Paolo Veronese, Jesus Healing the Servant of the Centurion (16th Century)
Matthew 8: 5-13
Parallel Luke 7: 1-14
5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” 8 The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also 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 slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 10 When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.
This is the second in a trio of interconnected healing stories which will be interpreted in the final story with the quotation from Isaiah that “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” As Jesus is compared to the suffering servant from Isaiah by Matthew, this narrative invites us to consider the span of the ‘our’ that Jesus will take infirmities and bear diseases for. Early in Matthew’s gospel we saw an openness to the Gentiles expressing worship for Jesus and understanding what the leaders in Jerusalem did not (Matthew 2: 1-12) and here we have the first request for healing from a Gentile, an action that will demonstrate surprising faith from an unexpected character. Jesus returns home to Capernaum and an emissary of the empire meets him asking for what the empire cannot give him. In contrast to Rome’s claims to heal a sick world, a Roman officer approaches Jesus for what the kingdom of heaven can offer.
There are two translational issues that significantly shape how I believe this passage is intended to be heard that are obscured by most translations. The first issue is the translation of the person needing healing: the Greek word pais normally means child and the masculine article would indicate a son. While in some cases the word can mean servant, its translation here as servant is attempts to harmonize this story with Luke’s version where he translates the Greek doulos as slave or servant. Matthew understands the distinction and uses doulos in verse nine to refer to a slave who the centurion can order to ‘do this’ and the slave does it. If the one needing healing is a son it heightens the connection to the centurion and creates a linkage to the other narrative of surprising faith in Matthew when a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus to heal her daughter. (Matthew 15: 21-28)
The second translational issue is that the initial response of Jesus to the Centurion is structured in Greek as a question: “Am I to come heal him?” Like the Canaanite woman there is a barrier that is present and the question of who Jesus has come for is brought forward. Is this officer in a different empire to be a beneficiary of the kingdom of heaven’s approach? Even though modern readers know that Jesus does heal the Centurion’s child, the initial response does not guarantee it and the petitioning centurion now is placed in the position of answering Jesus’ query. Like the Canaanite woman, the centurion meets this reluctance or resistance with a demonstration of faith that amazes Jesus and is contrasted to the expressions of faith he has encountered among the people of Israel. Jesus does not have to come and heal the child, but only speak the word and it will be done. The centurion uses his experience of earthly authority as a model for the authority of Jesus.
Faith for the centurion, and throughout Matthew’s gospel, is not a solely intellectual thing. Often faith in churches is a type of intellectual assent to beliefs or doctrines about who Jesus or God is, but although the identity of Jesus is an important theme for Matthew faith seems to be trust in what Jesus, or God, can do. The centurion does use his understanding of authority to reason that Jesus can heal by simply saying the word, but that doesn’t mean that the centurion or others seeking healing from Jesus understand who Jesus is (as Matthew is attempting to illuminate through a combination of stories, scriptural references, conflicts and teaching). Nor has the centurion committed to the way of life outlined in the Sermon on the Mount and we don’t have any indication that the centurion’s interactions with Jesus will go beyond this one meeting. Yet, the centurion is able to see what many both opponents and followers of Jesus are unable to see at this time: that Jesus has the authority to do what he says. Yet, as highlighted in the previous story, the address of Jesus as Lord indicates this is a story where there is an attribution of faith. Even if the centurion may intend this as a polite address to authority, Matthew is continually inviting us as hearers to reflect on who Jesus is who has the authority to do these things.
Matthew also uses this narrative as a way to reinterpret the ‘our’ of the hope that . Matthew takes the hope of texts like Psalm 107: 2-3 and Isaiah 43: 5-7 which speak of the regathering of the people of Israel:
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and the west, from the north and the south. Psalm 107: 2-3
Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made. Isaiah 43: 5-7
Now instead of those coming from east and west being the regathered heirs of the kingdom, now the Gentiles are included in this regathering for the banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and some of those in Israel will not be included. This is a part of Matthew’s inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom of heaven, but the receptions by the Gentiles will not be universal as we see in future stories. Faith will be found within and beyond Israel and the kingdom will be for Jews and Gentiles, men and women, parents and children, centurions, lepers and more. Even for those serving other empires, they are not beyond the reach of healing and redemption. Centurions can demonstrate faith unseen in Israel, Jesus can heal by saying the word and a child’s distress can be relieved in the hour of Jesus’ declaration that it is done according to the centurion’s understanding of faith.