Today’s meditation is on the story of the Centurian’s servant, from Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10.
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This is the transcript of my retelling. The podcast includes the original text and discussion as well.
The Centurian is at home, and in one of the fanciest homes in Capernaum—if he had the money to build a synagogue that still stands thousands of years later at least in part, he was a wealthy guy. His home is large, made of stone like the synagogue, and as a commander of thousands, he’s used to not only commanding his legionaries, but he also has a number of servants.
The one who is sick was very dear to him. Probably he had been his servant from childhood, so at this point he was more like family than a servant. Matthew’s account says that he was paralyzed, but Luke’s says he was “sick to the point of death,” so this probably wasn’t a result of an injury. Perhaps this was an elderly servant who had had a stroke. It must have been a severe stroke, to leave him paralyzed—and if he was at the point of death, perhaps he was also unconscious. Maybe he never regained consciousness after the stroke. But the Centurian was very distraught, and knew well that none of the physicians could help. At that time in history, there was nothing that could really be done for stroke victims; they either recovered on their own or they didn’t, and with Luke’s account, this one was going in the wrong direction. The Centurian was used to taking charge. When a problem arose, he dealt with it. He solved problems. The feeling of helplessness to affect any positive change for this servant whom he loved so dearly was awful.
But he didn’t feel helpless for long—as usual, a solution occurred to him, though it was admittedly outside the box. The Centurian lived in Capernaum, the home base for Jesus’ ministry. He’d heard about the carpenter’s son who somehow knew the scriptures inside an out, and who had turned water into wine at a wedding there many months earlier. Since then, the rumors were that he went about healing the blind, the lame, the dumb, and the sick of Israel. He’d heard the rumors among the Jews that he might even be the Messiah that they had been waiting for for centuries.
There was a problem, though: the Centurian was Roman, not Jewish. Even though he’d built the Jews’ synagogue It seemed horribly presumptuous of him to approach the Jewish celebrity and ask him to come to his home and heal his servant. Why would he do it? Jesus’ time was precious—the Centurian appreciated this full well, as his own time was precious, too. His legionaries did not approach him lightly with small matters of their own. They knew he expected them to work out their problems on their own, and only approach him if absolutely necessary. They respected his time, his authority, and his position. He could not approach Jesus with any less respect.
But then he remembered a story he’d heard that had taken place in this very city, only some months earlier—and to a Gentile, no less! A nobleman, an official in Capernaum’s son had taken ill and was dying. The official had made bold to approach Jesus directly, and begged him to come and heal his boy. Jesus didn’t go with him—but he healed him anyway. At his word, from a distance! What was it he’d said? “Go; your son will live.” The official believed him, headed home, and was intercepted by servants along the way who told him that his son had begun to recover at the exact hour that Jesus had spoken those words.
That was his solution, the Centurian realized. Of course! He could ask Jesus’ help with minimal inconvenience to himself, if he didn’t ask him to come to his home—he could simply request that he speak a word. That was good enough for the nobleman’s son; why would it not be good enough for his servant? He dared not even approach Jesus directly himself, because he was a Gentile. Jesus focused on the Jews. He thought his appeal might be better received coming from the Jews. He had a relationship with them, having built their synagogue—so he summoned some of the Jewish elders and told them his plight.
“I ask a great favor,” he said, “and if I had another choice I would not. But my servant is very dear to me, and his only hope is a miracle. Jesus of Nazareth can heal him, but I have no basis upon which to appeal to him to do so. Would you approach him on my behalf?”
So the elders went to Jesus. These were not scribes and Pharisees, but elderly faithful Jewish men among those who followed Jesus and hung on his words. They approached him, told him about the Centurian’s servant, and then made the case for him: “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” Jesus did not protest; he agreed to go with the elders to the home of the Centurian to heal the servant.
The Centurian saw Jesus and the elders approaching his home when they were not far away, a crowd following along behind Jesus. The emotion to immediately seize him was less relief than shame. This had not been his intention, to pull this important man away from his ministry! He did not deserve such deference, especially as a Gentile. His friends were gathered at his home to support him through the apparent death of his dear servant, so he hurriedly sent some of them on ahead.
“Please tell the Lord not to trouble himself any further!” he expostulated, “I am not worthy to have him come under my roof! Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too 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 servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
His friends hurried off to intercept Jesus, and the Centurian watched anxiously from a distance. He was close enough that he could see Jesus stop and absorb what his friends said on his behalf, before he turned to say something to the crowd behind him. Then after another moment’s delay, Jesus turned and moved away again, the crowd clinging to his every move. The Centurian’s friends set out back to his home, just when another servant rushed up to the Centurian.
“Your dear one has recovered!” he gasped, out of breath. “He awoke again and sat up, and is asking for you!”
The Centurian swallowed the lump of gratitude in his throat, looking out over the hills at the retreating figure of the Lord. He was not an Israelite, and was not worthy—and yet the master deigned to come to his home to grant his request. He wiped his eyes just as his friends who had spoken to Jesus on his behalf returned. They were beaming.
“What did he say?” The Centurian managed, on his feet already to go and see his servant.
“He was impressed,” his friend grinned back. “When we told him what you’d said, he turned to the crowd and said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
The Centurian’s heart swelled. He, a Gentile, had impressed Jesus. For a moment, the Centurian wished that he himself was a Jew, so that he could join that crowd and follow the Master. But instead, he went to his servant’s bedside. He found him sitting up, drinking a mug of water, and looking better than the Centurian had seen him look in years.
“Thank you,” the Centurian whispered. And even though he never had and never would meet Jesus face to face, he somehow knew he’d heard.
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