St. Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of the compassionate healing ministry of our Lord Jesus to a Roman centurion’s servant in Capernaum. This account assists all of us in understanding better how to minister, when it is not comfortable for us to do so.
The Gospel according to St. Matthew 8:5-13
8:5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and
appealed to him, 6 saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed,
suffering dreadfully.” 7 He said to him, “I will come and cure
him.” 8 The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have
you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.
9 For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject
to me. And I say to one,‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’
and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen,
I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.
11 I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
at the banquet In the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the children
of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there
will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” 13 And Jesus said to
the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.”
And at that very hour (his) servant was healed.
The Roman centurion’s community was a highly structured, rough, existence. The Roman soldier had to exercise complete and unquestioned obedience to those in authority over him. The Roman army “centurion” commanded one hundred men and his rank was probably that of a modern non-commissioned officer, probably something akin to a Master Sergeant, the highest of enlisted military ranks. Within each Roman legion, centurions held degrees of rank; the senior centurion took part in councils of war. Centurions were chosen from among veteran soldiers by the six tribunes in command of a legion. A Roman legion had 26 centuries (100 men units), headed by a centurion for each unit. The centurion was a man of proven ability.
The mind set of non commissioned officers is well known to those of us who served in the past as military officers. We desired reliable men to serve in positions of leadership. As a retired Naval officer in the U.S. Navy, during my 21 years of service, I came to know and respect many high ranking non-commissioned officers (like the centurion of Matthew’s account). These non-commissioned officers are indeed the “back bone” of the military enforcement system. This was the case for the centurions of first century Rome. It was to this kind of leadership that Jesus would minister.
The Roman Empire completely dominated the Jewish people and Palestine of those days when Jesus ministered. The Gospel according to St. Matthew may have been written, according to scholars, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Matthew’s later Gospel account has Jesus approaching Jerusalem saying -- “Behold your house is forsaken to you and desolate” (23:38). Matthew’s additions to parables in 21:43 and 22:7-8 suggest that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was in part responsible for the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.
What is important about knowing this is that this sets the sense and context for the social, spiritual and cultural impact on those Jewish Christians Gentiles that would hear this story later.St. Irenaeus speaks of St. Matthew’s Gospel as being one of the four gospels, originally written for the Jews in their own language. There can be little doubt that the readers of this gospel account (in the wake of the Temple’s destruction and the painful experiences of the Jewish peoples as outlined by Josephus in his Wars of the Jews) would probably have felt that no love was lost between the Romans and themselves. Therefore, the story of the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant certainly would have caught the attention of a first century Jewish reader and brought the message of compassionate ministry right into the psychological and cultural experiences of the Jewish and Christian communities vis a vis their relationship with Roman domination and cruelty.
But, we are also told that this centurion was good to the Jewish people, and that he had provided for their synagogue in Capernaum, (Luke 7:1-10).
In Matthew, the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant is placed between the stories of the healing of a leper and the healing of the mother in law of Peter. It is not without some interest and meaning that one story would be about a leper (a notorious issue for the Hebrew people, see the Book of Leviticus) and the healing of St. Peter’s mother in law. On one hand, our Lord is reaching out to the ultimate physical ailment that speaks of sin, the leprosy of sin, represented by a physical disease. Jesus touches and heals. Jesus has the remedy. On the other hand, Jesus reaches out to a Jewish woman, beloved of St. Peter, probably a holy woman, notably the mother in law of the first Pontiff.
Still, in the middle of these two extremes, Jesus touching leprosy and Jesus touching the holiness of a mother, there is another outreach of Jesus toward the unwanted presence of Rome, the undesired police force, hated by some, desired by the elite religious rulers. There was a complex social and cultural situation here that is represented by this account of healing. And, it becomes more complex, as the centurion draws closer to Jesus.
