“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.” A Roman centurion spoke these words to Jesus two thousand years ago. And in two thousand years this basic truth about military life has not changed.
Our son Timothy got to experience this first hand this past summer. After enlisting in the Illinois National Guard in the first step of his planned military career, he spent his summer in basic training at Ft. Benning – or as I like to call it: “summer camp in Georgia.”
Of course, there was nothing leisurely or relaxing about his time there. And from the moment he arrived he experienced what it is like to be under the authority of another. His life was run by drill sergeants and their commands as they told him what to do. When they told him to run, he ran. When they told him to do push ups, he did push ups. When they told him to eat, he ate – even when that meant eating things he would not eat at home.
The centurion in our text was an important individual. Now it should be said from the outset this he was not part of a Roman legion. At this time there were three legions in this region of empire, and they were all stationed in the north in Syria. In fact, strictly speaking, Capernaum wasn’t even Roman territory. Instead, it was part of the kingdom of Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. Kingdoms like that of Herod were a kind of buffer zone on the fringes of the Roman Empire.
However, Herod’s kingdom was certainly under Roman control and he could be expected to provide troops for Roman campaigns whenever they demanded. This close connection meant that Herod’s forces were organized along the lines of the Roman military pattern. A cohort had about four hundred and eighty men and was comprised of six centuries, each with a centurion commanding it. And while century mean “one hundred,” as you can see, a century normally had about eighty men.
The centurions were the backbone of Roman forces. Most often they had been promoted from the ranks. They were experienced, professional soldiers. They also had to be literate because they were responsible for overseeing the large amount of paperwork that was part Roman military life. You could probably compare them to a Captain in the U.S. Army. They had social standing and were significant figures in the community.
Our text begins by saying, “When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.’” From the start this is a surprising encounter. The centurion was a Gentile, military officer. Jesus was a Jewish civilian. You don’t expect a centurion to approach a Jew and appeal for anything. And you certainly don’t expect a centurion to address a common Jew as “Lord.”
However, the fact that he did immediately tells us something about the centurion. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is only disciples and believers who address Jesus as “Lord.” This man came to Jesus in faith. He had come because his servant was paralyzed and suffering greatly.
Jesus heard the centurion’s appeal, and he responded with care and compassion. He said, “I will come and heal him.” In Jesus the kingdom of God – the reign of God – had entered into the world. He was here to turn back the forces of Satan and sin, along with all that they had done in the world. He was here to undo what sin had caused. And that is what we see in Jesus’ miracles of healing.
But then, something unexpected happened. The centurion had come to Jesus asking for his help. Yet now he said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 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.”
In the first century world, Jesus was not the social equal of the centurion – far from it. Yet the centurion who in faith addressed him as Lord now says that he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof. It’s a remarkable admission and recognition coming from this Gentile. And it shows an insight that we are quick to forget. After all, we are not worthy to have anything to do with Jesus. We are sinful creatures who are continually turned in ourselves. We create false gods of all kinds – things that are really the most important in our lives – and treat them as our lords.
The centurion knew exactly where he stood in relation to Jesus. Jesus was the Lord to whom he appealed for help. He was not worthy even to have Jesus come to his house. But he also had faith that there was no need for him to do so. He expressed to the Lord, “but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Literally the Greek has “speak with a word.” The emphasis falls on the word of Jesus which does things. And the centurion was certain about why this word would heal – it was because of the authority of the One speaking the word.
The centurion knew all about authority. He was under his commanders who could tell him what to do. And he had soldiers and servants – slaves – under him who had to do what he told them to do. The centurion’s word had authority. It made things happen. But if that was true for him, how much more was it true for Jesus! The centurion believed that Jesus’ word had an authority that could drive the illness from his servant.
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.” Jesus held up the centurion as an amazing example of faith – faith that surpassed even what he had encountered among God’s people, the Jews.
The centurion believed in Jesus’ authority. He believed in the power of Jesus’ word. This must define our lives as Christians. We believe in Jesus’ authority because he is the One who died on the cross and rose from the dead. The word that comes from Jesus is the word of the risen Lord. After his resurrection, Jesus Christ said to his disciples who were with him on a mountain in Galilee: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Jesus’ authority as the incarnate Son of God was there with him during his ministry. The centurion believed in Jesus as the One who possessed this authority. And so Jesus responded, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” We learn that the servant was healed at that very moment.
Jesus’ word did exactly what he said. Matthew tells us that the servant was healed at that very moment. But we should reflect upon how the centurion experienced this. The centurion came to Jesus in faith in order to appeal to the Lord for healing. He did this as one who believed Jesus could do it with his word because the Lord had authority. Jesus’ word did what he said, and healed the servant.
Yet the centurion had to return the exact same way he had come. He had to return to his home in faith. All he had was Jesus’ word as he headed home – yet when he got home he learned that this was a word that had already done what Jesus said. It had healed his servant.
This is how we live as Christians. We hear Jesus’ word in Holy Absolution as he says through the pastor in his Office of the Ministry: “I forgive you all your sins.” We don’t see that anything has happened or changed. Jesus’ word says of the bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar that it is his body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. And yet it does look or taste any different.
But because it is the word of the crucified and risen Lord we receive it in faith. We believe what Jesus says is true. And like the centurion on the way back to his house, Jesus’ word has already done what he has said even when we have not received confirmation by some other means. His word of absolution removes sins and gives you the standing of a forgiven sinner before God – a saint. His word in the Sacrament causes his true body and blood to be present in, with, and under the bread and wine. And as we eat and drink believing his word of forgiveness – we have right then the very forgiveness of which he speaks.
The centurion returned to his house believing Jesus’ word, but not yet having actually seen the results – not until he got home. This describes our life of faith too. Jesus has said, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Our Lord’s promise of care for the various circumstances of our life is true, even when we don’t see the results that we expect and want – even when we don’t understand what he seems to be doing. We can believe and trust it is true because it is the promise that comes with the authority of the risen Lord Jesus.
For now we live by faith and not by sight as we trust in Jesus Christ. But our text reminds us that the day of sight will come. Jesus says at the end of our text: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord. And on the Last Day every person will be confronted by the undeniable fact that their status for all eternity has been determined by the stance they took toward Jesus. The way of faith – of believing and trusting in Jesus Christ and his word – leads to the feast of salvation with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob … and with the centurion at Capernaum. Jesus’ word does with he says. Those who believe in Jesus already have the blessing of forgiveness and God’s care now. And we will enjoy all the blessings of salvation with him that will be revealed on the Last Day.