Faith Of An Outsider (The Centurian At Capernaum)
SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, p. 73-74.
This Bible study is from THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This free 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations beginning in 2007.
#85. The Centurian Of Capernaum
Matthew 8:8-15, Luke 7:1-10, John 4:46b-54
This is a story of deep, simple faith of an outsider.
We will primarily study Luke’s version of the story, with its parallels in Matthew. Mark does not have a parallel to this story about the centurion’s slave being healed. John has a parallel story, but with a slightly different message and slightly different minutia in his version.
Once again, we will closely study the text of the story in order to discover the message, the meaning and the minutia. That is, we are always looking for what we perceive to be the original message of the text. We also look for the meaning of this Biblical text for our lives today. As we examine the text for its’ message and meaning, we also examine the minutia and details of the text. The minutia may assist us in helping to grasp the message and meaning.
The minutia is never an end in itself but is to assist in finding the message and meaning for our lives.
-After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, (only Luke) Jesus has finished his teachings/sayings in the Sermon on the Mount.
-He entered Capernaum. “Capernaum, centurion, servant/slave.” Circle those three words in Luke and Matthew.
“Capernaum.” We remember our pictures of Capernaum from a past lesson. Jesus lived in Capernaum and it was his hometown in adulthood. The two sets of brothers (Peter and Andrew; James and John) who became disciples also lived in Capernaum. Capernaum was located on the north edge of the Sea of Galilee or Lake Galilee, and that lake is a large body of water, thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. The village of Capernaum existed for about eight hundred years, from the 200 BCE to 600 CE. This village was built along the edge of the Sea of Galilee and had up to 1500 residents.
-A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. “Centurion.” In the New Testament, there are twenty-one references to a centurion, who was a commander in the Roman army. All twenty-one references are positive.
There are two primary stories about a centurion in the gospels: here in Matthew and Luke which tell of the simple and great faith of the centurion and at the end of the gospels where we hear the story of the centurion at Jesus’ crucifixion. There are several other positive stories about centurions in the Book of Acts. A centurion was a commander of a century (one hundred men) and there were sixty centuries (six thousand men) in a Roman legion.
“Servant/slave.” It needs to be remembered that the Greek word, “doulos,” can be translated servant or slave. The servant or a slave is the property of his owner. A slave does not have any legal rights. Luke tells us this slave was important to the centurion, and this was a positive quality of the centurion, to have feelings of affection and closeness for his slave. We also hear that this slave was very sick, near death, and was paralyzed. By this brief description in this gospel story, we begin to draw the conclusion that the centurion was a good man.
We also examine John’s version of the same story. John’s version of the story says: “Capernaum, an official (not a centurion), whose son (not a slave) was ill.” Circle the word, “son.” The details of the story vary between Matthew/Luke’s version of the incident and John’s. Yet the message and meaning of the story is similar. Notice that Aland, the author of this text, THE SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, suggests that this is the same story but with two versions. Previously, we have emphasized that each gospel writer is unique and records what he heard from his own perspective. The differences of details in the two accounts of the story are not troublesome for us but illustrate the human uniqueness of each writer.
-When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. Here is a description of a simple but devout and deep faith in Jesus. The Roman centurion had heard of Jesus’ healings and asked, “Just come, Jesus, and my servant will be healed.” He believed in the power of God in Jesus.
Luke records having Jewish elders present and interceding for him; Matthew does not.
-When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us."
Underline these words in the text: “The centurion is worthy for he loves our nation and he built our synagogue for us.” That the centurion loved the Jewish race says much about this centurion. This centurion was part of an occupational army, yet he loved the Jews. He also built the synagogue for them.
The above picture is a photograph that we saw in a previous lesson. The walls of the synagogue are not the original walls from the time of Jesus, but the foundation stones beneath this synagogue are from the first century. We rightfully assume that the location of the synagogue has not changed and the foundation stones beneath this synagogue are from the synagogue of Jesus’ day.
