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Epiphany Seventh Sunday

Season of Epiphany

Seventh Sunday: Matthew 8:5-13
JESUS HEALS A CENTURION'S SERVANT

INTRODUCTION

The centurion’s interaction with Jesus mediating to heal his servant gives us excellent lessons of Christian virtues. The gentile military officer was a man of love in action, a model of faith in Jesus, and an icon of humility. Jesus praised him and set him as an example for others. In our Christian practice, let us also be caring, believing, and humbling like this centurion.

BIBLE TEXT

(Matthew 8:5) When Jesus entered Caper­naum, an army officer approached him to ask his help, (6) “Lord, my servant lies sick at home. He is paralyzed and suffers terribly.” (7) Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” (8) The officer answered, “I am not worthy to have you under my roof. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. (9) For I am a man under orders myself, and I have soldiers under me. And if I say to one: ‘Go,’ he goes, and if I say to another: ‘Come,’ he comes, and if I tell my servant: ‘Do this,’ he does it.” (10) When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those who were following him, “I tell you, I have found no one in Israel with faith like this. (11) I say to you, many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven; (12) but those who belong to the kingdom will be thrown out into the darkness outside; there they will weep and gnash their teeth.” (13) Then Jesus said to the officer, “Go home now. What you believed will happen.” And at that moment his servant was healed.

INTERPRETATION

Two Narrations of the same event

The evangelists Matthew (8:5-13) and Luke (7:1-10) give the same event with a slight variation. Matthew who wrote the gospel for the Jewish Christians, gives importance to the teachings that follow the event. Luke who wrote for the Gentiles, gives more details of the event, highlighting this gentile centurion’s faith.

(Matthew 8:5) When Jesus entered Caper­naum, an army officer approached him to ask his help.

When Jesus entered Capernaum
Jesus came down after his lengthy sermon on the mountain at the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew chapters 5-7). From there he moved to Capernaum. On his way he cured a leper (Matthew 8:1-4). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus came to Capernaum after his Sermon on the Plains (Luke 6:20-49).

Capernaum
Capernaum has another name, “The town of Jesus” because he did most of his ministry in that village. Though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, when he preached there, his own people rejected him and even attempted to throw him down the hill (Luke 4:28-30). He overcame that assassination attempt and moved to Capernaum to make it his base for preaching and serving the disadvantaged. Jesus did most of his public ministry there. Out of his 12 apostles, Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew were from Capernaum. It had roads that led to far away cities. So, it was a hub where Jesus could meet many people from various areas. Though a small village, Capernaum was part of Galilee where most Jews lived. Despite the constant preaching and miracles of Jesus in Capernaum, that city lacked enough faith and Jesus cursed it later (Matthew 11:23).

A centurion
During the public ministry of Jesus, the Jews were under the Roman rule. Their military presence was all over the nation. Centurions were military officers who oversaw 100 soldiers each. Centuria in Latin means 100.

The Bible mentions several centurions as admirable characters:

1. The centurion who requested Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). According to the Jewish elders, he deserved Jesus’ favor because he loved the Jewish nation and had built a synagogue for them (Luke 7:3-5). Besides a man of charity, he became an icon of humility and faith in Jesus.

2. Another centurion, whose name is unavailable, supervised Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate assigned him to do so because the Jews had no authority to execute crucifixion. The centurion noticed the extraordinary signs that happened at Jesus’ death. “When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:39). Thus he, like many others, proclaimed the divinity of Jesus.

3. While Jesus had died and was hanging on the cross, “one of the soldiers thrust a lance into his side and immediately there flowed out blood and water.” (John 19:34). According to some legends, this soldier was Longinus, a blind centurion. When he pierced Jesus’ heart, blood fell upon his eyes and he regained sight. Because of this miracle, he became a Christian, and the church venerates him as a saint.

4. Acts chapter 10 presents an exemplary centurion. “There was in Caesarea a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was called the Italian Cohort. He and his whole household were religious and God-fearing. He gave generously to the people and constantly prayed to God.” (Acts 10:1-2). Cornelius had a divine vision in which an angel of God told him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial offering before God.” (Acts 10:4). He and his family were the early gentile converts to Christianity who received baptism from St. Peter.

5. A centurion interceded his commander to avoid scourging Paul because he was a Roman citizen by birth. (Acts 22:25-30).

6. Another centurion helped Paul to send his nephew to the Roman commander to communicate the conspiracy of Jews to kill Paul. (Acts 23:17-18).

7. When a Roman commander sent Paul to Felix the governor of Caesarea, two centurions escorted Paul to protect him from the hostile Jews. (Acts 23:23).

