He wasn’t the obvious person, and he knew it. The trouble was, he was also desperate.
The centurion was a powerful Roman soldier. Technically, he was supposed to command a hundred Roman troops. That alone was a prestigious position in the mighty Roman army. If one of his soldiers disobeyed him, they were disobeying the emperor. Truth be told, though, it wasn’t exactly a hundred. In this backwater of the empire, he could basically recruit his own men. He’d lost count of exactly how many were under his command.
But one of his soldiers was closer than the rest. He was given the task of being his personal servant. He’d help him with everything from dressing, to food. He would see to his every personal need. But this servant had become ill. Badly. Nobody knew what was wrong. Nobody could make it right. But the servant was in the most terrible pain. He was in agony; it was like he was being tortured.
He owed this man a great deal. It was dreadful to watch him suffer like that.
He’d heard of a man called Jesus. A wandering Jewish rabbi. The crowds said this man could heal – just with a word, with a touch. But he was a Gentile soldier, a non-Jew. Why would Jesus, a Jewish healer want to help him.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. He goes to Jesus. “Lord, my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly.”
The reply he gets confirms his fear. “Shall I come and heal him?” “What do you want me to do about it? You want me to come? To your house?”
“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” “I’m not worthy to have you in my home.” Maybe he was aware that he was not a Jew. Maybe he was aware that Jesus was even more important, more grand than he was.
But Jesus can do it from where he stands. “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
You see, this centurion knows about commands, orders. This is his world. “I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
“All you have to do, Jesus, is give the order. My servant will be healed. There’s no need for you to go anywhere.”
Jesus is simply bowled over. He’s never seen this kind of trust from any Jew before. And this is coming from a Gentile. Simply extraordinary.
So Jesus sends him away. “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.
It’s a wonderful story about Jesus’ authority, and about what it looks like to trust him.
Matthew is drawing our attention to three details as he narrates this event.
The power of Jesus’ word
First, the power of Jesus’ word. The power of Jesus’ word.
Jesus doesn’t need to go with the centurion. Standing where he is, maybe several miles away, he simply gives the order.
That’s all he has to do. Jesus is so in control of this world that he simply has to say something and it happens. Even if that something is a miracle, outside of what normally happens. Even if Jesus is far away. Anything Jesus orders to happen in this world, does so.
Matthew is keen to stress the timing. His servant was healed at that moment. At the exact moment that Jesus gave the order, the servant was healed. I know they didn’t have watches and smartphones. But of all people, the Roman army had systems of time-keeping, enough to be impressed by the miraculous recovery at just the right moment. It may not have been the exact same second. But they knew this was no coincidence.
The power of Jesus’ word.
That’s reassuring for us, isn’t it? Jesus is not here today. He’s far away, he’s in heaven.
But that doesn’t mean he cannot intervene in our lives in amazing ways. Jesus is still so in control of the world that whatever he says, goes. He only has to give the word and our planning application goes through. A sick person recovers. We’re forgiven for the things we’ve done wrong. Anything he wishes, anything he commands, happens the exact moment he chooses.
It’s true he doesn’t always order the things we’d like him to. That’s because it’s his orders that get carried out. His authority. Not ours. We don’t get to order the universe around, but he does.
Sometimes, he holds off because we never asked. Other times, he has a bigger picture than we do. But it’s never a lack of power. Never a shortfall in authority.
Matthew wants us to notice: The power of Jesus’ word.
The pattern of true belief
Second, the pattern of true belief. The pattern of true belief.
The centurion shows the kind of trust that Jesus is looking for. He’s not found anyone in Israel with this kind of trust. But the centurion hits it spot on.
He recognises that this is how authority works. He is a man of considerable authority himself. And he could see in Jesus something far greater than any authority that he had.
That’s what Jesus is looking for in us. He wants us to see that he is in complete control, what he commands goes.
That translates into our trust. We trust that everything is in his hands, that he can be depended on totally.
Our trust. It also translates into our obedience. If Jesus is the one who gives the order, and things happen, then we need to be those who jump at his command. When he says to us, “go,” we go, or “come”, and we come, or “do this”, and we do it.
The pattern of true belief.
Presence at Jesus’ banquet
Third, Matthew wants us to notice the presence at Jesus’ banquet. The presence at Jesus’ banquet.
The Jews had a long hope in a Messiah, a king who could come and bring God’s kingdom and God’s blessing.
And part of their hope in the Messiah was of a great banquet. Chapters like Isaiah 25 set the table with the richest of meats and the finest of wines. When the Messiah comes, he will spread the table and begin the feast. Not everyone will be there. Not even every Jew will be there. Only those who have been found worthy.
But Jesus says to this centurion something that nobody was expecting: I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
People from all over the globe. East to west. Gentiles. Taking their place at the table, with Abraham Isaac and Jacob, Jesus at the head of the table, to feast. Jesus is shocking. Everyone knew that only faithful Jews would be there. But Gentiles? And some Gentiles will be there while some Jews are thrown out? This is scandalous.
But it’s true. Jesus confirms the banquet they were all looking forward to. It’s real. There’s a real, wonderful future, involving food and drink, friendship and laughter, for all of God’s people.
It’s tantalising watching other people eat, but you don’t join in. Sit-down silver-service dinners on Downton. Cakes on Bake Off that you won’t get to touch. Family members tucking in when you have a blood test the next morning.
The great feast in the Bible is not one of those “watch but don’t touch” type of meals. Jesus tells us how to be there. It’s not about your nationality. It’s not about the family you were born into. Even being British doesn’t help. You could have a perfect pedigree and miss out. And oh how frustrating it would be to miss out. Grinding your teeth in despair. What a feast — and I’m not at it. Nothing worse than missing it. Nothing better than being there.
No, it’s not about your family. It’s about your faith. Everyone who shows the kind of trust we see in this centurion will be there.
As Matthew tells us the story of this centurion and his servant, he wants us to notice three things: The power of Jesus’ word, the pattern of true belief, and who’ll be present at Jesus’ banquet.
He shows us the centurion. Do we have the kind of trust that Jesus is so in control that he only has to give the word.
The question is: Do you?
Do you trust that Jesus has this kind of authority?
Do you recognise that he has this kind of authority over you?
Do you trust him with your life and with your death?
Do you allow him to say “do this”, and you do it, and “be healed”, and you are?