This story is a great testimony to faith, there is no doubt. This Roman soldier knew more about faith than just about anyone else that Jesus ever knew.
The Bible says that this man was a Roman centurion. He was part of the military occupation of Palestine by the Roman Empire. The whole province of Galilee was considered by them a war zone, like we might think of Syria or Iraq.
Centurions were the middle ranks of Roman officers. They would be like master sergeants or lieutenants in our army--capable men who can could get the job done, but not creative thinkers or great strategists. Generals don’t want people serving under them who think for themselves, but people who follow orders and know how to get others to follow orders.
Faith is a necessary trait for a good mid-level officer like a centurion. They must have faith in the judgment of their commander, and in their commander’s willingness to give them support. If the commander said to attack the enemy from the flank, the centurion must believe that the general knows what is best. He must also trust that the commander has put in place the supply lines and support necessary to accomplish the mission. A good centurion places his life into the hands of his general.
Likewise, the centurion expects the soldiers under him to be obedient. He understand that the order of command is essential. If soldiers do not work together under the chain of command, the whole fabric of the army is destroyed. How can an army survive without leaders? Mutual trust and submission are essential to every army in the world.
Faith in God is like a centurion’s faith in his commander and his soldiers. Faith isn’t about not having doubts, but about trusting and being submissive to our heavenly Commander. We may question and doubt, but we obey in the end and trust that Jesus has an answer.
We all have our doubts, even about God. But faith is submission in spite of doubt. I may not understand why God does what He does, but believe that God ought to be in charge, and that whatever happens is His will. I am glad that I am not in charge, because I do not know what to do. But He is in charge, and I am happy with that.
But we Christians are often prone to question our Commander’s wisdom and actions. We act as if God doesn’t have a plan. We only go into battle if we can see the outcome. God doesn’t tell us what is going to happen, and we don’t need to understand what happens. We just have to obey.
God sometimes calls us to be successful. Billy Graham was the most successful evangelist in our lifetime. When he was a little ARP boy growing up in Charlotte, who would have ever thought he would grow up to be the greatest evangelist of his time? God called him to fantastic success.
But God can just as easily call us to fail to succeed. The prophet Jeremiah is a good example of this. During his lifetime, he was called to deliver an unpopular message to people who wanted to kill him. Only a few people listened. But he proved to be right, and now we regard him as a major prophet.
Faith isn’t accomplishing miracles—it’s being a miracle. When we are operating according to faith, we are instruments in God’s hands. Our part may be to be successful, to be sacrificed and suffer for His sake. He may use us to prepare the ground for others. Whatever our part, we must trust and obey God’s word.
To understand what is happening in this passage, it helps to contrast this story with a similar story found later in Matthew 9: 18-24. In that passage, a ruler came to Jesus and said his daughter was dead. He asked if Jesus would come to his house and pray with her. The man is convinced that if Jesus comes, she will be healed. As Jesus is going, a woman who is continually bleeding breaks through the crowd, because she is convinced that if she touches the hem of His garment, she will be healed. Jesus notices this, and said to her that her faith has made her whole. When he gets to the house He discovers that the girl is not dead, but heals her anyway.
This story in Matthew 9 is interesting, because everything that everyone believed, (except Jesus) is wrong. The girl is not dead. Jesus did not have to go to the ruler’s house to heal her, as we see in the Centurion’s story. The woman with the issue of blood did not have to touch the hem of His garment. She only had to believe. Yet Jesus did not correct their errors, but met them where they were.
This Centurion understood faith better than these other people, because his work in the army taught him that it’s all about faith in his commander. He showed faith every day. He doesn’t have to see his commanding officer to follow orders. If he recognizes that the orders come from the Commander, he follows.
Don’t over-spiritualize what faith means. Faith isn’t something we only do in church. Jesus is Lord, but everyday words that mean the same include Commander, Boss, Chief, and Leader. If you aren’t listening for God for orders, then Jesus isn’t your Lord. We don’t have to know why we follow. We just follow the leader.
This centurion’s faith was a “doing” faith. When he was called he followed. Do you have that kind of faith? When God assures you that all will be well, do you continue to worry? When you pray, do you think that it will be done? Or do you only believe when you feel the presence of God.
God grants us His presence, as He did with the ruler and the woman in Matthew 8, but He also works in the absence of our feeling of His presence. We don’t have to touch him or be touched by him. He is still there, when we don’t see him.
When your kids go off to college, you don’t have to worry about them—God is still present with them. We don’t have to fix people’s problems, God does that. The best thing I can do is ask God for help. You don’t have to see or understand the answers--you just have to trust.
A friend sent me this prayer this week From Fr. James Martin, S. J. It’s called, “The New Serenity Prayer.”
“God, grant me the serenity to accept people I cannot change, which is pretty much everyone since I’m clearly not you, God, at least not the last time I checked.
“And while you’re at it, God, please give me the courage to change what I need to change about myself, which is frankly a lot, since, once again, I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.”
“It’s better for me to focus on changing myself than to worry about changing other people, who, as you no doubt remember me saying, I can’t change anyway.”
‘Finally, give me the wisdom just to shut up whenever I think I’m clearly smarter than everyone else in the room, that no one knows what they are talking about except me, or that I alone have all the answers.
Basically, God, grant me the wisdom to remember that I’m not you. Amen.”
Faith is believing that what happens to you is God’s business. Let’s say you are running late for an important appointment downtown. You hop in your car and calculate that you have just enough time to make it. But up ahead a tree fell on a car and it’s blocking up traffic. Now you are going to be late.
Insurance companies have a name for these kinds of accidents. They are called “acts of God.” Is it possible that our insurance companies understand the nature of life more than we believers? If we panic over an act of God, then who are we trusting? Faith is believing whatever happens and however things work out, God is still in charge. God didn’t promise that everything would be easy, but that he would provide. Sometimes being late is exactly what He wants. We may learn a valuable lesson from being late than from being on time.
So this Centurion in this story was a man of great faith. But even so, there’s something about this story that bothers me. Is it possible this centurion, missed something that Jesus wanted to do? There’s no mention of this centurion becoming a disciple—only that his servant was healed.
Put yourself in his sandals for a moment. What if Jesus offered to come to your house? Would you say, “Don’t bother, just give your word?” We aren’t told what happens next. Maybe Jesus did come to his house anyway. But It would be a shame if this man received what he wanted from Jesus and never had Him as a houseguest. Faith is just the beginning—it’s not the end.
Compare this story with Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ house, and he became a new man. What would this centurion have become if Jesus spent an afternoon with him?
Faith is the door, but intimacy with God lies beyond the door. Jesus wants us not as soldiers, but as friends. A centurion obeys his commander, but he does not fraternize with him. But Jesus wants to share our joys, sufferings, pain and pleasure.
A lot of people had faith in Jesus when he walked the earth. They believed he would save them, feed them and even believed he could be their political savior. But only a handful of people wanted to be with him everywhere. These people invited Him into their lives and they willingly forsook their lives to spend time with Him. They shared their pain and suffering with him and shared in His suffering. They were happy to be with Him not because of what He did, but because of who He was. They wanted intimacy with Him, not just blessings.
I sincerely hope this Centurion went on to the next level, but I suspect he didn’t. The gap between Jew and Gentile was a real barrier to friendship, just as to many people the gap between God and earth is too great a distance. Our understanding of God’s majesty is important, but it can be a barrier if we do not also see Him as friend.
God doesn’t want just to heal you. He wants to live with you. Invite him into your heart by getting still and quiet before Him. Learn to appreciate His presence in your life, and out of that place, come to experience His peace and His joy.