8. Another centurion was Julius of the Cohort Augusta, who oversaw Paul and other prisoners’ transportation to Rome. During the shipwreck, this man trusted Paul and prevented his fellow soldiers from killing Paul and other prisoners (Acts 27:43).

A centurion approached him.
Though Matthew presents that the centurion approached Jesus directly, Luke reports that he never met Jesus in person. First, he sent Jewish elders, and later his friends, because he considered himself unworthy to come in front of Jesus.

Acts presents a situation that supports the reason for this. After St. Peter had a vision, three people came to see him. They said, “We are coming from Cornelius the centurion. He is an upright and God-fearing man, well respected by all the Jewish people. He has been instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, so that he may listen to what you have to say.” (Acts10:22). When Peter entered the centurion’s house, Peter said, “You know that it is forbidden for Jews to associate with a Gentile or to enter his house. But God has made it clear to me that no one should call any person profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28).

Such Jewish law and custom might have been in the centurion's mind who approached Jesus for healing his servant. He expressed that in Luke’s gospel: “I did not consider myself worthy to come to you.” (Luke 7:7). He believed that Jesus had supernatural power to heal his servant from a distance.

(6) “Lord, my servant lies sick at home. He is paralyzed and suffers terribly.”

My servant
Though Matthew uses the term servant, Luke uses the word slave. There was not much difference between slaves and servants during the Biblical times. They were the property of the owner and not like contract workers or hired people.

Lying at home
If a servant is critically sick, the owner could abandon him and buy another one. However, the centurion offered medical treatment to the servant at his house because he considered the servant as a family member. The love and humanitarian approach of the centurion towards his slave impressed Jesus.

Paralyzed, suffering dreadfully
Besides paralysis, the centurion adds saying, his servant was suffering dreadfully. Luke does not specify the sickness but says “a slave who was ill and about to die, and he was valuable to him.” (Luke 7:2). This description of the evangelist adds to the excellent character of the centurion. It shows the pain he felt with his slave and his significant concern for his cure.

(7) Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”

With no further discussion, Jesus volunteered to go to the centurion’s house. Jesus wanted to be with the sick servant and the family to offer them compassionate care. He did not care that the centurion was a gentile. The Jews, especially a Rabbi, could not make such a visit. Jesus ignored that because his goal was an action with compassion.

(8) The officer answered, “I am not worthy to have you under my roof. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.”

Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.
The centurion, out of respect, did not call Jesus by name. Instead, he calls him Lord. He considered himself unworthy for Jesus, the Lord, to enter his house because Jesus was a Jew and an exceptional Rabbi with divine power.

Only say the word and my servant will be healed.
The centurion believed in the power of Jesus’ words. He might have heard how Jesus used to perform miracles. His words made miracles happen, though the centurion was not aware that Jesus was the Word that took the human flesh.

(9) “For I am a man under orders myself, and I have soldiers under me. And if I say to one: ‘Go,’ he goes, and if I say to another: ‘Come,’ he comes, and if I tell my servant: ‘Do this,’ he does it.”

I too am a person subject to authority.
The centurion acknowledged that he was under Rome’s authority before he mentioned his authority over the soldiers under his command. He was expressing his humility through this. When he added “I too,” he expressed his faith that Jesus was under God’s authority and compared his situation with that of Jesus.

With soldiers subject to me
As a centurion, he had 100 soldiers subject to his authority. They obeyed his commands.

I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes…
The centurion clarified his logic of why he believed Jesus could heal his servant from a distance with his word. From experience, the centurion knew the power of his word. All the soldiers subject to him obeyed his commands even from a distance. He need not be present to implement his wishes. So also, Jesus, who had authority over the nature and whatever caused illness, could command, and cure his servant from where Jesus stood.

(10) When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those who were following him, “I tell you, I have found no one in Israel with faith like this.”

He was amazed.

There are only few instances when the response of others amazed Jesus. One was the time this centurion expressed his faith, and another was at the negative reaction of his natives in the synagogue at Nazareth. When he preached there, his listeners were astonished and were doubting on his authority because they knew him and his family. Instead of appreciating him and thanking God for his power, they took offense at him. Mark the evangelist reports that Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:6 

The faith of a Greek woman, who was Syrophoenician by birth, at Tyre also amazed Jesus. When she pleaded to heal her daughter with an unclean spirit, Jesus tested her saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Her reply was: “Lord, even the little dogs under the table eat the crumbs from the children’s bread.” (Mark 7:27-28). Though Mark did not use the term “amazed,” he says, the reply of this gentile woman astonished Jesus and he healed her daughter (Mark 7:24-30).

Said to those following him
Many people accompanied Jesus after his sermon on the mount to hear more from him and to see the wonderful things he would do. Jesus made use of that opportunity to teach them based on what they heard from the centurion.