Verse 6 has the centurion using the term, “Lord,” a term probably meaning, “sir” in Matthew’s context. This term is an obvious allusion to a life lived under authority. The term, “servant,” has an interesting meaning. It is an intimate term that means, “boy, young man,” not “servant, slave.” The term is one that focuses upon age and relationship, though it is also used from the viewpoint of descent (“son,”) social position, (“servant,”) or, “relationship to God,” depending upon the context where the word is used. Here, it tends to favor a term of endearment, as a trusted young comrade, perhaps, a younger soldier, an understudy, as one in training, a common military practice to this day. On the job training in our modern context is an essential element of military life. The servant, “young man,” had become very sick and was suffering terribly from a paralytic condition. Something needed to be done. The centurion was a man of action and acted upon the problem.
In verse 9, the centurion understands his position of authority, “For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” The centurion was concerned that Jesus may have Jewish - based cultural scruples about entering a ceremonially unclean Gentile dwelling, therefore, he is being more than polite. I would suggest this statement would appear to emphasize, internally, the apparent authority (power) the Roman centurion possessed in the cultural context of the era. He would not cross lines that would cause problems for the Jews. The Hebrew people were solidly “well boiled” into their sacred traditions and the Torah, or the Law of Moses.
Yet, here was an encounter by a Gentile, a Roman centurion with a very sick young man that he apparently cared a great deal about. Jesus saw this. He saw the compassion and responded.
There is a related story of God’s encounter with another in the Old Testament. Verses 10 and 11 introduce this and it speaks to me as I read it, for each name represents a meaning for us in this account of the healing of this young man, because of the encounter with Jesus by this centurion who has faith.
The name of Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation,” or simply, “salvation.” It means, when we consider Isaiah 7:14 that Immanuel (“God with us”) came down and dwelt among us and we behold His Glory (St. John’s Gospel, chapter 1). Israel means “Prince of God,” based on the occurance and encounter of Jacob meaning, “heel grabber, heel catcher” with God at Peniel, meaning “face of God.” It was unlikely Jacob that was encountered by the Lord at the brook of Jabbok, meaning, “struggle,” and there our Lord touched Jacob and changed his life forever, as well as, his name -- now, Israel.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the three Hebrew patriarchs, constantly referred to in the Old Testament, (cp. Exodus 3, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Abraham means “father of nations.” Isaac means “laughter.” Jacob’s name was changed to Israel from his birth name, “heal catcher.” These names would have a lot of importance to the Jewish readers.
I would propose that these names, mentioned in this Gospel context, may have meaning for the healing account mentioned here, as well as the accounts of the healing of the leper and the mother in law of Peter. An encounter with our Lord, you see, makes a difference in the life of anyone who will encounter our Lord Jesus Christ.
We may have been born to the highest stock of the world’s cultures, as the world sees it, but to our Lord we are nothing in and of ourselves. Yet, Jesus will reach out and touch us, if we are willing to trust Him. At the intercessory bidding of Jesus’ holy Mother, he touched the waters and turned them to wine, pre-figuring the Precious Blood that Mother would behold at the Cross. The centurion also interceeds for someone.
We may be covered with the leprosy of sinfulness so badly that we are disfigured beyond any human being’s ability to “see” our spiritual features well enough to believe we are even worthy of healing. Yet, Jesus reaches out and touches at the point of our need. Jesus would reach out to help a sinful centurion, as well, a foreigner to Israel!
We may be foreign to the “children of the kingdom,” the Hebrew people, blessed of God, hated by many, loved by some. Yet, Jesus is available to those who know they have a need. Still, the centurion was not so interested in his needs, as he was the need of a young man who was stricken in the prime of life. So, Jesus saw through the Gentile barriers of His day right to the cries of the young man with the intercessory appeal to our Savior for help. And, the boy was healed. The centurion believed. “Lord, just say the word, and he will be healed.”