-And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him,
-"Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. This centurian knew the truth about himself and Jesus; that he, the centurian was not nearly as good, honorable and pure as Jesus was. He felt that he was unworthy to have Jesus come into his home. As significantly flawed human beings, we often feel that way about ourselves in the presence of the Living God. We think to ourselves: "Who are we to ask for God's help, knowing how sinful and selfish we have been with our lives."
-But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. “Say the word and let my servant be healed.” Underline. The centurion believed in the power of God living in Jesus. In other words, he believed in Christ and his power to heal.
This centurian had deep and authentic faith, a faith that most of us Christians would like to have.
Notice the perfectly literal parallel between Matthew and Luke’s account for fourteen lines, from “say the Word” to “not even in Israel I have found such faith.” As we have said previously, it appears that Matthew and Luke are copying from an earlier document and sometimes, the two Biblical authors precisely copy the exact same words. As we have said previously, scholars label this earlier document by the name of “Q” or Quella, the German word for Source. Q is a hypothetical, ancient source document. Sometimes, Matthew and Luke copy the exact words from Q; sometimes the two authors do not copy the exact words but copy a progression of ideas or concepts.
“Truly I say to you” (Matthew) and “I tell you” (Luke). This is a small but subtle and persistent difference between the Jewishness of Matthew’s gospel and the Gentileness of Luke’s gospel. Matthew, with his Jewish (or Aramaic style) says, “Truly I say to you.” Luke, writing to a worldwide audience that is not primarily Jewish, simply says, “I tell you.” “Truly” or “Amen” was a Jewish word that was used often within Jewish communities.
-For I also am a man set 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." This centurian had soldiers and slaves under his command. People knew who was "boss" and "called the shots." In other words, here was a man who had power and authority...but in this particular moment, his power and authority could not command for his slave to be healed.
We, people, are often in a similar situation. We have power, authority, money and other resources but we still don't have "that something" to heal our mother, father, son, daughter, marriage, nation, world, the ethnic violence all around our globe. We then coming begging to the Lord for healing of a problem that we don't have the power, authority and resources to heal. We are often reduced to being beggars, on our emotional and spiritual knees, pleading with the Lord God to intervene and save our loved one from disease and/or our world from ethnic and religious violence.
-When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." “Not even in Israel, I have found such faith.” Highlight. This is the key to the story. The key to the story is that a Roman soldier, not educated in Jewish history or worship practices, had genuine faith, even without the Law, even without the Old Testament, even without the worship rituals of the Jewish religion. Or, if you think about it and the parallels with Christianity, this centurion did not have a creedal faith in Jesus Christ that could recite the Apostles Creed. He didn’t have a dogmatic faith that believed in the basic doctrines about Christ that Christ was true God and true man. He simply believed in Jesus and the power of God living inside of Jesus to heal. …. Sometimes, and often, I believe that our narrower definitions of genuine faith need to be broadened and expanded to include others outside of our humanly interpreted boundaries as to who is inside and outside the circle of faith.
-When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health
The following paragraphs are from a sermon I preached on this text:
“The centurion was an unprejudiced person, an unbiased person. It says in the passage for today, that he “loved our nation,” the Jewish nation. Now, Roman centurions weren’t known for their love of Jews. Most Roman centurions were prejudiced against the Jews, and even hated the Jews. The last place that a Roman centurion ever wanted to get assigned was that God forsaken corner of the world, called Palestine, that desert out there next to nowhere. Who wanted to get assigned out there in that God forsaken deserted corner of the earth? And so most Roman soldiers were prejudiced against the Jews. But here in the passage for today it says that the centurion loved our nation.
I have been trying to think of some parallels. In your imagination, would you imagine yourself living in the 1860s down South in Mississippi. You are white and all your friends and family are white, but you are also known to love the black race? Or you are black and you love the white race? Hmmm.
Or imagine that you are living in Pakistan today and you are known to love the Indians?
Or imagine that you are living in Palestine today and you are known to love the Jewish race? Or a Jew loving the Palestinians? Do you get the picture?