Amen, I say to you.
Amen means acceptance or affirmation. The Bible uses it at the end of a prayer, blessing, curse, or statement expressing one’s endorsement or truthfulness of what was said. For example, when Ezra opened the scroll and blessed the LORD, all people raised their hands high and pronounced, “Amen, amen!” (Nehemiah 8:5-6). In Deuteronomy 27:14-26, God asked the Israelites to answer “amen” to the 12 curses the Levites pronounced at Mount Ebal. By that, they were accepting the curses that would fall on them if they would violate the laws that God gave them through Moses.

Amen stands for truth, and the Bible uses it as a title of God. One of God’s titles is “The God of Amen” or “The God of Truth” (Isaiah 65:16). Revelation 3:14, presents Jesus as: “The Amen, the faithful and true witness, the source of God’s creation.” The Holy Bible ends with “Amen” that St. John expresses as the author of Revelation (Rev. 22:20-21).

Jesus used the Hebrew word, “Amen” at the beginning of a statement, or even twice as “Amen, Amen, I say to you.” (John 3:3). The meaning is “truly, truly, I say to you” or “I solemnly tell you the truth.” By these statements, Jesus affirmed the truthfulness of what followed in his discourse.

In no one in Israel have I found such faith.
Jesus contrasted the outstanding faith of the gentile centurion with that of the chosen people of Israel. The Israelites had the privilege of God’s protection, guidance of Moses, Joshua, judges, kings, teachings, correction from the prophets, and God’s presence in the Tabernacle. However, they rejected the Messiah when he came. They were not practicing faith in their life compared to the centurion. Even the disciples of Jesus took time to understand Jesus and his kingdom.

The centurion was a secular person, a gentile, a military officer, and a person with no understanding of the Hebrew scriptures. However, Jesus appreciated his faith and declared it far better than anyone in Israel. The following were the outstanding characteristics of the centurion that Matthew and Luke present.

1. The centurion was a lover of enemies. The Jews opposed Romans. The emperor appointed centurions to keep them under control. Instead of intimidating them, this centurion kept good relations with the Jews. Hence, the elders of Jews came to Jesus on behalf of him, pleading to save the life of his slave. They told Jesus: “He deserves this of you, for he loves our people and has even built a synagogue for us.” (Luke 7:5).

2. The centurion had a profound respect for the True God of Israel. He expressed that by even constructing a synagogue for them.

3. The centurion was a perfect model of charity. He was exceptional that he was considering his slave not as an object, but as a family member. He experienced his slave’s pain as his own and tried his best for his cure. When every medication failed, he approached Jesus for help without considering what others might think of him.

4. The centurion’s humility was outstanding. He considered himself unworthy to ask Jesus to come to his house. According to Luke, he used the elders of Israel to mediate for him, considering his unworthiness to come in front of Jesus. He said through his friends to Jesus: “I did not consider myself worthy to come to you.”

5. The centurion was a man of faith. The centurion believed in the power of the Word of God. He believed that Jesus could heal his slave even from a distance. The centurion compared himself as a person under authority and above the 100 soldiers assigned to him. So also, he believed in the authority Jesus had from God and his authority over everything in the universe. Jesus appreciated the centurion’s faith. 

(11) I say to you, many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven.

Many will come.
The redemptive ministry of Jesus is for all. However, Jesus used the term “many” implying that only those who accept his message will have salvation. Others will not attain it because he is the only way to the Father. At the Last Supper, Jesus said to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). 

From the east and the west
According to God’s promise to Abraham, “in you all peoples of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3). Jesus was fulfilling this promise and presenting the centurion as a first example of such people who would find salvation through Jesus. The east and the west stood for all directions of the world. This was a reminder of Isaiah 45:6, “from the rising to the setting of the sun, all may know that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.” So, Jesus invites people from all nations, including those who live far away, to the Kingdom of God he introduced. Hence, Jesus said to his apostles, “Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation.” (Mark 16:15). So, God did not restrict the Kingdom of God to any nation but open to all on condition that they believe in him and get baptized. This contrasted with the teachings of the Jewish leaders.

Will recline.
In the Biblical times, people used to enjoy banquet relaxed in a reclining position. There are several references of reclining for dining during Jesus’ public ministry.

With Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the patriarchs of the Old Testament who worshipped the true God. The Bible uses the formula “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” in several places because God referred Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “God then said to Moses, ‘You will say to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. That will be my name forever, and by this name they shall call upon me for all generations to come’” (Exodus 3:15). The Jews also use the same formula or a short form, “The God of our forefathers” in their prayers. This reminded them of the covenant that God made with Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) and reaffirmed with Isaac (Genesis 26:3–4), and Jacob (Genesis 28:14–15).

