We could argue that there is no prayer in today’s study but I think that the centurion’s petition to Jesus can be quite acceptably included as a prayer and among our readings.
This story about a Centurion who has lots of faith is also told in Luke where we find out that this officer in the Roman army didn’t actually come in person to see Jesus, but sent others to speak on his behalf, firstly Jewish leaders and then his friends. We can consider that whatever is said through a messenger is said by the man himself.
Roman soldiers were usually hated by the Jewish people because of their occupation of the country and their oppressive control. So having Jewish leaders carry a message on his behalf was unusual. He must have been someone that was well respected.
We don’t know who this Centurion is but it is worth noting that many of the soldiers serving in the Roman army in Israel were non Jewish inhabitants of Israel, like Samaritans, and not necessarily of Roman origin. We just don’t know about this man! We find that he loved the Jewish people and the Jewish way of life so much that he had built a synagogue in Capernaum.
Now, it wasn’t usual for wealthy officers of the Roman army to take such care of their servants when they were ill. So this servant must have really been special and important to the officer and his household.
We don’t know what the servant was suffering with but it appears to have been something very painful, upsetting for those around him and very, very serious. He was at the point of death.
When Jesus heard from these messengers he is not concerned that this soldier was not a Jew, nor that he was part of the occupying force that ruled the country. He generously asks “Shall I come and heal him?”
The Centurion, is a man of authority and respect. He has heard of Jesus and what he can do. He tells Jesus not to trouble himself. He is not a Jew, he is sinful and therefore unworthy to have Jesus come and visit. He may also be mindful that a Jewish teacher might not want to enter the home of a gentile. He says “Say the word Lord, say a single word and it shall be done”
This Centurion, believed that Jesus could command someone or maybe even an angel to perform the healing on his behalf. This gentile had understood that there is power in Jesus words. And, just as the centurion draws his power from a higher authority he deduces that Jesus also draws his power from a higher authority.
Jesus was amazed at his response. It demonstrated deep faith that showed up the lack of faith of the pious Jewish religious leaders. And we might be surprised that Jesus was amazed, after all, there are several times that the Bible tells us that Jesus knew what people were thinking. Maybe it is simply another example of Jesus learning and growing in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and with man.
While Jesus is being amazed he talks about many people coming from the east and the west to feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is indicating that salvation is for the gentiles too, not just for the Jews. And in the early church people came from all over to join the church that followed Jesus while the Jews chose to remain outside of it, in spiritual darkness.
Then, the centurion’s faith is rewarded. Jesus gives the word and the servant is healed at that very moment.
If you could think up a person who would impress Jesus, it probably wouldn’t be a non-Jew, a man who was probably quite wealthy, who excelled at war and who was part of the country’s occupying regime.
The centurion was aware of his own short-comings and unworthiness to meet a such a spiritual teacher as Jesus, but he didn’t let that stand in his way. He sent men that Jesus might approve of, to speak on his behalf and then when Jesus offers to come to his house, it feels to me that the centurion almost panics.
Do you feel like that sometimes? I know I sometimes feel that I am so far away from the person I ought to be, that I have failed too often, that I’m really not good enough to spend time in prayer in God’s company. My own failings are in stark contrast to God’s holiness and I give in to excuses about why I shouldn’t pray.
But Jesus didn’t see what was wrong with the centurion. He had compassion on a man that loved his dying friend. And thankfully he does the same with us too. When we feel unworthy he says that he loves us. When we have got it wrong again he says that he loves us so much that he died for us. When we make excuses he says that he has made the way clear, there are no more barriers.
Tonight let’s not make excuses, let’s make every effort to spend time with God and let’s ask God to help us look beyond outward appearances to seek out what is below the surface and to help us develop faith like this nameless centurion.
Next time, we are going to consider a time when Jesus heals a man who is deaf and mute.