Formations: May 29, 2016
Scripture: Matthew 8:5-13
Today begins a five-lesson series about people who experienced new life in Christ.
Each of these people is outside the common thinking of first century Jewish theology, offering us an opportunity to reexamine our faith in light of their experience. Matthew is commonly considered to be written with a Jewish readership in mind, suggesting that Jesus the Messiah was not just turning their world upside down, but that he challenges us all to move beyond our safe little religious world.
The very idea that Jesus would help out an officer in the army of those hated pagan Romans! Centurions were the backbone of a Roman army. A Roman legion numbered 6,000 men, divided into 60 centuries of a hundred foot soldiers. A centurion commanded each century, with absolute authority over their morale and performance.
As the centurion explains to Jesus, he has the power to tell his men when to come and go and they must obey (Matthew 8:9). The centurion uses this concept of authority to explain his faith when Jesus offers to go to the Roman’s home to heal his servant: “Lord, I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. Just say the word and my servant will be healed” (v. 8). This reminds us of the definition of faith expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.”
How did this centurion come to such a simple understanding of faith as trusting God to grant a request with no strings attached, no prepayment expected, no conformity to Jewish theology or ritual? Matthew offers no explanation, but the centurion evidences a clear understanding of Jewish teachings when he excuses Jesus from “coming under his roof” (v. 7), which would shield Jesus from the religious contamination of a Gentile house.
Compare this story to the later account of the Apostle Peter going to the house of Roman Centurion Cornelius of Caesarea (Acts 10:1-18). Cornelius and his household came to faith in Christ, but Peter was called to defend his actions by the church leaders in Jerusalem. The Romans would question a centurion seeking the help of a Jewish leader. The Jews would shun Jesus for associating with an enemy military officer. This scene was scandalous!
Another surprising element is the concern the centurion shows for his slave. In part of the text the ill man is called a “servant” (pais), but in verse 9 the centurion calls him a “slave” (doulos). In Roman culture a slave was considered a work animal or possession. There are rare instances recorded of slaves being freed or even adopted by their masters. But this Roman officer expresses deep concern for his dying slave and risks reputation to publicly approach Jesus and ask for a miracle.
Matthew uses one more powerful element in this “turn the world upside-down” story. The Jews believed that when Messiah comes there will be a great banquet when all Israel will sit down in God’s eternal kingdom and receive their promised reward. The idea of “filthy” Gentiles at this messianic banquet was impossible! But Matthew records Jesus’ astounding words: “I say to you that there are many who will come from east and west and sit down to eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom will be thrown outside into the darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth” (8:11-12).
Impossible: That someone like this Roman centurion would be welcomed where only God’s chosen could hope to go! Yet Matthew, in his Jewish-flavored gospel narrative, casts aside the entrenched thinking of the powerful Jewish authorities and the empty religions of the Roman Empire to declare God’s kingdom of love and grace!
We are urged to consider the foundation of our faith and how that faith shapes our thinking and actions.
As a follower of Jesus, who do you think qualifies to be present at God’s heavenly banquet? Will there be an admission test with a section of doctrinal questions and a section on actions and lifestyle? Will we be seated based on points we earned in this life? You may remember Jesus’ disciples argued over who would sit on his right and left in the coming kingdom.
Jesus commended the centurion for his faith and spoke the healing of his servant. Read the story Jesus told about a man who prepared a lavish wedding feast for his son, only to be snubbed by the invited guests. He then sent his servants out to the town and surrounding roads to invite new guests, even those rejected by society (Matthew 22:9). Have you been invited to the party? The Pharisees saw Jesus’ news as bad, but for the centurion it was good news that broke through the social and religious barriers to God’s grace.
We wonder how the centurion heard about Jesus. Was he in charge of a security force that witnessed Jesus teaching or healing around Jerusalem? Did he hear about Jesus’ teachings and healings from a servant’s reports or gossip? What would lead this man of discipline and authority to seek out a Jewish teacher so different from the religious authorities?
We cannot answer these questions except to say that God reveals his love to us in a thousand ways, experiences, relationships and crises. Faith emerges when we run out of options and solutions…when God appears as a glimmer of light in our darkness…when we finally understand Jesus gave himself – not to complete a religious formula, but to heal our broken hearts with God’s love!
Retired after 45 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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