The Problem With The Centurion

If you've been in a Christian church for any time, you've probably heard the story of the Centurion.   This is not a parable.  It is an account of a Roman centurion, one of the fiercest worriers in all of history, who comes to Jesus to ask for the healing of his beloved servant.

At first glance, the story from Matthew chapter 8 seems simple enough.  The centurion needs help from Christ.  He needs his servant healed and of course, Jesus obliges but there’s a lot more to this story.  There’s really nothing typical about it.

The first, and most unusual thing about this story is the fact that the centurion came at all.  There is no indication that the centurion or his servant were Jewish and this point, Jesus had only healed Jews. The centurion was not.  Even the fact that the centurion was asking for help for his servant is unusual.  Romans, especially Roman Soldiers, were not known for their compassion.  This man travelled a distance to ask for Jesus's help.  He must have cared deeply for his servant who was not a citizen and by roman standards, not terribly important.

However, what I find most unusual about the story isn't the fact that he came to Jesus, that he cared about his servant enough to humble himself, travel a distance and ask a Jew for help.  That was extraordinary, but it is not the most important part of the story for me.

Most people when reading this story focus on the fact that the centurion had great faith.  Faith enough to believe that his servant would be healed at Jesus' request because the centurion knew and understood the power of authority and chain of command.  He tells Jesus himself that, “For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me; and I say to this man , ‘Go’ and he goeth; and to another ‘Come’, and he cometh; and to my servant, ‘Do this’, and he doeth it.”  And Jesus commends him for his faith saying to his followers that He has not seen such great faith among them.  So Jesus tells the centurion, “Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.”  Story over, right?  I say no.

What struck me as the most amazing part of this story, and not necessarily in a good way, was the fact that the centurion didn't want Jesus in his house.  I know, he had a good reason.  He says, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof.”  This seems like the epitome of humility.  He believed that Jesus is at the very least, a Holy man and he may have even had the revelation that Jesus was God and saw that he, a roman centurion, a man of war with blood on his hands, was unclean.

The Roman centurion was a well-trained killing machine and there was nothing holy about that.  He knew he wasn't worthy to have Jesus in his house and that Jesus as a Jew would most likely not sit at his table, eat his food or have anything to do with him because of his status as a roman soldier.  No good Jew would. So, I believe the intention of the centurion was not to offend Christ with the request.  How many of us have had the same feeling?

I grew up Roman Catholic with a very real understanding of what is holy and untouchable.  I understand the centurion's intentions but there are two very important things that many of us fail to realize about God: None of us are worthy.  We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. [Romans 3:23] It is God's greatest desire to be with us – in our homes, in our lives, in our families and in our hearts.  God wants to dwell with us.

In Genesis chapter 3:8, after God creates the heavens and the earth and all of the creeping things, after He creates the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve, He decides to come down from heaven to walk and talk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening.  That was and has always been God's plan for us.  It was only after Adam and Eve sinned, by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did we have separation.   They hid themselves from God.

In Exodus Chapter 19:16 – 18 God descends on Mount Sinai in fire and smoke to address the Israelites directly, but the people are afraid.  In chapter 20:18-21, Moses instructs the Israelites not to be afraid. That this is only a test, but they believe they will “surely die” if God speaks to them directly.  They reject God’s presence.

It is their fear of sharing space with God, with his awesomeness that causes the Israelites to commit the sin of idolatry and worship a golden calf, something fashioned with their own hand, man-made that they could control.  Something 'man'agable. What we can manage ourselves does not require God.  To do this life well, we need God.  We need His presence.  We can’t do it without Him.

I believe all of us at one time or another have felt that we are not worthy of God’s presence. But if you look at the people God deals with in the bible, all of the people that he worked through and with to do marvelous things, they’ve all had to push past their unworthiness, to receive the blessing of His presence, in order to abide with Him.

It is not our worthiness or righteousness, but God’s Grace, His unmerited, undeserved, unearned favor that allows us to abide in His presence. The Centurion was not worthy and although he received the blessing of having his servant healed and that did require faith on his part which is pleasing to God, I have to wonder how much more he missed by not allowing Jesus into his home.  I wonder what he missed by not pushing past his feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy, his impostor syndrome, to invite Christ into his home to abide with Him, even if only for a short time.

So, this Lenten season, as we prepare for Holy week lets reflect on all the Jesus suffered just so that we could abide with Him and in Him. That although we are not worthy, Christ loved us enough leave the fullness of his divinity, to take on human form, to suffer persecution and death so that in Him, we become worthy, to enjoy the presence of God to realize what Jesus’ prayer for the unity of the church: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” John 17:23