Subject to authority

Today’s Gospel reading is from the book of Matthew, Chapter 8. I am focusing specifically on the story that appear within verses 5-13.

When Jesus entered Capernaum,
a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying,
“Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.”
He said to him, “I will come and cure him.”
The centurion said in reply,
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof;
only say the word and my servant will be healed.
For I too am a man subject to authority,
with soldiers subject to me.
And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes;
and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes;
and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him,
“Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith…
And Jesus said to the centurion,
“You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.”
And at that very hour his servant was healed.

I love this exchange between these 2 men and the healing of the Centurion’s servant for so many reasons. The first is because the Centurion is a Soldier. And I have a very definite ‘soft spot’ in my heart for them. But not just any Soldiers, good ones. Like the ones I know and love. There are many, I’m delighted and grateful to say!

The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen once noted that in every story in the New Testament involving Soldiers, they come out looking pretty good. Whether it’s this event or the story in Acts of the Apostles where Cornelius, a Sr. ranking Soldier, and his entire family are baptized into Christianity, they fare rather well. Even the person at the foot of the cross who declares that Jesus was surely the Son of God is a Soldier. I just love that observation, it will come as no surprise.

But there are other things I like about this Centurion’s story, who is like our modern Army’s Company Commander. Centurion is from the same word as century – meaning 100 of something. In the case of the Centurion that was a lot of Soldiers. He was in charge of a large group of Soldiers. That means he is responsible for their training, as well as their welfare. Are their barracks clean and maintained? Are their uniforms and all of their combat gear serviceable? All aspects of their well-being are the responsibility of a Centurion or Company Commander.

In this story, the Centurion easily understands the way in which Jesus miracles ‘work.’ Not how miracles work spiritually, but the mechanics of an order that a leader expects a subordinate to obey. As a ranking officer he is also incredibly humble which is evident first in his willingness to address Jesus at all. And then he asked Him for a favor! This itinerate rabbi with no synagogue to call his own, no formal teaching as the Jews of that time would expect a rabbi to have, no home or bed of his own – this is who the Centurion asks for help. And then he asks for help for his servant. Not for himself, or for a family member, not a close friend, not anyone in his social sphere at all. But this Soldier cares about his servant who is paralyzed (so fairly ‘useless’ as most owners of other humans at that time would assess the servant). His compassion for another person, so lowly and without respect from most of the Centurion’s peers, is admirable and truly surprising, even shocking, to people of that time – Jewish and Roman. This earnest conversation with a lowly subject of Caesar would make the Centurion the laughing stock of his comrades, and probably of more affluent Jews, as well.

Finally, the Centurion has that faith which Jesus remarks about after He is petitioned to help heal the servant and the Centurion responds in such a matter of fact manner. What an amazing moment. Jesus tells the Roman Soldier that his faith will be rewarded. But not just his faith, his public profession of it in front of people who could and probably were criticizing and condemning him. The Jewish people had nothing but contempt for their Roman oppressors. So much so that they yearned for the Messiah to come and wipe those terrible tyrants off the face of the earth.

The irony of course is that their Messiah was standing before their eyes, healing from afar a person who could do nothing for Him and healing this servant at the request of a man who was disdained and reviled by Jesus’ peers. What became of that Roman Soldier, I wonder? Scripture is silent on that point. What happens afterwards? The man goes home and there is his servant, cured and presumably overjoyed and ready to go back to work!

Does the Centurion merely acknowledge intellectually that what he’s asked has been accomplished? Or does he thank this Jesus who can heal his servant “with a word” and even more incredible, someone He cannot even see? And does the Soldier repent of his way of life? Does he become a believer in the Way and leave everything behind to follow Christ? Or maybe he repents and decides to stay in his current life to change from within, setting his servants free.

We don’t know, but it’s interesting to contemplate. What I do know is the Centurion instinctively understands Jesus’ authority and does not question His abilities, the Gifts, that Jesus so often shares. We should all yearn for a faith like his. What an example for us all. Not just in believing what Jesus can do, but having the courage to ask for it when all hope seems lost. Sometimes we have to be that desperate, at that lowest point imaginable, to see what Jesus wants to do for us but is only waiting to be asked.

I love how the Soldier’s description of his servant’s sufferings prompts Jesus to immediately respond that He will go with him to his house. And now Jesus would be the one who will be criticized and condemned by his peers for deigning to drop everything and go to the home of one of Caesar’s henchman to help him out. I wonder if Jesus knows the Soldier will protest Jesus’ defiling Himself in entering this man’s home. Either way, I am certain Jesus is sincere in His desire to help and would go there if required. But, as we all know, His presence is not only not accepted but is not needed by the Centurion. Jesus need only express His intent, and it will be done.

God bless all like this Soldier who show us a perfectly simple and beautiful way to be. A perfect, simple, and beautiful way to pray and to trust.

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