The centurion gives us such an example of faith, as Jesus says, and also of prayer, of trust, of humility, & of divine knowledge (Matt 8:5-13).
Listen to what he says to Jesus: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress” (Matt 8:6).
I am struck by the fact that there is in this prayer — and I would call it a prayer – no explicit petition.
Petition is where we ask God for what our heart desires. Petition is good, and earnestly desired by the Lord. Jesus himself makes petitions to his Father many times. This is good. The Lord’s heart desires that we say to him what our heart desires.
But note that, in this case, the centurion does not here explicitly ask Jesus for anything, not even for healing. He only expresses the suffering of his situation. He suffers together with his servant, I say, because we learn from Luke that his servant is dear to him (Luke 7:2). But, in Matthew, it is the Lord and not the centurion who brings up healing. Jesus says, “I will come and heal him” (Matt 8:7).
Luke recalls this differently. According to Luke, the centurion sends a message to Jesus, asking him to come and heal his sick servant – a petition. And I think it is clear, even in Matthew, that this is what the centurion wants. The centurion wants the Lord to heal his suffering servant. Jesus understands this immediately, and offers to come and heal him.
What can it mean, then, that the centurion does not here give voice to the petition that surely lies on his heart? “Out with it!” we might say to him. “Say what you really want!” “Stop beating around the bush!”
But, no, this is a beautiful prayer in need of no improvements or additions. “Lord, my servant is… in terrible distress.” The centurion knows to whom he speaks.
How he came to know him we do not learn, but he knows him. In Luke, some elders of the Jews point out that the centurion loves their nation and that he built their synagogue for them (Luke 7:5). This gives us some insight as to how a Gentile centurion of the Roman occupiers could have come to know and respect the Messiah of the Jews. But I daresay that his knowledge even seems to go beyond this.
He knows to whom he speaks. He knows that the one to whom he speaks will understand everything. That not everything needs to be said. The one to whom he speaks is all-knowing.
Furthermore, he trusts the one to whom he speaks. He asks for nothing, but gives the situation into the hands of the Lord, for he knows and trusts that the one to whom he speaks is all-good.
We might try imitating this prayer of the centurion when next we are in distress.
Lord, my daughter is suffering from a terrible migraine.
Lord, my sister’s husband is abusing her.
Lord, my mother is dying of cancer.
There is a radical and profound trust in this kind of prayer. I can barely do it. I can scarcely resist adding, “heal her” “deliver her” “be with her.” And, I hasten to add, again, it is good to add those petitions.
But if we could pause for a moment in faith and trust, like the centurion did, knowing that the Lord already knows, that he already cares, that he is already inside the situation, perhaps we will hear the Lord say, as the centurion did, “I will come and heal.” Perhaps this kind of prayer can teach us something of trust and humility.
If we do hear the Lord say this, what will we say? “Thank you, Lord!” will surely be the first words from our lips. That would be a good thing to say.
But this is not what the centurion says. He says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Such humility! How can we even approach this humility? When we cry out to the Lord for healing, for his presence, for favors, do we remember our unworthiness to receive him?
Or, do we think ourselves worthy to stand in the presence of God? To be given whatever we seek? Are any of us so sinless and perfect and purified?
Many times, I hear people say of some good thing, like a bowl of ice cream or a vacation or a good night’s sleep, “I deserve this.” I do not deserve any good thing, inasmuch as I am a sinner. I am blessed by many good things, and I thank God for them, but I deserve none of them. Every good thing is an unmerited gift, a blessing, a mercy. God’s grace is gratuitous, unearned, and undeserved.
We ought to remember this, as the centurion does. We ought to thank God, yes, but not as an equal thanks an equal for a mutual exchange. Not as I thank my boss for my paycheck. No. We do not earn and do not deserve the good things God gives to us. And every good thing is from the Lord. We are not worthy of him. The centurion understood this.
Note that, after Jesus offers to come and heal, the centurion does make a petition. After, not before, Jesus says he will heal, the centurion prays, “Only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
The centurion knows to whom he speaks. How he knows, I do not know, but he knows. The great faith that Jesus praises in him is a true divine knowledge. Only God could have given him this knowledge.
What doctor or healer can heal without touching the patient? Without even seeing the patient? Without even being in the same room or even under the same roof as the patient? What doctor or healer could do this? Who can heal by the power of the word alone? By only saying the word? Who commands creation with the authority as a centurion commands his soldiers with authority?
Only the author of creation has authority over it. Only the Word who was in the beginning with God and by whom God creates and who is God can heal by the power of the word alone. The centurion knows to whom he speaks. He speaks to God and knows it.
Echoing the word of creation, “let there be…” Jesus says to him, “let it be…” (Gen 1; Matt 8:13). And the servant was healed at that very moment.
image: Sergieiev / Shutterstock.com