Of interest are the differing words between gospel accounts for the
victim of the paralysis. Mark’s account calls the “servant,” the
centurion’s (Gk -- pais) a “boy,” “young man.” Whereas, Luke’s account
calls the “boy,” a “slave,” (Gk -- doulos). John 4:46, he is the
“son” of the centurion, (Gk -- “huios”). For our purposes, Matthew’s
account places emphasis on the age and gender of a youth with a serious disability, a paralyzed young
man, who needed a touch from Jesus. There was a faith filled and
compassionate cry for help. Jesus responded to the needs as they
manifested themselves. Jesus will respond to slaves, sons, young
men -- all for whom we intercede. Blessed be His Holy Name.
I believe that the catchword for the miracle narratives is “faith,” (Matthew 8:13) -- Gk, “hos episteusas genethto soi,” “as you have trusted, so may it become to you.” There is also a parallel account between Matthew’s story of help of a Gentile woman, (Matthew 15:21-28). There, too, Jesus is affected by her demonstration of “faith.” Yet, faith must be followed by substance. It has “feet,” if you please. It goes to God and obeys the Voice of our Lord. It responds. In the centurion’s story, hearing the centurion’s faith, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” In the Luke account (Luke 7:9), we have the words, “not even in Israel.”. What a story this is, when we consider that the centurion’s faith would be the invitation to the banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all people of faith.
The purpose of this passage, as I have understood it this time, was to bring all of us into the context of Jesus’ purpose -- the example of faith. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. . . But without faith it is impossible to please him : for he that comes to God must trust that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:1,6)
The Messiah would not be a political leader that would overthrow the Romans in order to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth on the terms of the privileged “children of the kingdom.” Rather, Messiah would do things 180 degrees from what was expected by the hierarchy or popular ideas of the eschatology of the day. The eschatology of Jesus would come in a far different manner than people would suppose. It has been so ever sense.
This passage speaks to every age. We have a young man in a terrible physical and emotional state who should be in the prime of life. Here is a person in the best years of his life, paralyzed and crippled. The soldier has compassion. “Things like this should happen to ‘bad people’ not law abiding young people like this boy!,” he must have thought, as his young man grimaced in pain, helpless to do anything. “Here is my faithful friend and the Jews whose God I have respected is allowing this to happen? This boy has been a faithful friend and servant.” The centurion had “seen it all and done it all.” He was a sinner and knew it. He was, perhaps, going through a mid life crisis and wanted to leave a legacy in the youth, like so many of us. Perhaps, he is a soldier who is tired of the old life he led in the Roman garrisons. He knows one thing, his “servant,” closer than a “son” is in serious trouble and needs help. His love shows a responsive chord. The centurion hears of Jesus, the itinerant Rabbi who is doing something differently than the Jews he has tried to identify with in his position (in order to have a harmonious community and please his superior officers). He comes to Jesus and expresses the faith he has in the only terms he understands -- authority.
I am drawn to this text, because it represents for me the fundamentalissues of life.
1. There is a need -- a servant is sick.
2. Another sees the need of the moment -- feeling his own unworthiness.
3. Love compels his action -- he goes to Jesus in faith and intercedes.
4. God is Love (Compassion) and heals the servant -- responding to loving faith.
This tells me that we have needs that we may bring to the Throne of Grace and that God cares enough about our needs to do something about them. This tells me that God hears the intercession of others who come to Him in faith.
How do we intercede for others? Is our heart united with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary in the intercessory moment at Mass? Do we unite in the prayer of faith, when we tell people that we will remember them in prayer before our Lord?
It is no mistake, beloved, that the general theme of his words of faith have been included in the liturgy of the Eucharist, where Jesus is Present -- “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” The authority of Christ of the Eucharist must be understood to be taken into the arena of everyday life, where people live and die outside the walls of the institution onto the streets. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where faith has “feet.”
Again, how do we intercede for others?
May our hearts be united with the Holy Compassion of Jesus and Mary.
Deus et Sanctissima