JESUS’S treatment of suffering people in the Prayer Book Gospel reading for today, the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, reveals his divine compassion and his power to save.
The passage from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter eight, records Jesus healing a leper and the suffering servant of a Roman centurion. This Gentile commander in the Roman army occupying 1st Century Israel had exemplary faith in Jesus’s divine authority as the Jewish Messiah, the Christ of Old Testament promise:
‘And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For 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’ (Matthew 8v5-9 – King James Version).
The centurion knew from experience how the military chain of command worked. Its efficiency in the Roman army made it the formidable fighting force that it was. Insubordination was out of the question. From his apparent knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures, the centurion knew who was in charge of the cosmic chain of command and that is why he knew that the King chosen by God had only to give the order.
The account of the same incident in Luke’s Gospel records that Jewish leaders in Galilee asked Jesus to agree to the centurion’s request, ‘for he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue’ (Luke 7v5). It would appear that this soldier had learned biblical Hebrew so that he could read the Jewish Scriptures and that the divine grace mediated by the Old Testament had aroused the humanity of this hard-bitten warrior, leading him to compassion for his suffering servant. In both accounts, Jesus is recorded as marvelling at the faith in the God of Israel which the centurion showed by his appeal:
‘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. And 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. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour’ (Matthew 8v10-13).
Indeed, the Lord had only to speak the word and the centurion’s servant was healed. Such is the power of the word of Jesus, the divine Son of the one true God.
But there is much more to this passage than an account of a healing. Eternal salvation is revealed here. Jesus was emphatic that the centurion, Gentile though he was, was assured a place in God’s eternal kingdom of heaven because of his faith in the Jewish Messiah. He would join Israel’s patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in that kingdom, along with all other believers in Christ, Jew and Gentile, the world over and down the ages.
Eternal salvation is here as is eternal judgement. Jesus was emphatic that ‘the children of the kingdom’, by which he meant Israelites who refused to believe in their own Messiah, would be cast into outer darkness. Their souls would be lost for eternity. This is a stark warning against religious or ethnic presumption. Salvation is no one’s birthright.
Active faith in Jesus Christ is necessary, the Lord who shows wonderful compassion to those who, like the centurion, acknowledge their unworthiness as sinners and trust the Messiah’s divine word, his saving gospel. A person’s social or religious background or their personal circumstances are no barrier to the Lord Jesus’s compassion. When we put our faith in the compassionate King of the Jews, he saves us for eternity.
The Collect for today is a beautiful prayer for divine intervention on behalf of penitent believers, people with the attitude of the centurion, to the God of such powerful compassion:
‘Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’