every bit as astonishing as the leper who, a short while beforehand, told Jesus that He could cleanse him if He saw it appropriate. That appeal was an exercise in humility.
Just as the leper was an outcast, so was the centurion. The centurion, a Roman military officer, would have commanded 80 to 200 men. Rome stationed centurions throughout the empire’s territories. Their presence was a constant reminder of domination.
John MacArthur says that Israel’s centurions were local men — Gentiles — therefore, pagans (emphases mine):
The soldiers of the Roman occupation army were not really sent from Rome. They were trained in the community or the area where they were being occupied. And what they did, according to history, what they did in Palestine was they found non-Jewish people in that area and they drew them into the Roman army and trained them. This man in Capernaum was, no doubt, a soldier under the troops of Antipas. And if he was a non-Jew living in this area, it is highly likely that he was a Samaritan. And if it was bad to be a Gentile, the worst kind of Gentile was a Samaritan, because a Samaritan was a Jew who had intermarried into Gentile lines, and that was to sacrifice his Jewish heritage, the worst imaginable kind of Gentile half-breed.
So here you’ve got a guy who’s a Gentile. He’s the worst kind of Gentile, a Samaritan. He’s the worst kind of Samaritan. He is a member of the occupation forces of the Roman army who are oppressing Israel.
Yet, this man, as Luke tells us, built a synagogue for his local congregation. MacArthur says the ruins of the temple still exist, even if Capernaum as a town no longer does:
He loved their nation, and he built them a synagogue in Capernaum. I’ve been in Capernaum. I’ve stood in the ruins of the synagogue there. They say the footings of the synagogue came from this day, and maybe they were purchased by this very centurion.
Now back to Matthew’s account. In verse 6, the centurion appealed to our Lord, telling Him that his servant is at home ‘suffering terribly’ from paralysis.
The ESV defines ‘servant’ here as ‘bondservant’, someone who owed a debt to the master which was to be paid off through slavery. MacArthur says that the servant could have been a child:
“Lord, my, [He used the word pais in the Greek, which means my child] my child lies at home sick of the paralutikos.” He’s a paralytic, sick of the paralysis, grievously tormented, or suffering tremendously or suffering severely. Now, the word pais is used here, and it means child. Luke uses the word doulos, which means bond slave. And the question comes up: Was he his child or his bond slave? The answer is it was rather common to have a child slave in the house, a young boy. And that’s what it was, a boy servant, a boy slave. And so he says, “My boy slave is at home sick of the paralysis.” We don’t know whether it was polio or whether it was a nervous system or brain disorder or a tumor. We just don’t know; but he was paralyzed and in tremendous pain.
Jesus immediatly responded that He would go to the servant and heal him (verse 7). This was unthinkable in view of the Jews’ impressions of Gentiles, the lowest of the low who would never inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus would have been in the midst of a crowd, so onlookers must have been shocked or confused. MacArthur explains:
They believed that, before the kingdom came, all the Gentiles would be destroyed. That’s right. If you read the, some of the apocryphal literature like 2 Baruch, chapter 29, it pictures the, what they believe is going to be the great feast, where all the Jews will sit down with Messiah … The great messianic banquet; and never, for a moment, did they believe that Gentiles would be reclining at the table with them.
They wouldn’t … use—a Gentile utensil. They, they believed that Gentiles aborted their babies and threw them down the draft in the house. Therefore, the house was polluted by a dead body, and they had all kinds of strange things that the rabbis had invented to keep them apart from the Gentiles.
For this reason, and also out of profound personal humility, the centurion declined Jesus’s gracious offer (verse 7).
Instead, he said that Jesus needed only say the word in order for the servant to be healed (verse 8).
The centurion was in awe of Jesus. He discusses his own situation — commanding soldiers — and, in this (verse 9), is saying that he recognised His authority. The unspoken subtext is that Jesus’s power and authority are infinitely greater than his own. Hence, the humility of his appeal. He dared not to invite Jesus to his home. He did not feel worthy.
Jesus immediately contrasted this Gentile’s faith and recognition with what He had found among His own people whom He came to save (verse 10).
He then issued a strong warning that many, unknown to the Jews, would inherit the kingdom of heaven (verse 11), whilst those expecting to be there would instead be cast into ‘outer darkness’ where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (verse 12).
And, as we read in John MacArthur’s analysis of the first several chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus left the Jews in order to teach and heal the Gentiles, establishing His Church among their number.
