The Faith of the Centurion

One day, in the midst of a Jewish crowd, Jesus praises the faith of a pagan soldier. The soldier, he says, showed greater faith than Jesus had seen in all of Israel. I want to think about this scene and what it reveals about the nature of faith.

The Centurion in Capernaum 

Our story opens in Luke Chapter 7. Jesus has returned to Capernaum, the town where he made his home base in the days of his active ministry. There is a centurion there, a person of rank in the Roman army. The term means that he is a commander of 100 soldiers. A centurion did things like lead men in battle, train soldiers, issue assignments, supervise the building of fortifications, and procure food and supplies. Centurions were men of strength and authority. They were pillars of the Roman empire.

I’m going to call this centurion Marcus, just to give him a name. Marcus hears that Jesus has returned to Capernaum. Marcus has a slave who is very valuable to him. This slave has fallen ill and is about to die. Marcus has heard that Jesus was a Jewish holy man with a reputation for healing. He respects the Jewish people. He senses something powerful about their rituals, their liturgy, their prophets, their prayers. We learn that he helped build the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum and that he knows the local Jewish elders. Marcus reaches out to the elders and asks them to bring word to Jesus about his dying slave. To ask Jesus for healing. 

The Jewish elders come to Jesus. They entreat him. Marcus is worthy, they say, that Jesus help him, for he has shown kindness to the Jewish people. He has helped build their synagogue. 

Jesus responds to their intercession. He goes with them to the home of the centurion. As they draw near the house, they are met by a delegation of Marcus’ friends. They relay a message from him: 

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” (Lk. 7:6)

Take in this scene. Here is a Roman centurion, a secular man, a man of military and social power. He sends this message to Jesus, an intinerant Jewish preacher, who has not been ordained, who has no home synagogue, who is only 30 years old. A man without a great house and without political backing. Marcus probably has a very fine house and high social standing. Yet he recognizes a higher authority and dignity in Jesus. He says he is not worthy that Jesus should enter his house. 

The message continues: “Therefore I did not judge myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.”

“For I am a person under 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.” 

Let’s unpack this a little. The authority of a Roman centurion was nearly perfect. Those under his command, soldiers or slaves, knew themselves to be under an authority backed by the might of the Roman empire. Marcus knows what authority is. He could observe it in his daily commands. As one who holds authority, he recognizes that Jesus possesses a similar authority. That he can command in the realm of the invisible. That he can, from a distance, make a slave rise from his bed, just as a centurion could command him to bring water from the well.

Jesus marvels

Jesus does something here he seldom does. He marvels. 

“Hearing this, Jesus marvels at him.” (Lk. 7:9)

The Greek word for wonder is thauma. The verb form of it is thaumazo, to be moved with wonder before a thing, to marvel, to admire. That’s what happens to Jesus here: he is moved with wonder before the faith of this centurion. He marvels at it.

Pause and consider this. The second person of the Trinity stands in wonder at a word that comes from the mouth of a pagan soldier. He then turns to the crowd and says: 

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found so great a faith.”

Marcus’ messengers return to his home. There they find the slave healed.

The healing from a distance is remarkable. But consider what Jesus says to the crowd. A pagan centurion, a man of blood and dirt and sweat, possesses greater faith than Jesus has encountered in all of Israel?

What is Jesus getting at here? What is he marveling at? Is it hyperbole? Can a pagan soldier possess a faith greater than all the children of Israel? What was it about the centurion’s faith that causes Jesus to marvel?

Let’s explore a few other passages where the topic of faith is addressed and see what we learn.

I think of the time, mid-way through Jesus’ ministry, when he returns to his hometown, Nazareth. He goes to teach in the synagogue but people can’t get past a puzzle. How does Jesus, whom they have long known, now speak with such authority? Is this not Jesus, the carpenter’s son? Did they not watch him grow up? Do they not know his family? They can’t believe the Jesus they knew was somehow Jesus, the man of God. They have no faith in him. 

And what is the result?

“And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith” (Mt. 13:58).

So here, in contrast to Marcus, the absence of faith prevents the people from encountering Jesus in his capacity to mediate the Kingdom of God. In the absence of faith, Jesus’ action in their lives is blocked. 

Monica touches the cloak of Jesus

What happens when there is faith? Turn to Mark 5:25-34, where we read the story of a poor woman who has suffered for 12 years from hemorrhages. Let’s call this woman Monica. Monica has tried doctor after doctor. She has spent all she has on medical treatments and never found relief. Like Marcus, Monica hears of Jesus. He comes to her town. There is a large crowd around him, but Monica believes that if she can just get close to him, if she can but touch the hem of his cloak, she will be healed.

