Saturday, December 1, 2012

Matthew's Centurion (part 2 of 2)

In all of the uses of “Lord” that have been encountered up to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, the Greek term that is used is “Kurie.”  We see this in Matthew 7:21, Matthew 7:22, and in Matthew 8:2, as it used four times by Jesus, and then once by the leper that Jesus heals.  Then we come to the Roman centurion in Capernaum.  He is aware of this man Jesus.  He sees the crowds following Him.  He has most likely heard of Jesus’ usage of the term “Kurie, Kurie” in reference to Himself, along with His associating that usage with entering “the kingdom of heaven” and His “Father in heaven” (7:21).  As a good, Roman soldier, loyal to Caesar, he should be casting a suspicious eye towards this fellow called Jesus, and be ready to arrest Him for His claims.

So what does the centurion do?  When Jesus enters Capernaum, the centurion “came forward to Him, appealing to Him” (8:5b).  What did he say to Jesus?  How did he greet Jesus?  He said, “Lord” (8:6a).  This is more than just a sign of respect.  What reason would this centurion have to show Jesus such respect?  This usage of “Lord” is incredibly worthy of our attention.  Why?  Because in the Roman empire, in the first century, it was Caesar who was Lord.  Caesar was “Kurie.”  Not only would this be true for the vast majority of the people under his dominion, but it would be especially true of a solider of the empire.  This solider, however, having heard about Jesus, having likely heard of the cleansing of the leper, having heard of the way that the leper approached Him by calling Jesus Lord, and recognizing the power to heal and the connection of that power to the telling of words of the kingdom that he has heard, comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly” (8:6). 

How does Jesus respond to this Roman centurion, this Gentile?  Well, He responds the way that we have been trained to think He would respond.  He says, “I will come and heal him” (8:7).  Does He respond in that way simply because it is in Jesus’ nature to heal, or is it something deeper?  Does Jesus respond in that manner because the centurion calls Him “Lord”?  Should we equate Jesus being called “Lord” with Jesus’ own preaching of the kingdom, which is invariably connected with His performance of healing?  In essence, by calling Jesus “Lord,” this centurion preaches the Gospel, and does so in a revolutionary way, especially as we consider the context in which his statement is made, in which it is probably quite likely that the only person that this centurion had ever referred to as “Lord” up to that point, and in that way, was Caesar himself. 

Making his reply to Jesus, the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (8:8).  From there, he goes on to speak about authority and commands and servants.  Clearly, this centurion understood the nature of power.  In addition to that, it is becoming increasingly obvious that he knew of the cleansing of the leper, because in that instance, Jesus had spoken and the leper had been cleansed.  With this understanding of power and authority, and by his calling Jesus “Lord,” he knew that Jesus need merely speak the word for healing to take place. 

Here, it must be said that “Jesus is Lord” is the message of the Gospel.  The Gospel announcement, as Paul would say, is the power of God to salvation.  Salvation entails a rescue and a deliverance from all those things that are the effects of the failure of the divine image bearers to rightly bear that image, and sickness and disease are numbered among those effects.  Recognition of Jesus as Lord is salvation (joining with the covenant people of God so as to share in the prescribed responsibility to be a blessing).  In that moment, we can say that, rightly understood, the centurion and his servant experienced God’s salvation through Christ.  They experienced His eternal life---the renewal and restoration that Jesus brings as the in-breaking of the age of new creation to come---and they did so because the centurion called Jesus “Lord.”  It is no different for us.    

We read that “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’.” (8:10)  What a remarkable statement!  Jesus makes the point that the first overt recognition of Him as Lord, and of the power of His kingdom, came from a Gentile, and not from a member of the people of Israel.  By extension, this would indicate that the leper that was cleansed was a Gentile as well, which we can well understand, as Jesus was in “Galilee of the Gentiles”.  After making this crucial point, Jesus goes on to say “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (8:11).  Almost immediately, Jesus embarks upon the usage of covenant language, referencing the covenant first given to Abraham, and then passed along to Isaac, and to Jacob, and then to Israel, that through that covenant all of the families of the earth would be blessed.  Jesus was fulfilling the covenant, according to God’s covenant faithfulness, in extending the blessings of that covenant to the Gentiles, by being the light of the world that had been God’s intention for His people Israel. 

Israel had failed in that, though all they truly had to do in order to be that light was refrain from idolatry, keep God’s Sabbaths, and reverence His sanctuary (which, in the end and according to the Scriptures, would look a great deal like caring for orphans and widows).  That had proven to be too much, so they experienced cursing and exile and dominion by foreign nations.  This was designed to get them to return to the covenant and be that light to all nations for the glory of their God.  Instead, they had ostracized the Gentiles.  They had separated and isolated themselves from the Gentiles.  They had risen up violently against their Gentile rulers, and would eventually demand that Jesus do the same if He was to have their support.  It is for this reason that Jesus follows up His invoking of the covenant and its inclusion of Gentiles, by saying “while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12).  Indeed, this is the lot and end of all that fail to live up to the terms of the covenant that Christ delivered, which is to believe the Gospel and to preach the Gospel, so that God might be glorified.

Jesus goes on to say to the centurion, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed” (8:13a).  It is written that “the servant was healed at that very moment” (8:13b).  What was it that was believed?  Why was the servant healed?  Did healing take place because the centurion believed that Jesus could heal?  Absolutely.  More importantly, it was the belief in Who Jesus was, and the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, and its associated proclamation of the kingdom of heaven, that was the more crucial aspect of belief.  That was what showed forth faith and its associated allegiance.  That was what brought the healing.    

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