The Healing of the centurion's servant (see Matt. 8:5–13) is often regarded as one of the great stories of faith because the centurion does not ask Jesus to come to his home to heal his servant. The centurion knows that Jesus carries the power and authority of God, and can heal even when he's not in the presence of the one needing healing. Often overlooked today, however, is the message that everyone has that same authority Jesus displayed for the centurion's servant.
First-century audiences likely were startled not so much by the healing of the centurion's servant, but by who was healed. How could Matthew preach that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and then recount the healing of a non-Jew—an outsider? In nine short verses, a new reality is revealed by Jesus—God's chosen people have expanded to include Gentiles, people of other nations such as Romans, and marginalized individuals. In Matthew's telling of the healing of the centurion's servant the powers of authority shift, and privilege by way of heredity is not guaranteed. Placed in the middle of three healing stories, the healing of the centurion's servant foreshadows what Jesus meant in Matthew 28:19, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (New Revised Standard Edition). Theologian Ulrich Luz describes this section of three healings in Matthew as "a self-contained unit" designed to create an impact for the listeners of the first century and to the readers of future centuries (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8–20: A Commentary, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, p.1).
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus descends from the mountain after delivering what has become known as the Sermon on the Mount. On the road from the mountain to Capernaum, Jesus first encounters a leper and heals him. Then as he enters the city, he encounters a centurion and heals the centurion's servant. And after arriving at Simon Peter's home in the city, he heals Peter's mother-in-law. By grouping the three healings together, Matthew makes the point that Jesus was demonstrating God's healing and saving power applies to all people, regardless of their societal status. The main characters in each narrative represent three classes of people excluded from first-century Jewish community: a leper, a Roman soldier, and a woman. Lepers were considered unclean and treated as outcasts by Jewish society. Romans were thought of as outsiders, as well as oppressors. Women were often, though not always, viewed as property without any rights or consideration.
First-century audiences likely were startled not so much by the healing of the centurion's servant, but by who was healed.
While all three healing stories have outcasts as their main character, the story of the centurion's servant holds the central message. It is unique in its display of specific words that invoke startling new realities that grab the attention and imagination of the hearer—those within the Jewish tradition, those outside such as Gentiles or Romans, and those new to Christ's teachings.
As the centurion approaches Jesus, he appeals to Jesus' authority by saying: "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress" (verse 6, NRSV). The Greek word kurios is translated as lord. Therefore, the centurion addresses Jesus respectfully, honoring his status. This is a twist of societal norms. The audience would not expect a Roman soldier to defer to a Jewish prophet for healing. It reverses the power paradigm and authority from a Roman to a Jew and elevates the status of Jesus to one of a Messiah.
Jesus responds, "I will come and cure him" (verse 7, NRSV). The centurion again honors Jesus by using the word kurios when he answers, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word [logos], and my servant will be healed" (verse 8, NRSV). The centurion's response is not only powerful in his use of the word Lord but follows it with "I am not worthy." This statement may have increased the delight of many in the Jewish audience, as well as fueled the grumbling of Romans listening to Matthew tell the story. Also in verse 8, the centurion shows great faith that Jesus can heal from a distance just by speaking the word. The Greek word logos means so much more than word as we know it today. In the first century, the word logos carried with it not only communication and expression, but also an expectation of action, often associated with one's work. The centurion showed faith that Jesus could take action and could heal, even from a distance.
Before Jesus heals the servant, he turns to the crowd that is following him. And in response to the centurion's declaration of trust in his ability to heal, he says, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (verses 10–12, NRSV). Those who come from "east and west" are outsiders. This may be a crushing insult to many of the Jews who are listening to the story. Outsiders like the centurion would sit with the founding fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—in the kingdom of heaven! The Jewish audience believes that they have earned a place in the kingdom merely by their position, but they misunderstand the kingdom itself. The kingdom is already present for them and for the so-called outsiders. They do not have to earn it.
The passage suggests that anyone who feels left out of the kingdom may experience darkness, sorrow, and regret. But no one can be left out. In Luke 17:21, Jesus says, "Behold, the kingdom of God is within you." The faith that the centurion expressed was an acknowledgment of the kingdom already present. Jesus recognized this when he simply turned to the centurion and said, "Go; let it be done for you according to your faith" (verse 13, NRSV). And the servant was healed immediately.
Today the opportunity to experience the kingdom of God—to experience healing based on an understanding of, and trust in, God's power to heal—is open to all people of all nations.
Deanna Mummert is pursuing a Master's Degree in Bible Studies at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana, and is a faculty member of Bible Study Seminar based in Manchester, Missouri.