After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “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.” And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying 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. 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.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
We have three main characters in the Gospel story of Jesus healing the Centurion slave: namely the Centurion and Jesus, who are present, and the slave, who doesn’t make an appearance, but who is saved from death by Jesus healing powers.
What we know about each of these people?
We know from reading the Gospel stories that Jesus healed many people physically during his time on earth. It’s also clear that the news of Jesus healing powers spread rapidly as he passed through different regions, healing among the crowds as he went. And obviously the Centurion had heard these stories.
Remember though, that although Jesus healed many, only specific people were healed, and there was no mass wave of healing through the crowds of everyone who saw him.
And what about the Centurion? He was most likely a member of Herod Antipas militia. It appears he was a God-fearing non-Jew, one of many who didn’t want to abandon their ethnic background by taking the final commitment of circumcision, but who were attracted by the ethical teachings of Judaism and would attend synagogues in the outside courts with the Gentiles.
We know this Centurion had a great respect and care for the Jews as he built a synagogue for them, not in order to earn respect but because he cared for the people. We know that he cared too for his slave. Reading of his humility and care, it’s considered highly unlikely that he wanted his slave to be cured simply because he needed him, but his motivation was for the slave himself.
We do know that the Centurion was respected because the Jewish elders who came to Jesus on his behalf spoke highly of his worthiness. His friends who came with a later message of Jesus, conveyed his humility within his authority.
And what of our slave? He remains a distance, and by doing so emphasises for us the power of Jesus healing in two ways.
First they know that touch is not required. People in those days understood that mystical healing could only take place through physical touch.
And this is where our second point comes in: the Centurion didn’t confuse Jesus with mystical healers of the day but truly understood and believed in Jesus power to heal through his own authority.
Coming back to our slave, no mention is made of his own faith or belief. Slaves normally followed practices of their Masters, so he may well have been a God fearer, but this isn’t seen as being significant enough to be mentioned in the Gospel narrative, and the emphasis is placed instead on the faith of the Centurion.
So we have Jesus who heals, a Centurion of faith, and the slave whose life is saved through Jesus healing and the Centurion’s faith.
We haven’t looked too closely at the Jewish elders and the Centurion’s friends, but I think we have to believe in their faith, however weak this may have been, in that they were prepared to approach Jesus on behalf of their master, whom they respected, with such confidence and fervour. It appears a crowd had gathered round Jesus while he was speaking with them, and clearly they were not embarrassed or inhibited in passing on the Centurion’s request.
It’s also worth noting that the Centurion’s friends returned to his house before they knew of the servants healing. They don’t asked Jesus for his assurance that slave has been healed, they don’t question that Jesus words how about faith rather than healing. They accept Jesus authority and return home in trust.
Suffering and healing are subjects which could keep us talking all day, and while I’d like to think that our understanding might grow in that time, faith is only faith because it cannot be scientifically proved, and I certainly am most grateful that doubting Thomas was chosen personally by Jesus to be one of his disciples. We do not have all the answers this side of eternity.
What we do know though is that healing does not necessarily have to be done through physical touch. I think that’s probably much easier for us to understand in this day and age and it was for the people living in Jesus time.
Since Luke, who wrote this Gospel story, was a doctor, he would have been the obvious one of the four Gospel writers who might perhaps have been more concerned to make a point of healing through touch.
And I do want to add here that I personally certainly believe that God does heal through the skills of doctors and nurses, as well as by faith and miracles.
We do know, and this I see as an important point, that healing comes through faith. This was certainly the point that Jesus was making when he implied that the God-fearing Centurion had greater faith than the Israelites Jews who were perhaps more concerned with being seen to do the right thing – something which could be proved, than believing that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, which required faith and trust.
While the Centurion could sent his envoys to speak to Jesus, we come to Jesus today through prayer. The trust and faith of the Centurion which brought healing to his slave through the power of Jesus, is the same trust and faith that we can have as we bring our requests for healing, in whatever form that may be.
The power of prayer is enormous. One of my college lecturers many years ago described prayer as releasing God’s will in our world. Our Archbishops call our nation to prayer before Pentecost, focusing last year on the words from the Lord’s prayer “thy kingdom come, which we follow with the words: thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven”.
We can come to Jesus through prayer and he will release his healing power – maybe not in the way that we would see as best, but through his love for us as his children. For God’s will to be done here on earth, as in heaven. God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts.
But we can grown in faith and trust that he will act on our behalf, just as a Centurion trusted through faith that Jesus would heal his servant.