I have been trying to think of words today that would genuinely describe someone who is different than they are. Positive words. Can you think of any positive words? I can think of negative words like with a negative prefix e.g. “unprejudiced”...unbiased...but I can’t think of a positive word which describes somebody who truly loves people who are different than they are e.g. a Palestinian loving people of the Jewish race. Can you think of a positive word like that? That describes someone who truly loves other people who are very different than they are, against whom the rest of their world is prejudiced? That’s what the centurion was. He had true feelings of affection for people who were different than he was, people against whom the rest of his world was prejudiced.
What did he do in the story for today? Remember? This centurion built their synagogue. What kind of person is this who not only is unprejudiced towards someone else, but is willing to build a temple for their religion.
Imagine a Jew in Israel building an Arab mosque? Does that make sense?
Or a Palestinian building a Jewish synagogue?
Or a Hindu building a temple in Pakistan?
Or a Pakistani building a temple for his enemies in India?
What kind of person was this centurion?
The centurion was humble. In the story for today, the Pharisees said: “Jesus, the centurion is worthy to have his servant healed because he loves our nation and built us a synagogue.” Leave it to the Pharisees to think like that; the centurion is good enough to deserve God’s healing power.
And many Christians today echo the same beliefs: ‘That person is a good person, God. Goes to church, is kind and is a generous tither. If anyone deserves to be healed, that person does.” Or some of you may feel that way about yourself. “God, I’ve been faithful. I deserve your healing presence.” But not the centurion who said: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come to my house. I am not worthy to see you. I am not good enough. I am a soldier. When I say “go,” my troops go. When I say “come,” my troops come. I am a centurion. I command a hundred foot soldiers, barking orders for them to obey. But I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” “I order executions, whippings, and killings. I am not good enough to have you come to my house.” I mean, the centurion could have said, “Jesus, I am a good man and a loving person. And because I am such a good person, I am honored that you will come into my house and heal my servant.” But these weren’t his inner feelings. He genuinely felt unworthy to have Jesus come to his home.
The centurion also had deep simple faith. He said: “Jesus, you just say the word and my servant will be healed. Jesus, you don’t even need to come to my house. You don’t need to come and put your hand on his forehead and say, “rise, get up and walk.” You don’t need to spit into the ground and take up some mud and touch his body with it. You don’t need to take some olive oil, and pour it over him. Jesus, you don’t even need to come to my house. All you have to do is from right here, you say the word and my servant will be healed. My servant doesn’t even believe. I am the one who believes. You don’t even need to go see my servant. The servant is a mile away. You just say the word and he will be healed.”
And Jesus said about this centurion: “Let me tell you. I have never seen... such faith...in all of Israel” And Jesus then said to the centurion, “You can go home now.” And the centurion went home, and found his servant healed.
I ask you this question: What kind of faith did the centurion have? What was his faith like? His faith was simple. It was like this: “Jesus, I believe that you can heal my servant. You can help my servant.”
His faith isn’t what I would call a dogmatic faith. It wasn’t a creedal faith that repeated itself mindlessly: “Ibelieveingodthefatheralmightyandinjesuschristhisonlyson our Lordwhowasconceivedbythe HolySpirtandbornoftheVirginMary.” His faith is not a rapid fire repetition of a creed, the Apostles or the Nicene. He had never heard of the Apostles or Nicene creeds. Of course not; the creeds hadn’t been written yet.
Nor was his faith a Biblical faith. Did he really believe, like in the Book of Colossians, that Jesus created all the heavens and the earth and everything that was made was made by Jesus Christ. Is that what the centurion believed? Or did he believe that, like the book of Revelations, that Jesus will come at the end of history to judge all the good and the bad? Is that what he believed? Did he know the stories of the New Testament? Of course not. The New Testament hadn’t been written yet.
Nor was his a Sunday School faith based on simple Bible stories about Jesus.
No, his was a very simple faith, a simple faith not resting on creeds or Bibles or Sunday School. His was a simple, simple trust that Jesus could and would heal his servant. And Jesus said of this kind of faith: “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel.”
