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The Healing of the Centurion's Servant
by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 11 from The Miracles of our Lord
Matt 8:5-13;   Luke 7:1-10
There has been already occasion to denounce the error of confounding this healing with that of the nobleman’s son recorded by St. John (iv.46).  But while we may not seek forcibly to reduce to one two narratives which relate events entirely different, there is matter still in the records of this miracle on which the harmonist may exercise his skill.  We possess two independent records of it, the one by St. Matthew, the other by St. Luke; and, according to the first Evangelist, the centurion comes a petitioner in his own person for the boon which he desires; according to the third, he sends others as mediators between himself and the Lord, as intercessors for him, with other differences which necessarily follow and flow out of this.  Doubtless the latter is the more strictly literal account of the circumstance, as it actually came to pass; St. Matthew, who is briefer, telling it as though the centurion had done in his own person what, in fact, he did by the intervention of others—an exchange of persons of which all historical narrative and all the language of our common life is full.  A comparison of Mark 10:35 with Matthew 20:20 will furnish another example of the same. 

‘And when Jesus had entered into Capernaum, there came unto Him a centurion, beseeching Him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home grievously tormented.’  This centurion, probably one of the Roman garrison of Capernaum, was by birth a heathen; but like another of the same rank in the Acts (10:1), like the eunuch under Candace (Acts 8:27), like Lydia (Acts 16:14), was one of many who were at this time deeply feeling the emptiness and falsehood of all the polytheistic religions, and who had attached themselves by laxer or closer bonds, as proselytes of the gate, or proselytes of righteousness, to the congregation of Israel and the worship of Jehovah, finding in Judaism a satisfaction of some of the deepest needs of their souls, and a promise of the satisfaction of all.  He was one among the many who are distinguished from the seed of Abraham, yet described as ‘fearing God,’ or ‘worshipping God,’ of whom we read so often in the Acts (13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7), the proselytes, whom the providence of God had so wonderfully prepared in all the great cities of the Greek and Roman world as a link of communication between Gentile and Jew, in contact with both, --holding to the first by their race, and to the last by their religion; and who must have greatly helped to the ultimate fusion of both into one Christian Church. 

But with the higher matters which he had learned from his intercourse with the people of the covenant, he had learned this, that all heathens, all ‘sinners of the Gentiles,’ were ‘without;’ that there was a middle wall of partition between them and the children of the stock of Abraham; that they were to worship only as in the outer court, and not presume to draw near to the holy place.  And thus as we learn from St. Luke (7:3), he did not himself approach, but ‘when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto Him the elders of the Jews, beseeching Him the He would come and heal his servant,’ a servant who ‘was dear unto him,’ but now ‘was sick and ready to die.’  The Jewish elders executed their commission with fidelity and zeal pleading for him as one whose affection for the chosen people, and active well-doing in their behalf, had merited this return of favour: ‘They besought Him instantly, saying that he was worthy for whom He should do this; for he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.  Then Jesus went with them.’ 

But presently even this request seemed to the maker of it too bold.  In his true and ever-deepening humility he counted it a presumption to have asked, though by the intervention of others, the presence under his roof of one so highly exalted.  ‘And when He was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying Lord trouble not Thyself: for I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof.’  It was not merely that he, a heathen, might claim no near access to the King of Israel; but there was, no doubt, beneath this and mingling with this, a deep inward feeling of his own personal unworthiness and unfitness for a close communion with a holy being, which was the motive of this message.  And thus, in Augustine’s words, ‘counting himself unworthy that Christ should enter into his heart’ –a far better boon; for Christ sat down in the houses of many, as of that proud self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 7:36; cf. 14:1); whose hearts for all this were not the less empty of his presence.  But this centurion received Him in his heart, whom he did not receive in his house.  And, indeed, every little trait of his character, as it comes forth in the sacred narrative, points him out as one in whom the seed of God’s word would find the ready and prepared soil of a good and honest heart.  For, not to speak of those prime graces, faith and humility, which so eminently shone forth in him, -- the affection which he had evidently won from those Jewish elders, the zeal which had stirred him to build a house for the worship of the true God, his earnest care and anxiety about a slave, -- one so commonly excluded from all earnest human sympathies on the part of his master, that even a Cicero excuses himself for feeling deeply the death of such a one in his household, -- all these traits of character combine to present him to us as one of those ‘children of God’ scattered abroad in the world, whom the Son of God came that He might gather into the fellowship of his Church (John 11:52). 

The manner is very noteworthy in which the Roman officer, by help of an analogy drawn from the circle of things with which he himself is most familiar, by a comparison borrowed from his own military experience, makes easier to himself his act of faith.  He knows that Christ’s word, without the actual presence, will be sufficient; there is that in his own experience which assures him as much; for, he adds, ‘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.’  It is an argument from the less to the greater.  ‘I am one occupying only a subordinate place, set under authority, a subaltern, with tribunes and commanders over me.  Yet, notwithstanding, those that are under me, obey me; and my word is potent with them.  I have power to send them hither and thither, and they go at my bidding, so that, myself sitting still, I can yet have the things accomplished which I desire (Acts 10:8; 23:23).  How much more Thou; not set, as I am, in a subordinate place, but who art as a Prince over the host of heaven, who hast Angels and spirits to obey thy word and run swiftly at thy command, canst fulfil from a distance all the good pleasure of thy will. What need, then, that Thou shouldst come to my house; only commission one of these genii of healing, who will execute speedily the errand of grace on which Thou shalt send him.’  He contemplates the relation of Christ to the spiritual kingdom in an aspect as original as it is grand.  The Lord appears to him as the true Caesar and Imperator, the highest over the hierarchy, not of earth, but of heaven (Col. 1:16). 

In all this there was so wonderful a union of faith and humility, that it is nothing strange to read that the Lord Himself was filled with admiration: ‘When Jesus heard it, He marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.’  St. Matthew alone records these words, which beforehand we should rather expect to find recorded by St. Luke; or he, the companion of the apostle to the Gentiles, loves best to give prominence to that side of our Lord’s ministry, on which it contemplated not merely the Jewish nation, but the heathen world (3:38; 10:1; 15:11-32).  Where faith is there will be the kingdom of God; so that this saying already contains a warning to his Jewish hearers, of the danger they are in of forfeiting blessings whereof others are showing themselves worthier than they.  But the words which follow are far more explicit:  ‘For I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven,’ shall be partakers of the heavenly festival, which shall be at the inauguration of the kingdom; ‘but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth;’ – in other words, the kingdom should be taken from them, ‘and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof’ (Matt. 21:43); because of their unbelief, they, the natural branches of the olive tree, should be broken off, and in their room the wild olive should be grafted in (Rom. 11:17-24; Matt. 3:9). 

‘And Jesus said unto the centurion,’ or to him in his messengers, ‘Go thy way, and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee.  And his servant was healed in the self-same hour;’ – not merely was there remission of the strength of the disease, but it left him altogether (John 4:52; Matt. 8:15).  There is a certain difficulty in defining the exact character of the complaint from which he was thus graciously delivered.  In St. Matthew it is described as ‘palsy;’ with which the ‘grievously tormented’ which immediately follows, seems not altogether to agree, nor yet the report in St. Luke, that he was ‘ready to die;’ since palsy in itself neither brings with it violent paroxysms of pain, nor is it in its nature mortal.  But paralysis with contraction of the joints is accompanied with intense suffering, and when untied, as it much oftener is in the hot climates of the East and of Africa than among us, with tetanus, both ‘grievously torments,’ and rapidly brings on dissolution.