This week’s Sunday reflection focuses on Christ healing a Roman officer’s son/servant in Matthew 8:5-13 from The Interpreter’s Bible.
Matthew’s ambiguous pais can mean either “son” or “servant.” Luke understands it unambiguously as “servant” (Luke 7:2), while the related story in John 4:53-54 speaks of the nobleman’s “son” (John 4:47). Matthean usage suggests “son” as the meaning here (cf. 2:16; 17:14-21); “slave” in verse 9 translates a different word. The parallel to the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:22) also argues for “son” as the meaning here.
Nonetheless, if we were to first define faith so we know clearly what it is, and then go looking for people (like ourselves) who have it, would we pass by this Roman officer?
Even for us, he is an unlikely candidate for faith, and even more so for the other characters in Matthew’s story. He is doubly the outsider, the first Gentile to appear in Matthew’s story (after the magi of the birth narrative) and he is an army officer, part of the oppressive establishment.
One who is looking for evidence of faith in this man may first be struck by what is not said. There is nothing at all about his creed. As far as the story is concerned, we do not even know if he was a theist, not to speak of monotheism.
The form of this story in Luke 7:1-10 has additions that show early Christian storytellers were also nervous about such issues, and they made the centurion into a supporter of Judaism who had built a synagogue and was commended by Jewish elders as “worthy.” None of this is in Matthew. Such comparisons remind us in each case we are to interpret the text before us, not to make harmonizing reconstructions of “what really happened.”
Yet Matthew speaks of him as a model of faith. What does Matthew want to say to us in this story about the contours of real faith?
The man feels compassion for someone else who depends on him. Matthew does not not novelistically speculate on the details of the boy’s illness or his relationship to the centurion. The story focuses on the centurion’s concern for him, a concern that impels him to make a potentially humiliating request. He is not embarrassed to seek out an itinerant Jewish preacher and healer, confess his unworthiness to receive a personal visit and ask Him only to speak the authoritative word of healing for the child.
There is a notable lack of swagger in all this. He understands the sickness to be a matter of authority and Jesus’ authority overrules the power that holds his son/servant in suffering and paralysis. This is what Matthew here identifies as authentic faith, or as emphasized in Revelations 17:20, faith that moves mountains.
Some of the categories are problematic for us, such as the the view of the nature of authority presupposed. Yet, there are ways in which we, too, may see the ills of life as a matter of authority, of Who is finally in charge, and come to share the Gentile’s faith, which trusts in an authoritative healing word that, once spoken, must have the last word. So understood, we may be saved from the simplistic reduction of this and similar stories to the formula “If I pray for healing and nothing happens, I don’t have enough faith; if healing does come, it is because I have faith.” Both self-centered guilt and self-centered pride can be dissolved by the faith that, in Jesus, the word of God is spoken, which finally transcends all boundaries and heals all wounds.
Lord, I do not deserve to have You come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom. — Charles Spurgeon