She inches her way in the crowd. She is a feeble woman, weakened by years of illness. She approaches Jesus from behind, likely out of a sense of shame because blood rendered a person impure in the Jewish world. She draws close. She reaches out. She grasps Jesus’ cloak for a moment. And immediately the flow of blood in her dries up. She feels in her body that she is healed of her affliction.

What a relief. What joy.

But Jesus notices a healing has taken place. He feels the power, the dunamis, that went out from him. He turns and addresses the crowd:

“Who touched my cloak?” (Mk. 5:30)

The disciples are perplexed. How can we know who touched your cloak in such a crowd? It seemed a pointless question.

But Monica knew full well who Jesus meant. She knew something extraordinary had happened to her. She knew Jesus would know. She knew he was talking about her.

So timidly, fearfully, she approaches Jesus, this time face to face. She tells him everything that happened. 

And this gives Jesus the opportunity he seeks. To marvel again at the presence of faith in a human soul and to call his listeners to this same sense of wonder. 

“Daughter,” he says to Monica, “your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”

And so, before a crowd containing a synagogue official and members of the local Jewish community, Jesus reveals what faith in the human heart looks like. That it may be found in unexpected places. He praises Monica’s faith and tells her that she is a beloved daughter of God. He reveals to her the healing power of God.

Help my lack of faith

There is one more story about how faith moves the heart of Jesus. Mark 9:14-29. On the day of the Transfiguration, Jesus descends from the mountain with Peter, James and John. They come upon a large crowd. There in the crowd is a man who had come to the other disciples seeking healing for his son, who is possessed by a mute and violent spirit. The disciples had been unable to heal the child. 

Jesus engages the man and inquires about his child. The man says to him:

“If you can, help us and have mercy on us!”

Jesus says something rather striking:

“If you can. Everything is possible to one who faiths.” (Mk. 9:23)

I put it that way – one who faiths – because faith in the Greek is pistis. The verb form is like it: pisteuo. Jesus is using pisteuo here; he is talking about faith in action. The one who faiths; not just the one who has faith. The one who exercises the spiritual faculty that moves the heart of Jesus and causes him to marvel, to wonder. 

All things are possible to the one who faiths. To which the father humbly replies: 

I faith! Help my lack of faith!  (Mk. 9:24)

Πιστεύω: βοήθει μου τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ. 

(Pisteuo. Boethei mou tay apistia.)

At which moment Jesus heals the child, revealing again the healing, life giving power of God to the one who has faith.

A window of the soul

We can now suggest a few words, in conclusion, about faith. Why is faith necessary for Jesus to manifest the Kingdom? Why does Jesus marvel at faith?

Let me address the first question. A few thought experiments might shed some light.

I think of a college class by a professor who has a reputation for being too stern and difficult. He might teach a great class, it might be extremely impactful to your career development, but if you never believe any of the good things his brighter students say about him, you might never step across the threshold into that learning experience. You might never come to know that professor. 

I think of love between two people. Say you are a child of a bitter divorce or you have lived through a string of harmful relationships. If you come to believe that love is not possible you might never open your heart to cross the threshold of vulnerability and trust that is necessary to encounter love. A lack of faith in love will thus prevent you from ever knowing love.

Or think of scuba diving. There is a rich and beautiful world beneath the surface of the waters. But if you have no tank of oxygen, you will never be able to see it for yourself.

Faith, I think, is like a window of the soul. When the sun outside rises in all its radiance, the light will fill the home where the window is open and clear. The sun will communicate itself to the home where there is a window that simply lets in the light. But if the window is blocked or obscured, the light can scarcely enter. 

Exupery once wrote: “What is essential, is invisible to the eye.” We might also say that faith enables us to see the invisible. Or that faith is like an umbilical cord that ties us to the invisible, to the Kingdom; opening us to the nature and person of Jesus; enabling us to receive the Father’s love.

In ways that can be hard to understand, faith is essential to our growth as children of God. 

Perhaps that is why Jesus marvels when he sees it. Because faith is that trait in us that enables him to communicate his fatherly love.

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, my faith is not always strong. I don’t always believe that you care about the details of my life. That you stand ready to share with me your life. But today, I will borrow the faith of the centurion. Today I will say: I believe in you. Help my unbelief. Have mercy on me, a sinner.   

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