Perhaps there is a simplicity of faith that we sometimes lose within our institutionalized religions, a simple faith which may be much deeper than our creedal or Biblical faith, a simple belief in the power of Jesus to meet our deepest need.
And so you see, this is such a simple little story. Just a few sentences long. One short paragraph. But from this simple story, you can paint a rather profound portrait of a gentle man, a good man, a person who had deep simple faith in Jesus Christ.
But importantly, in the story, the centurion was what? He was an outsider. He wasn’t part of the church. He wasn’t part of the religious establishment. He wasn’t part of the religious culture. He was an outsider. He wasn’t a Jew. He wasn’t part of the inner core of the church; he was an outsider of the church. And this is one of the many “outsider” stories in the Bible.
Can you tell me, why does Jesus seem to have this deep love and affection for people who are outsiders? How you ever figured that out? Why does Jesus seem to love people so deeply who are outside the synagogue or church? He seems to have an attraction for them, a fascination for, an appreciation of them.
I would like to give you four examples.
Tax collectors. Do you remember the stories about the tax collectors? One of Jesus’ very first disciples was a tax collector. And people didn’t like the tax collectors. They were stealing the people blind. But Jesus saw something good, kind and beautiful inside the tax collectors.
The lepers. Or how about another group called the lepers. The lepers were like first century people with AIDS. People usually stay from people with AIDS. Stay away from people with AIDS because you may get it. And you stay away from those people with leprosy because you may get it. You stay six feet away from them on an upwind and eighteen feet away from them on a downwind. Avoid people with leprosy because you may get it. You stay six feet away from them on an upwind and eighteen feet away from them on a downwind. You never got within wind of lepers. They were the outsiders. But Jesus was so different. What did Jesus see in the lepers? Something beautiful and good. Everybody else thought that they were outsiders and bad sinners, but not Jesus. And such would be Jesus’ attitude towards people sick with AIDS today. How very often do people with AIDS feel like they are today’s lepers.
The woman caught in adultery. And who was another outsider? You know, the woman caught in adultery. I wonder why the man was not caught in adultery and only the woman. Seems impossible to me.
The woman at the well. And you remember that Samaritan woman at the well, who had all those live-in guys erroneously called husbands?
Why does Jesus always finding something good in outsiders? Those who are outside the walls and boundaries and membership of the current religiously acceptable organizations? People who are outside the religious establishment. People who are outside the church. Outside the culturally accepted pattern of the day. Why is it that Jesus is always attracted to them?
Could it be that people within institutionalized religion have this insidious temptation and tendency to have the form of religion but without its power; that we assume the posture of faith without the power of the simple inner faith of the heart? Jesus said of the centurion, “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel.”
Now, to be honest, I had known several people like him; people who are outside the institutional church but have deep and simple faith in Jesus Christ.
(Here ends this section of that sermon.)
Painting and Imagination:
The Centurion Begging Jesus For Healing For His Slave
Give examples from your own experience where you believe that true faith is found in people outside the church?
Let’s briefly examine John’s version of the story. In John, we have an official and not a centurion. We have a son, and not a slave. Jesus suggests that the public official is looking for signs and wonders in order to believe, but the public official simply believes. Jesus promises the official that his son will live and the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him. In other words, faith is believing the words that Jesus speaks to us. Faith is trusting that the promises(s) that Jesus makes to us are true…without any signs, without any wonders, without any miracles.
Then it was discovered that the son was healed at 1:00 in the afternoon, exactly at the time that Jesus had spoken his word of promise to the official. Understanding this, the official believed. For John, this is the second sign that Jesus did, the first sign being the turning of the water into wine at Cana.
What is the message of this sign? True faith is to believe in the promises of Jesus, before signs, before wonders, and before miracles. What is the meaning for our lives today? We too are to believe in the promises of Christ…that our sins are forgiven, that Jesus is life, that Jesus promises eternal life, that Christ is the way to God and the truth about God. Faith is believing the promises of God to us …before any sign is given.
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