Returning to the centurion, Jesus instructed him to return home where he would find the servant healed — just as he believed (verse 13):
And the servant was healed at that very moment.
As Christians we can take several lessons from this, if not for ourselves, for others. Citations below are from Matthew Henry’s commentary.
1/ God owes us — miserable sinners that we are — no favours. May we therefore approach Him and His Son in humility and supplication for divine mercy and grace. The centurion, like the leper, recognised this. Note how they both approached Jesus. The leper: should You see fit to do so, You can heal me. The centurion: I am not worthy of Your presence in my house, but just say the word and my servant will be healed.
The centurion came to Christ with a petition, and therefore expressed himself thus humbly. Note, In all our approaches to Christ, and to God through Christ, it becomes us to abase ourselves, and to lie low in the sense of our own unworthiness, as mean creatures and as vile sinners, to do any thing for God, to receive any good from him, or to have any thing to do with him.
2/ Our Lord recognises our caring about others. The centurion’s servant was a slave who could have been put out of the house or neglected. There were many others who could have replaced him. Yet, the centurion was careful to seek Jesus’s help, even though the slave was on the bottom rung of society.
A charitable regard to his poor servant. We read of many that came to Christ for their children, but this is the only instance of one that came to him for a servant … [he] sought out the best relief he could for him the servant could not have done more for the master, than the master did here for the servant.
We can extrapolate ‘servant’ for others who are equally deserving of our charity.
3/ This is also a spiritual analogy, relating to the state of the souls in our care.
We should thus concern ourselves for the souls of our children, and servants, that are spiritually sick of the palsy, the dead-palsy, the dumb palsy senseless of spiritual evils, inactive in that which is spiritually good, and bring them to the means of healing and health.
4/ May we never neglect the virtue of humility before Christ and our fellow man.
He does not say, “My servant is not worthy that thou shouldest come into his chamber, because it is in the garret ” But I am not worthy that thou shouldest come into my house. The centurion was a great man, yet he owned his unworthiness before God. Note, Humility very well becomes persons of quality. Christ now made but a mean figure in the world, yet the centurion, looking upon him as a prophet, yea, more than a prophet, paid him this respect. Note, We should have a value and veneration for what we see of God, even in those who, in outward condition, are every way our inferiors.
5/ Personal humility ties in with deep faith.
The more humility the more faith the more diffident we are of ourselves, the stronger will be our confidence in Jesus Christ.
6/ The centurion showed us that power of Christ knows no bounds.
This centurion believed, and it is undoubtedly true, that the power of Christ knows no limits, and therefore nearness and distance are alike to him. Distance of place cannot obstruct either the knowing or working of him that fills all places.
7/ Christ answers the call, whatever social status, of those with faith: leper or centurion.
Christ’s humility, in being willing to come, gave an example to him, and occasioned his humility, in owning himself unworthy to have him come. Note, Christ’s gracious condescensions to us, should make us the more humble and self-abasing before him.
8/ As was true with the Jews of Jesus’s time, not everyone who considers himself a member of the Church will be saved. We are in for some surprises:
Note, When we come to heaven, as we shall miss a great many there, that we thought had been going thither, so we shall meet a great many there, that we did not expect.
9/ Do we put our temporal comforts above our relationship with Christ? Are we in danger of putting ourselves in peril for eternity, a concept which is difficult for us to understand?
They shall be cast out from God, and all true comfort, and cast into darkness. In hell there is fire, but no light it is utter darkness[:] darkness in extremity the highest degree of darkness, without any remainder, or mixture, or hope, of light not the least gleam or glimpse of it it is darkness that results from their being shut out of heaven, the land of light they who are without, are in the regions of darkness yet that is not the worst of it, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 1. In hell there will be great grief, floods of tears shed to no purpose anguish of spirit preying eternally upon the vitals, in the sense of the wrath of God, is the torment of the damned. 2. Great indignation: damned sinners will gnash their teeth for spite and vexation, full of the fury of the Lord seeing with envy the happiness of others, and reflecting with horror upon the former possibility of their own being happy, which is now past.
With our busy schedules, let us ensure we make time to pray, even in the most unlikely places: the walk to a bus stop or railway station, when crossing the car park on the way to the office, whilst we are preparing dinner or doing household chores.
May we also develop the faith and humility of the centurion.
Next time: Matthew 8:14-17