We began a series yesterday working through Matthew chapters 8 & 9. Following on from Jesus’ first public words in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew narrates Jesus’ first public actions. Throughout this series we’ll be looking for the big picture Matthew is building up by arranging these stories together.
Yesterday, we saw Jesus’ first healing: of a man with leprosy, an Israelite who was an outcast in his own society. It was a story of Jesus meeting people’s needs in the here-and-now, as a sign that he was fulfilling the “suffering servant” role spoken of in Isaiah 53.
Today, we see Jesus’ second healing, which is equally significant: a non-Israelite, who nevertheless displays the key requirement for experiencing the blessing of the kingdom – faith.
The story begins, like most miracle stories in the Gospels, with a request for help:8:5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.
Already, this is significant. The centurion is a Roman, not an Israelite. What’s he doing asking for help from a Jewish holy man? The parallel account in Luke 7:1-10 says that the centurion was a benefactor to the Jews in Capernaum, helping to fund their synagogue. This may have been out of a desire to keep the locals on side, or a sign that he was a “God fearer” – someone who worshipped Israel’s God without actually becoming a Jewish convert. But Matthew doesn’t go into this. So all we can infer is that somehow, he’s heard of Jesus and what he’s been doing, and that was enough for him to approach him for help.8:6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Although the translation here (“Lord”) suggests he has a knowledge of who Jesus is, the word can simply mean “Sir.”8:7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
Jesus is willing to make a house-call. Significant, because going to someone’s house meant they were obliged to show you hospitality. Which meant eating with them. But this guy was a Gentile, and Jesus was a Jewish teacher. Jewish purity requirements and food laws made this awkward, to say the least. Which is probably why the centurion wants to spare Jesus the dilemma:8:8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
He’s very confident in Jesus’ remote-control abilities. Why? He gives a reason.8:9 “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.”
I have authority, he says, and what I say happens. So he affords the same presumption to Jesus, which is astounding. As a centurion, he has authority over his men. But as what exactly, does he think Jesus has authority over disease? This is our first indication of the high view the centurion had of Jesus. At the very least, he’s saying that he has access to God’s power. The centurion has faith in Jesus: in context, it means he trusts that Jesus has the ability to do it. (Note that this is different from the idea of having faith that Jesus will do it; sometimes we confuse the two. Faith isn’t believing hard enough that it will happen; it’s trusting that Jesus does have the power if he wants to, and trusting him to decide whether he will.)
Jesus’ response?8:10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
The centurion’s unconditional trust shows up the rest of Israel, who (for the most part) fail to recognise who Jesus is. Even the disciples are pretty flakey at times, yet this guy – probably with far less evidence – is confident. And so this story ends up functioning as a bit of a parable about who will respond to Jesus and the message of the kingdom. Firstly, we saw a leper – a Jewish outcast – having faith in Jesus to make him clean; and now, we see a Roman centurion – a non-Jew – displaying incredible faith. What’s going on? Jesus continues:8:11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
Woah, that was a bit of a jump. From commending the guy’s faith, he now talks about some future feast with some big-name Old Testament celebrities, where people will come from the east and west. Where does that fit in? But the language Jesus was using would have been familiar to Jesus’ audience. Take a look at these Old Testament passages. The first one is about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, into the Promised Land the first time:Ps 107:2-3 Let the redeemed of the LORD tell their story— those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south.
This language is picked up in Isaiah and Zechariah, talking about the return of Israel from exile:Isa 43:5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. Zech 8:7-8 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”
Although Israel had, in a sense, already returned from exile several hundred years before Jesus, in another sense she was still in exile. Foreigners were ruling her, and had been for most of the previous five centuries. The temple establishment was largely corrupt and co-operating with Rome. And most importantly, God’s promises about having a king from David’s line in Jerusalem, about justice being done (especially for the poor), about a “new heart” of obedience, and about the nations streaming to Zion to worship God – these all remained unfulfilled. Israel was still waiting for her full return from exile.
So when Jesus talks about many coming “from the east and the west” for the feast in the kingdom of heaven, his hearers would have understood him to be talking about the return from exile. Which makes what he says next particularly shocking:8:12 “But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In other words, Israel is returning from exile, but there are many Israelites who will miss out on it. By contrast, those who come from the east and the west will be like this Gentile centurion – they have faith in God’s appointed Messiah. Ethnicity has nothing to do with it. Status in the Old Covenant has nothing to do with it. The nations will indeed stream to God’s kingdom, but Jesus warns Israel that they risked missing out on it unless they embraced what God was doing through him. (We’ll see this theme throughout the next two chapters.)
The story concludes with the centurion being given the benefits of the kingdom, in response to his faith:8:13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.
To think about
For us, this isn’t so much a call to have faith so that miracles will happen. It’s a call to Israel to trust in Jesus as Messiah, so they won’t miss out on the return from exile Jesus is bringing in. And a reminder that Gentiles (which is us, unless you’re Jewish) all have an invitation to the feast of the kingdom of heaven through trusting in that same Jesus. That he can do what he promised: restore wholeness in the here-and-now, and make us right with God for eternity.
Our response? Praise and gratitude. Spend your day being conscious of this great truth.
Pray for healing for yourself, or someone you know, trusting that God is just as capable of healing through Jesus now as he was in this story.