At the banquet in the kingdom of heaven
Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven’s joy like a banquet that is enjoyable, relaxed, and involves perfect friendship. However, the Jews used to exclude the Gentiles from their banquets. For example, when Peter went to Jerusalem, “the circumcised believers confronted him, saying, ‘You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them.’” (Acts 11:2-3). When the Jews avoided eating with the Gentiles, Jesus taught that people from all nations including the Gentiles would recline at the Lord’s table in heaven. However, he might cast out many chosen people of Israel from that banquet. The Jews hated such teachings from Jesus.

(12) “But those who belong to the kingdom will be thrown out into the darkness outside; there they will weep and gnash their teeth.”

The children of the kingdom
The Israelites considered themselves as the children of God (Deut. 14:1). They distinguished themselves distinct from the Gentiles who did not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, the Israelites believed that the inheritance in the Kingdom of God would be only for them. St. Paul wrote, “Now, in Christ Jesus, all of you are children of God through faith. All of you, through baptism in Christ, have put on Christ. There is no longer any distinction between Jew and Greek, or between slave and freeman, or between man and woman; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And because you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s descendants, and you are heirs according to God’s promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29). Those Israelites who rejected Jesus were losing their divine inheritance, and the Gentiles who accepted Jesus were becoming the children of God.

Will be driven out
Because the Israelites disobeyed God and committed sin, He drove them out from their God-given land of Canaan through the Assyrian and the Babylonian exiles. However, after the Babylonian exile for 70 (50) years, God brought the Jews back to the promised land. This is like God’s expulsion of the first parents from the Garden of Eden and returning them and their descendants back through Jesus.

At the last judgement, Jesus will bring the living and the dead in front of him. He will cast out those who did not implement his teachings. The Gentiles who would repent and accept the Kingdom of God would replace them. Paul and Barnabas, while in Antioch in Pisidia, addressed the Jews who were opposing them saying: “It was necessary that God’s word be first proclaimed to you, but since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:46). Thus, the Messiah would exclude the unrepentant Jews from becoming the heirs of God’s Kingdom.

Into the outer darkness
According to the Bible, darkness is the absence of spiritual light and domain of the evil. Jesus, the Light of the World, came to rescue us from the darkness of sin and the influence of evil. He commissioned his disciples to continue that mission. Addressing King Agrippa, St. Paul said that Jesus sent him, “that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” (Acts 26:18). To Colossians St. Paul wrote of Christ: “He rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13). While Jesus saved many from the darkness, those who rejected him stayed in darkness because they judged themselves unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46). At the last judgement, he will drive them out into the eternal darkness.

Wailing and grinding of teeth
The Bible uses this phrase in several places. Wicked persons gnash their teeth against the righteous to express their hatred or anger as they did at the trial of St. Stephen (Acts 7:54). Psalm 37:12 states: “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them.” Jesus used this as a part of the last judgement. “That is how it will be at the end of time; the angels will go out to separate the wicked from the just and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:49-50). The grinding of teeth, along with wailing, expresses a great and lasting anguish at the loss of everlasting life in heaven. It also would be their expression of disagreement in seeing others, like the Gentiles and former sinners, enjoying eternal reward with the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

(13) Then Jesus said to the officer, “Go home now. What you believed will happen.” And at that moment his servant was healed.

Jesus did not insist to go to the house of the centurion. Through his response, Jesus confirmed the centurion’s faith in the power of Jesus’ word. With no touching, prayer, or blessing, Jesus healed the servant from a distance.

MESSAGE

1. Profession and Religious Practice
Though the centurion was by profession a Roman military officer, he was a godly man. He had faith in the God of Israel. As a result, he built a synagogue for them. He also showed many qualities of a religious person. Regardless of our profession, we can practice our faith. There were many Christian saints and martyrs who were secular professionals.

2. Charity in Action
The centurion was a man of charity. While many maltreat their slaves or servants, he showed an unusual concern for his sick servant. He took care of the servant at his home as a family member. He even humbled himself to reach out to Jesus as a last resort. Like the centurion, let us put into practice the commandment of love in our lives.

3. Humility
The centurion’s humility is another example we must learn from him. Even after 2,000 years, prayer during the Latin Mass repeats his statement, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you under my roof…”

4. Faith
Jesus could find more faith in the gentile Centurion than even among the Jews. He believed that Jesus could heal his servant even without coming to his house. It happened as he believed. While keeping our faith, let us hand it over to our next generation and ask God to increase our faith.

5. Rejection of the Children
Many Israelites deviated from God and rejected Jesus when he came as promised. So, they lost their inheritance in the Kingdom Jesus established. Let us be careful that we and our children remain always faithful to God and Jesus’ teachings.