In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear brothers and sisters:
The Lord’s signs and wonders prove Him to be what He claimed to be, the Son of God. But the present miracle account, like all others, is not intended solely to demonstrate the Lord’s power to heal. The healing of the centurion’s servant contains a number of short lessons concerning characteristics of the life in Christ. Christians who hear this short section of the Gospel must be attentive to the way in which these instructions may be applied to their own lives.
The basic elements of the story are few. The centurion, a Roman, has complete confidence that Jesus is able to heal his servant. When the Lord expresses willingness to go to his house, the centurion humbly objects, declaring himself unworthy of such a visit. At the same time, he reveals his profound faith in Jesus: “Speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” He then explains his status as a centurion – he has soldiers under him and is himself under authority. The Lord’s reaction must have surprised those who witnessed the scene. He declares that He has not found such great faith in Israel; those chosen to be the children of the kingdom would be cast out and replaced by others. Finally, He tells the centurion to go his way and that his servant is healed. St. Ambrose sees the healing by the Lord’s word alone as proof of His equality with the Father, saying: “… as the Father spoke the Son made, so, too, the Father works and the Son speaks”. And St. Basil the Great emphasizes that it was the Savior’s word and not His presence that healed the sick man.
The centurion is a striking figure. He enters the narrative as a man already possessed of a deep faith in Jesus’ power to heal, even by a word. He asks nothing for himself but only for his servant, his social and military inferior. His status notwithstanding, he feels profoundly his own unworthiness.
How the centurion came to his faith is not explained by St. Matthew, but details in St. Luke’s account of the same miracle may offer a clue. It should be recalled at this point that although the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – sometimes differ in detail when reporting the same incident, those differences do not diminish their authenticity. In the present case, St. Matthew simply relates what went on between Jesus and the centurion. St. Luke tells us of certain preliminary steps, such as the centurion’s dispatching his Jewish friends to plead his case. “Neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee”, he says (Luke 7:7). The centurion’s frequent contact with the Jews must have given him some familiarity with their faith; perhaps he was aware of their messianic expectations. It is unlikely that Jesus and His work among the people could have escaped his attention. His own faith, so forcefully portrayed in just a few words, may have arisen from a strong sense that Jesus was the very one awaited by the nation he had come to love.
St. Luke’s account tells us that the man’s Jewish friends – identified as elders – considered him worthy of Jesus’ good favor, although they are impressed by something other than his faith, saying: “He was worthy for whom He should do this: for he loves our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue” (7:4-5). They present a plea from a man who has an exalted position and has contributed materially to their institution. The things that really matter – the centurion’s humility, faith, and concern for another – seem not to have made much of an impression on them. It is not difficult to see the similarity between the mind of those religious leaders and that of some in our own times. And not a few pastors have heard requests on behalf of others who were deemed worthy for the wrong reasons.
Clearly, when the centurion speaks to Jesus of his position, he is not boasting. Quite the contrary. “I am a man set under authority.” That is the key expression. He derives his authority from another and applies it in the line of duty. St. John Chrysostom describes the implications: “’I am a man set under authority’: that is, Thou art God, and I man; I under authority, but Thou not under authority. If I, therefore, being a man, and under authority, can do so much; far more He, both as God and as not under authority”. The same saint is certain that this Gentile, unlike his Jewish friends, suspects Jesus’ divine dignity.
The Christ preached by the Apostles was the Christ who gave Himself out of love for mankind. He is the One who receives all who come to Him in faith and humility, those who love Him. He is not moved to respond to our petitions because of some supposed worthiness on our part. Our accomplishments, position, wealth, and fame do not commend us to Him. Neither does our belonging to a particular race or nation, and neither does membership in His Church, if we make no effort to live in accordance with His will, have no faith or humility, think of ourselves as deserving His salvation, or think only of ourselves and never earnestly desire the well-being of others. Such was the image of Christ that the apostles and disciples proclaimed as they undertook their great missionary enterprise after having been filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. For St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the centurion’s faith and approach to the Lord provide an example for us all: “Wherefore we must purify ourselves first, and then approach this converse with the Pure…be like the Centurion who would seek for healing, but would not, through a praiseworthy fear, receive the Healer into his house. Let each one of us also speak so, as long as he is still uncleansed, and is a Centurion still, commending many in wickedness, and serving in the army of Caesar, the World-ruler of those who are being dragged down, and saying: ‘I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof’”. Amen.
(archbishop Dmitri Royster. The Miracles of Christ. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Crestwood (NY), 1999 // The Fourth Sunday. The Centurion’s Servant (Matthew 8:5-13), pp. 14-17).
July 10, 2011. St. Barbara’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Edmonton.