Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Confess as the Centurion

And Jesus having entered into Capernaum there came to him a centurion calling upon him and saying, "Sir, my young man has been laid in the house - a paralytic, fearfully afflicted." And Jesus said to him, "I, having come will heal him" And the centurion answering him said, "Sir, I am not worthy that you may enter under my roof, but only say a word, and my servant will be healed. For even I myself am a man under authority, having under myself soldiers, and I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another 'come,' and he comes, and to my servant, do this, and he does it. And Jesus having heard, did marvel, and said to those following, "Truly I say to you, not even in Israel so great faith have I found. And Jesus said to the centurion, "Go, and as you believe let it be to you." And his young man was healed in that hour.

The primary activity of Jesus’ earthly ministry includes traveling throughout cities, teaching and proclaiming the Gospel of His kingdom. During his ministry He heals diseases and afflictions of Jews and gentiles. This reveals to us how the Triune God is not a distant and abstract God but rather one who came to teach and heal eternally for us. The healing of diseases and afflictions is not mere metaphor or magic show but shows the complete perfection the Lord brings to His shattered people. Disease and all human frailty is a direct result of a fallen people. Given that illness is a biological consequence of sin, Jesus' ministry of healing testifies to the emancipation from sin alongside perfected bodies - which we eventually assume at the eschatological banquet. Following the summary statement of Jesus' ministry in Matt 9:35 we find his compassion on the gathered crowds calling them sheep without a shepherd (9:36). He urges his disciples to pray to the Lord to send laborers into the harvest. The laborers are the apostles themselves who will carry out the ministry of Jesus by absolving sins and restoring the kingdom.

The miracles recorded in chapters 8-9 exist in the forms of healings (8:1-4), command over nature (8:18-27), exorcisms (8:28-34), remission of sins (9:1-8), and raising of the dead (9:23-26). Altogether, there are ten miracle accounts. Jesus Christ, God made flesh, is revealing that he has come to destroy the dominion of Satan. The function of these healing and life-giving accounts shows the victory which is taking place for us as we see the restorative nature of our incarnational lives in Christ. The bitterness of sin, illness, demonization, blindness, and ultimately death mark the reigns whereby Satan attempts to enslave us. In these account we see Jesus claim his authority to release us from all of these wicked corruptions inherited from our fallen race.

Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs calls the "faith of the centurion" account and the surrounding miracles the "Messiah's ministry of deeds," given that they occur following his Sermon on the Mount and later teachings (marking his ministry of words)[1]. In these accounts there exists a dynamic catechetical movement in how Jesus teaches by and through his miracles. All accounts involve some sort of recognition or teaching of faith on the part those being healed or based upon those witnesses of the miracle. Furthermore, those in need of healing express a common expression of Jesus' authority, especially for the Centurion who articulates Jesus’ authority in a way that causes the Lord himself to marvel! The leper in the first account says, "Lord if you will, you can make me clean" (8:2). The leper prostrates himself before Jesus and acknowledges His Lordship and authority to wipe away his infirmities. Jesus, after the healing commands the cleansed leper, saying, "See that you speak to no one. Rather, go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony to them" (8:4). Gibbs highlights the Greek word alla, "rather..." to show Jesus' preference for the leper to carry out the stipulations set forth in Leviticus for an examination from a priest and to offer the proper sacrifice at the temple (Gibbs 416). It is also normative in the Scriptures for Jesus to go to great lengths to avoid calling attention to himself. The order to "speak to no one" is to hinder a popular political movement around him and to maintain a ministry of modesty, whereby the Son of God carries out the work of a servant for His people. The order also shows the way in which God interacts with us and restores us individually, where he evaluates our confession and faith.

The account of the Centurion in Matthew takes place for Jesus upon entering Capernaum, a relatively small city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (Easton's Bible Dictionary). Much of Jesus' ministry takes place there as well as in the land at Gennesaret, a prosperous city which occupies Capernaum. Matthew reveals that Jesus' denunciation of unrepentant cities is most strongly pointed at Capernaum, "You (Capernaum) will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you" (11:23-24). Given that Jesus' ministry is to call sinners and not the righteous it would seem in good order that He would extend a great deal of time in the unrepentant city of Capernaum.

In Capernaum Jesus is approached by an ekatovtapos, or centurion - a Roman officer commanding roughly a hundred men. In the U.S. Army a centurion would be comparable to a captain having command over about three of four platoons. The centurion is likely under the command of Herod, and a gentile. It is in the identity of this Roman officer and his faith that we find the greater theological significance of this particular account. In the sending out of the twelve apostles in Matt 10:5-8 we find a distinct mission to recover the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" yet throughout Matthew the faithful people tend to be gentiles. The healing of the centurion's servant foreshadows the scope of Jesus’ mission to "make disciples of all nations" (28:19).

