Coming from East and West

BY THE TIME CHRIST BEGAN His public ministry, Rome had been ruling the Holy Land for almost 100 years, through a succession of local governors and administrators. The ruler of Galilee at the time was the tetrarch Herod Antipas, whom the locals called “King Herod.” The region of Galilee was the site of much of the Lord Jesus’ early ministry.

When the Lord’s teaching was rejected in His home town of Nazareth, we are told that “leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea” (Matthew 4:13). It was there that He chose four local fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James and John – and called them to be His followers.

As a seaside fishing village, it is likely that Capernaum was a place where taxes would be collected, particularly from the local fishermen. Matthew the evangelist was collecting taxes there when Jesus called him (see Matthew 9:9). It was perhaps to insure that taxes were collected, that Roman soldiers were stationed in the area as well.

The Centurion at Capernaum

Matthew does not tell us anything about the officer who called on His help. In the Gospel of Luke we learn a bit more. In Luke 7, the first approach to Jesus on this matter was made by the local Jewish elders: “And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue’” (Luke 7:4, 5). Some commentators have concluded that the centurion might have been a God-fearer or even a proselyte (Gentile convert), but this is not mentioned in either Gospel, as it was not pertinent to the story or its message.

In both tellings of this story, the centurion refrains from summoning Jesus to the servant’s bedside, “for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (Matthew 8:8, Luke 7:6). Perhaps the centurion knew it would violate local custom for a Jew (much less a holy man) to enter the home of a Gentile. This is not mentioned, because it too was not pertinent to the story or its message.

What was emphasized by the Lord in both Gospels is the centurion’s faith. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries relied on their being members of the people of Israel to, as it were, guarantee their status before God. But, as the Lord said elsewhere, “Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:9).

Many looked to the correct observance of the precepts of the Law as the sign that they were doing God’s will. The centurion, not being a Jew, could not rely on either of these principles. His response, however, showed that he had the deep reliance on God which validates any religious observance then or now.

Christian tradition has also stressed the man’s humility and made it the model for our response when the Lord is near. In both East and West, his words are incorporated into our prayer as we approach the Eucharist.

In the Byzantine prayers before receiving Communion we say, “I know that I am not worthy or sufficient that You should come under the roof of my soul, for all is desolate and fallen” (Second Prayer) and “I am not worthy, O Lord and Master, that You should enter under the roof of my soul” (Seventh Prayer). The centurion’s humble protestation is clearly the model here.

What is the Principal Message Here?

The “punch line” in Matthew’s story of this healing tells us what his principal message is for us. Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith, then He adds: “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11, 12).

The idea that Gentiles would be preferred to Jews in the heavenly realm was scandalous to Jews. When Jesus had expressed a similar idea in the synagogue at Nazareth, it nearly got Him killed: “‘Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way” (Luke 4:25-30).

The Lord referred to times in the ninth century bc when the Jews fell away from the worship of the one God, accepting the Phoenician deities Baal and Asherath. The prophets Elijah and his successor Elisha confronted the Jews for their apostasy, but ministered to Phoenicians and Syrians who were disposed to hear their message. As the widow of Zarephath confessed to Elijah, “Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth” (1 Kings 17:24). Their stories are told in the first and second books of Kings.

The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28) is another example of a believing pagan contrasted to contentious Jews. After a confrontation with Jewish leaders from Jerusalem, the Lord went to the region of Tyre and Sidon where a woman begged His help for her daughter. After at first appearing to decline because she was not a Jew, Jesus obliged her saying, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28). Again, a Gentile’s faith is contrasted to the argumentative response of God’s own people.

In each case, the prophets and the Lord Himself step outside the box to respond to a believing Gentile, who is then held up as an example to Jews who doubted Him and an encouragement to the Gentiles who were being added to the company of His followers.

St John Chrysostom on the Centurion

Great is the pride of those who are in places of command; not even in afflictions do they take lower ground. In John 4, for example, the nobleman is all for dragging Him to his house, and says, “Sir, come down before my child dies!” (John 4:49) But not so this man; rather he is far superior both to him, and to those who let down the bed through the roof. For he does not seek His bodily presence, nor did He bring the sick man near the physician… he says, speak the word only… not looking so much to the health of the servant, as to the avoiding all appearance of doing anything irreverent.
Homily 26 on Matthew