Following the Centurion
In the occasional doubts we must all feel as Christians in an occupation of arms, the New Testament centurions are, in a way, worthy role models. Centurions were, after all, not common soldiers; they were a cross between a commander and a sergeant major. In a Roman legion there were 6000 men, divided into what they referred to as sixty "centuries" containing 100 men each. In command of each of these was a centurion.
Centurions were responsible for the discipline of the century, and they were the cement that held the Army together. In battle the legions maneuvered, struck, and held their lines against assault because the centurions directed it, enforced it, practically willed it to be. When the fighting stopped it was the centurions who brought stability, order and administration to the occupied region.
The renowned Scottish theologian, Dr. William Barclay, noted that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament was mentioned with honor. It was a centurion who stood at the foot of the Cross and declared, "Surely, He was the Son of God."
It was a centurion, Cornelius, who is attributed to be the first Gentile convert to the Christian Church. It was a centurion who, upon recognizing the Apostle Paul as a Roman citizen, rescued him from the fury of a rioting mob, and a centurion who foiled plans to murder the apostle on his way from Jerusalem to Caesarea. Felix ordered a centurion to look after Paul, and it was a centurion who, when accompanying Paul on his last trip to Rome, afforded him every courtesy, and accepted him as leader when the storm struck their ship.
But far and away my favorite centurion was the one described when Jesus approached Capernaum. The story depicts one of the most appealing, attractive characters in all of the New Testament.
"As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’ But the centurion answered him, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, "Go," and he goes, and to another, "Come." And he comes, and to my slave, "Do this," and he does it.’
When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; be it done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed once" (Matt. 8:5-13 RSV).
In this story there are three remarkable traits that we can identify in the centurion:
- Compassion, in his concern over the well being of his servant,
- Humility, perhaps born of that compassion, and
- Faith—absolute, uncompromising faith.
Let’s look at each of these traits separately.
First, let us examine the remarkable compassion and concern the centurion showed for his servant. "Servant," in modern times, has a far lighter connotation—an easier visage than the stark notion of a slave. But the condition of slavery was indeed stark in Roman times. A slave, or servant, was not a person—he or she was a possession. Their suffering and death often evoked little more feeling than the loss of a tool, or a beast of burden.
Compare this to the compassion shown by the centurion in our lesson. This proud man, this leader, humbled himself out of love for this stricken servant. He pleaded with this great teacher and healer in his servant’s behalf.
Then there was the second remarkable trait of the centurion . . . his humility. Remember the times, remember the place, and remember the conditions as the centurion approached the Rabbi. He was the embodiment of the power of Rome -- by his own admission a man of authority for whom men would go, and come, and do as he bade them. While it is true that the Jews despised the Gentiles, the Gentiles hated the Jews. The Romans spoke of Judaism as barbarous superstition. They recoiled at what they saw in Judaism. But this leader—this man of authority who could have surely commanded Jesus’ presence—appealed to the Jew for help. He humbled himself to Christ.
It is likely the centurion asked Jesus not to come to his house because he was fully aware that a strict Jew was forbidden by his laws to enter into the house of a Gentile. Indeed, in Luke’s account of the same event (Luke 7:2-10), the centurion didn’t even approach Jesus himself.
Calling both himself and his home unworthy, he transmitted the appeal for his servant through Jewish intermediaries. What could have led to this astonishing show of humility? A feeling of need and helplessness for his servant. And I think we have all had glimpses at this kind of need. I pray regularly, but there has never been a time when I was moved to greater fervency in my prayers-- no greater humility-- than when I was praying for the life of my child. In our times of deepest need, I believe we are faced with our truest humility, because we know we are helpless to meet the need ourselves.
And in his need and helplessness, the centurion demonstrated his greatest characteristic-- his faith. There are few, if any, recordings in the Gospel of a more complete expression of absolute faith than the one demonstrated here. "Just say the word, and my servant will be healed." How often have any of us gone to the Lord with such unabashed, unselfish expectation?
And take note of Christ’s response: "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith" (Matt. 8:10 RSV). This, too, is a remarkable statement because Jesus wasn’t one to hand out great heaps of praise. Think of what some of the disciples, who often displayed their humanity all too well in seeking the Teacher’s special favor, would have done for this acknowledgement. But this praise of the Master was not theirs. . .it belonged to a nameless centurion who sought nothing for himself.
So when looking for military role models, let me commend this man. You would not be the first soldier to learn from him, or to gain from his example. Compassion, humility, and uncompromising faith made this centurion a man for the ages.
LtCol Bert Tussing, USMC (Ret.) graduated from The Citadel and enjoyed a distinguished career as a Marine aviator, and as professor of National Security Affairs at the Army Center for Strategic Leadership. He is active in the Wednesday morning Chapel Prayer Breakfast at Carlisle Barracks. He and his wife, Dianne, have two daughters, Amber and Crystal.