4th SUNDAY OF MATTHEW, Matthew 8: 5-13
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and The Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49) might be referred to as the “Christian Manifesto,” spelling out the fundamental tenets of living life in Christ and the gifts returned to man for the faithful living of them. These tenets come directly from the heart and lips of Jesus. Today’s Gospel passage from St. Matthew is taken from the end of the Great Sermon (Matthew 8:5-13) and is centred around three key elements: the encounter of Jesus with the Roman Centurion, the depth of faith this pagan officer shows the Lord, and the healing of the Centurion’s servant.
It is one of the few instances, if not the only one, where Jesus is actually surprised and amazed by the faith of a petitioner. The Centurion approaches the Lord, asking Him for healing for his servant. The solicitude that the military officer shows for his servant is at once noticeable. Jesus responds immediately to the stranger that He will go to his house and heal the man of palsy. No hesitation, no second thoughts — Jesus’ response is swift. He responds because he senses in that officer a heartfelt caring. This encounter speaks of the Lord’s willingness to give to him who asks, to reach out, without questions or objections (recall that the Romans were the occupiers of the Jews and of Jerusalem and therefore the de facto “enemy” of the Jewish people).
St. Sophrony of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, Great Britain, in remarking on this passage, wrote: “The Centurion was clearly a man of virtue for he cared for the health of his servant. He was not one of those who considered human life expendable. He did not say to himself: ‘My servant is ill, I’ll let him die and tomorrow I will buy a slave at the market to replace him’. He must therefore have taken very seriously his responsibilities towards the one hundred soldiers under his command.” Jesus knew this heart, regardless of the officer’s religious position or lack thereof. Jesus knew his heart. The Lord responds to such hearts in our lives. He knows our depth or shallowness. He sees our love and concern for others or our failure to reach out with mercy and compassion. This atypical encounter was a recognition of genuine human caring. It prompts the question: What does Christ see when he surveys OUR heart?
The Centurion stops Jesus from leaving for his house telling Him “Lord I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Say but the word and my servant will be healed.” St. Matthew promptly reacts: “When Jesus heard this, He was amazed and said to the bystanders that followed Him ‘Verily, I say unto you, I have not found such great a faith in all of Israel.” Jesus is amazed. With other healings we don’t hear such amazement, such marvelling, even such surprise. St. Nikolai of Ochrid explains why: “Christ did not marvel at the beauty of the sea of Galilee, for what is such beauty compared with the beauty of the kingdom of heaven….Neither did He ever marvel at great human wisdom, wealth or strength; for all is nothing compared with the wisdom, wealth and might that are familiar to Him in the Kingdom of God….The great faith of one man is to be marvelled at. It is the greatest and most beautiful thing on earth, for by faith a slave becomes free, a hireling becomes a son of God, and a mortal man becomes immortal.”
This is why Jesus marvelled. In the place where one might expect such a depth of faith, in Israel, in the place of the Ark of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments, the Kings and the Prophets, Jesus discovered a greater faith indeed – from a gentile, an occupying military officer, one who had no connection to the travelling Rabbi Jesus — from that man came great faith. Humbly, he told the Lord that he wasn’t worthy to have Him enter his home.
At the root of the soldier’s faith was humility – an honest recognition of his own self, his soul, his personal status compared to that of the Rabbi from Nazareth. It took Jesus aback and, no doubt, even endeared the Centurion all the more to the Lord. The lesson for us: at the root of faith is humility – surrendering the ego, bracketing the self, looking honestly at one’s heart and soul, and realizing that any so-called “importance” you think you have is quite secondary to the importance that Christ ought to have at the centre of your life.
St. Isaac the Syrian reminds us about this humility: “A humble man is never rash, hasty or perturbed, never has any hot and volatile thoughts, but at all times remains calm. Even if heaven were to fall and cleave to the earth, the humble man would not be dismayed. Not every quiet man is humble, but every humble man is quiet. There is no humble man who is not self-constrained; but you will find many who are self-constrained without being humble. This is also what the meek humble Lord meant when He said, ‘Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.’ [Matt 11:29]
This encounter between Jesus and the Centurion was a revelation to the Lord that humble people DO exist; Job the Righteous, in the Old Testament, likewise knew this kind of humility. Job did not want to experience the difficulties he had in his life. However he had faith that God would give him what he needs. Job surrendered his will to God’s will and Job emptied himself so that God could fill Job with Himself. This is the kind of humility each one of us ought to nurture in our daily lives! Do we make an effort to live a humble, self-less life?
Lastly, the actual healing of the Centurion’s servant took place simply because of a word uttered by Christ. Geronda Evagrios, of the Monastery of St. John of the Mountain in Perth, Australia, tells us “this was so because the word of Christ contained also the creative power of God. If Jesus spoke it – it happened at once. When Jesus told the paralytic to take up his bed and walk, the paralytic immediately did so. The word of Christ does not contain power. The word of Christ is creative power itself.”
This explains Jesus’ utterance to the Centurion “Go thy way, and as thou hast believed, so will it be done unto thee. And the Centurion’s servant was healed at that very moment.” (Matt:13) It was his faith that brought the Centurion’s servant to healing. He set aside ego, adopted an attitude of genuine humility, bore his vulnerable soul to the Rabbi Jesus and thereby caused a word to issue from Christ’s mouth – a word that, in effect, meant: “I have spoken healing’s word but your faith has prompted me to do so. The enmity between you and me exists no longer. You have approached the creative word of God Himself and because of your boldness, your servant is healed and you are renewed.”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, wrote that: “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 conversation with the Pure One…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 – with humility, negating our self-centeredness, approaching The Selfless One, the Holy One, knowing that He need not come into our house to heal. All He needs is to feel our faith when we repeat the Centurion’s prayer: “Lord I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. Say but the WORD and my servant (and I!) will be healed.”
May God grant each of us that kind of selfless faith and the humility to sustain it all the days of your lives!