The Faith of a Gentile (Third Sunday after Epiphany)
[Matthew 8:5-13] When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man 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.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
The Faith of a Gentile
Honor and worthiness. Who is God good to? Who are you and I good to? Whose prayers are heard?
Today, Jesus is speaking with a military man – a man who knows honor and worthiness. The man who approaches Jesus in the portion of the text we just read is a centurion – “a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him”.
What is a centurion? A centurion was a ranking officer in the Roman army. A centurion in the Roman army commanded one hundred men – perhaps eighty of whom were foot soldiers and then twenty or so servants and orderlies. These one hundred men lived and died under the centurion’s command, discipline, and training.
Centurions had a reputation in the Roman army for loyalty and efficiency. And centurions were not men of privilege. They were typically foot-soldiers who earned their promotion to centurion after perhaps fifteen or eighteen years of loyal service. Once promoted, these men were well honored - a centurion could expect to make as much as seventeen times the rate of a foot-soldier and would likely receive a pension and enjoy a good retirement.
Centurions were well respected military men. They were men who had achieved the middle-class dream. And this particular centurion, in today’s Gospel, was not only well respected among his fellow Romans, but even among the Jews.
This centurion, being a Roman, is therefore a “Gentile” – a non-Jew, a man not of God’s chosen people, Israel. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, had been sent first to the lost sheep of the children of Israel. This centurion is a gentile – a man who naturally would have been considered unclean and godless by the Jews.
But, on the contrary, when we read this same account in Luke chapter seven, we find that elders of the Jews spoke well of this centurion to Jesus. The Jews tell Jesus that this centurion is a worthy man who, although a Gentile, loves their Jewish nation and, in fact, had even funded the building of their local synagogue.
This centurion, clearly, was good to his neighbors, made a good impression, and was heartily generous with his well-earned prosperity.
A well-respected career. A few promotions. Good pay. A pension. And a good reputation in his neighborhood. Probably middle-aged, this centurion was what you all have hoped to be and what many of you have been. He won at life. He was what you now hope your children and grandchildren will be.
In describing this centurion in this way, brothers and sisters, we’ve just described who? In truth, we’ve just described that class of people whom Jesus says, generally, will have such great trouble entering the kingdom of heaven – “like a camel passing through the eye of a needle.”
The wealth of being comfortable. The wealth of being respected. The wealth of honor. When we do well in this life, brothers and sisters, our heart confuses it with worthiness – even worthiness in God’s eyes. We might not actively think it, but in our hidden heart we begin to assume an attitude of self-worthiness. Believing myself to be worthy, I then begin to adopt an attitude of entitlement.
Worthiness is a detriment to faith. Clinging to a belief in its own worthiness, my heart begins feeling entitled to the good things God can give. I believe I am entitled to a life that goes well. When it doesn’t go well, I feel that I’ve been wronged.
I begin even to believe that I am entitled to the good things of God’s kingdom and His church – as if the things of His grace which are offered here in His church are my possession and I’m entitled to have them. If I’m told, “no, repent and mend your life”, I’m offended that I would be denied anything. We’ve become entitled and God has become our employee, and we’re His boss.
The good life we so naturally hope for and work for, when we gain it, it becomes our hindrance to faith. It puffs us up to the size of camels compared to the narrowness of the door to heaven. Jesus elsewhere said that “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” are the thorns that grow up and smother the seed of faith [Luke 8:14].
It is not wrong, brothers and sisters, but in fact it’s good, to have a good life. It’s good. But you and I must have the faith of a gentile. We must have an unworthy faith – the faith of the unworthy. The successful centurion in today’s Gospel said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” “I am not worthy.” I am unworthy. Jesus said, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” [Luke 7:9/Matthew 8:10].
Great faith in Christ, faith that endures to the end, is the faith of the unworthy - the faith of the unworthy who know themselves to be unworthy. Great faith is the faith of a sinner who knows himself to need and have a Savior.
Faith of the unworthy does not feel entitled. Faith does not believe itself entitled to what Jesus gives, but instead receives Christ’s grace as charity given to a beggar.
The centurion – respected by others – knows his sin. He knows he is unworthy of the Lord’s help. He’s willing to say that, as a Gentile, he’s not worthy of the Jewish Messiah to enter his home. The centurion doesn’t say, “I’ve earned it. It’s my due.” He doesn’t believe he deserves anything good from God. He doesn’t feel entitled to God’s acceptance of him. He only asks for God’s undeserved charity.
This gentile centurion knows he is unworthy of the Lord’s help, yet he knows the Lord will help – “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. ” He believes. This successful middle-class centurion believes himself to be a beggar. And He believes Jesus to be a helper of sinners. He is a beggar fully confident in the Lord’s charitable hand.
The centurion knows the Lord to be merciful. And he knows the Lord to be able - to be able to heal even by just the authority of His Word – “only say the word”, and I know it will be done.
One time another gentile, elsewhere in the Gospel, a Canaanite woman in this case, was called an unworthy dog by the Lord. Yet, she responded, “Nevertheless Lord, I know still that you will feed me my needed bread” [Matthew 15:21-28]. And, earlier in today’s Gospel, a Jewish man this time, but a leper, said to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” [Matthew 8:2-3]. The man didn’t feel entitled to the help, but Jesus was willing and said, “be clean”, and the man was made clean.
Brothers and sisters, be successful in this world if you have the opportunity. But do not be successful before God. You must come before God as an unworthy charity case - you’ve broken His Law. You and I are not entitled to good, but God will give good. His good that He gives is forgiveness of sins, eternal life, the salvation of our bodies, and answered prayer for loved ones.
In fact, what is the good gift that God gives to unworthy gentile beggars? The gift God gives is the gift of His own Son. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” [John 3:16]. And here’s an even better one, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” [Roman 5:8].
Jesus heard the prayer of the unworthy centurion and healed his young servant. Jesus will hear our prayers too. Since Jesus loved and died for the unworthy, including us, let us be good to every one of those who are deemed unworthy in this world. Amen.