The centurion greatly humbles himself to Jesus whom he knows to be Lord with this statement: "ouk eimi ikanos ina mou upo tnv sterynv" (8:8). Simply put, "Lord, I am not worthy". As a centurion with great military power he has humbled himself before Jesus, acknowledging Him as Lord, and his unworthiness for Him to enter under his roof. The centurions reply has been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and some Lutheran Churches as an invitation to the Mass - as it serves to prepare a rightful confession and attitude for the reception of the Eucharist. Dr. David Scaer in Discourses in Matthew writes, "He (centurion) surpasses Israel in humility, recognizes Jesus for who he is, and anticipates the centurion who at the cross recognizes Jesus as the Son of God"[2] In the dialogue between the centurion and Jesus we see an articulation of the faith that even amazes the Lord. The centurion knows that it is not necessary for Jesus to come to his house which is in fact offered. The centurion's absolute and bold assertion of Jesus' authority is unparalleled in comparison to the surrounding miracle accounts. The centurion's use of the word "logo" (Matt 8:8b) pinpoints where he sees the source and authority of the Lord. St. Matthew writes, "he cast out the spirits with a word (logo) and healed all who were sick" (8:16b). This trust in the logo of Jesus and the authority invested in it should function as a model for Christians to likewise approach, beseeching and confessing Christ just as the centurion.

As a prelude to Jesus' ministry of deeds St. Matthew writes, "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (7:28-29). With the centurion we find the first gentile to individually articulate and confess Jesus' authority in Mathew's account (although the magi might qualify as well). He does so by expressing his own authority as an officer who commands men while also expressing his servility to those above him. The centurion recognizes his own power to direct his legions of men by his logo and is acutely aware how much more powerful Jesus is when it comes to his authority, which is given by the Triune God. In response we find that Jesus was not merely impressed by the centurion's understanding but that he marveled (8:10). It is here that Jesus affirms the faithfulness of this Roman gentile officer as surpassing all those of Israel! Here we see faith as first a recognition of Jesus as Lord, followed by a confession of His authority to heal that which is broken, and doing so with humility and awe. We see this with the leper, the centurion, and the blind men. It is noteworthy that even the demon-possessed men acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and confess his authority to torment them for eternity (8:29).

A non-Jew confessing Christ is not isolated with the account of the centurion but is seen throughout the Gospels. With Matthew, his very account begins with the wise men (foreigners, non-Jews) traveling from the east to witness the birth of the Christ and worship him (2:2b). The chief priests and scribes knew the Scriptures inside and out, knowing the prophecy and details of Jesus' birth but did not make the journey. The foreign wise men were led by a star and simple faith. In this light we might see the chief priests and scribes as the real culprits in the birth narrative rather than Herod, whose political role held a far different function.[3] The centurion in Matt 8 has a parallel at Jesus' crucifixion where a centurion likewise acknowledges the authority of Jesus, saying "Truly this was the Son of God!" (27:54b). Given this declaration of this gentile, we can see the centurion as the very first Christian. Jesus' teaching that "many will come from east and west" (8:11) signifies that those outside the Abrahamic root are invited to the eschatological banquet. All creation is graciously invited to "avaklithnsovtai (recline) at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (8:11). The believing gentile through his faith is brought into the people of God to banquet with the patriarchs. The Greek word for “recline” connotes the Hellenic practice of sitting down partaking in a meal or banquet. This might very well serve to prepare the readers of Mathew to be gradually introduced to the reality of the Eucharist given by Christ.

For these reasons Matt 8:5-17 is a suitable text for the Epiphany season. The themes of Christ continually coming to foreigners and gentiles, while guiding them through faith and understanding is a central Epiphany theme. Those seen as outside of the kingdom receive the Word of the Lord through a simple faith. The universality of the banquet is being constantly revealed in the words and deeds of Christ. The work of the church is to continue the ministry of Christ in the preaching of his Word and the administration of the sacraments, namely that of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Matthew 8-9 serves to clearly show Jesus’ restoration of His creation and the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. Christ does not simply take on “our infirmities and diseases” (Isaiah 53:4) only on the cross but is bearing them throughout his earthly life. The touch of Jesus restores Peter’s mother in law to health and He casts out demons with his logo (Matt 8:15-16). This points us to Scripture – the Word as the source for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is in Scripture that Christ is continually coming to heal his broken and shattered people. He serves us as our great physician, perfecting both body and soul.
[1]Gibbs, Jeffrey. Concordia Commentary: Matthew 1:1-11:1. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.
[2]Scaer, David. Discourses in Matthew: Jesus Teaches the Church. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2004, page 182.
[3] This insight comes from a lecture given by David Scaer in Gospels 1 (January 8, 2008).

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