Matthew 8:5-13

A GOOD MAN’S PLEA

Matt. 8:5-13

When Jesus had come into Capernaum, a centurion came to him. “Lord,” he appealed to him, “my servant lies at home, paralysed, suffering terribly” He said to him: “Am I to come and cure him?” “Lord,” answered the centurion, “I am not worthy that you should enter my house; but, only speak a word, and my servant will be cured. For even I am a man under authority, and I have soldiers under me. I say to one soldier, `Go!’ and he goes, and to another, `Do this!’ and he does it.” Jesus was amazed when he heard this, and said to those who were following him, “This is the truth I tell you–not even in Israel have I found so great a faith. I tell you that many will come from the cast and west and will sit down at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven; but the sons of the Kingdom will be cast into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And his servant was healed at that hour.

Even in the brief appearance that he makes on the stage of the New Testament story this centurion is one of the most attractive characters in the gospels. The centurions were the backbone of the Roman army. In a Roman legion there were 6,000 men; the legion was divided into sixty centuries, each containing 100 men, and in command of each century there was a centurion. These centurions were the long-service, regular soldiers of the Roman army. They were responsible for the discipline of the regiment, and they were the cement which held the army together. In peace and in war alike the morale of the Roman army depended on them. In his description of the Roman army Polybius describes what a centurion should be: “They must not be so much venturesome seekers after danger as men who can command, steady in action, and reliable; they ought not to be over-anxious to rush into the fight, but when hard pressed, they must be ready to hold their ground, and die at their posts.” The centurions were the finest men in the Roman army.

It is interesting to note that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament is mentioned with honour. There was the centurion who recognized Jesus on the Cross as the Son of God; there was Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to the Christian Church; there was the centurion who suddenly discovered that Paul was a Roman citizen, and who rescued him from the fury of the rioting mob; there was the centurion who was informed that the Jews had planned to murder Paul between Jerusalem and Caesarea, and who took steps to foil their plans; there was the centurion whom Felix ordered to look after Paul; there was the centurion accompanying Paul on his last journey to Rome, who treated him with every courtesy, and accepted him as leader when the storm struck the ship (Matt. 27:54; Ac.10:22; Ac.23:17; Ac.23:23; Ac.24:23; Ac.27:43).

But there was something very special about this centurion at Capernaum, and that was his attitude to his servant. This servant would be a slave, but the centurion was grieved that his servant was ill and was determined to do everything in his power to save him.

That was the reverse of the normal attitude of master to slave. In the Roman Empire slaves did not matter. It was of no importance to anyone if they suffered, and whether they lived or died. Aristotle, talking about the friendships which are possible in life, writes: “There can be no friendship nor justice towards inanimate things; indeed, not even towards a horse or an ox, nor yet towards a slave as a slave. For master and slave have nothing in common; a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.”

A slave was no better than a thing. A slave had no legal rights whatsoever; his master was free to treat him, or maltreat him, as he liked. Gaius, the Roman legal expert. lays it down in his Institutes: “We may note that it is universally accepted that the master possesses the power of life and death over the slave.” Varro, the Roman writer on agriculture, has a grim passage in which he divides the instruments of agriculture into three classes–the articulate, the inarticulate and the mute, “the articulate comprising the slaves, the inarticulate comprising the cattle, and the mute comprising the vehicles.” The only difference between a slave and a beast or a cart was that the slave could speak.

Cato, another Roman writer on agriculture, has a passage which shows how unusual the attitude of this centurion was. He is giving advice to a man taking over a farm: “Look over the livestock, and hold a sale. Sell your oil, if the price is satisfactory, and sell the surplus of your wine and grain. Sell worn-out oxen, blemished cattle, blemishes sheep, wool, hides, an old wagon, old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave, and whatever else is superfluous.” Cato’s blunt advice is to throw out the slave who is sick. Peter Chrysologus sums the matter up: “Whatever a master does to a slave. undeservedly, in anger, willingly, unwillingly, in forgetfulness, after careful thought, Knowingly, unknowingly, is judgment, justice and law.”

It is quite clear that this centurion was an extraordinary man. for he loved his slave. It may well be that it was his totally unusual and unexpected gentleness and love which so moved Jesus when the centurion first came to him. Love always covers a multitude of sins; the man who cares for men is always near to Jesus Christ.

THE PASSPORT OF FAITH

Matt. 8:5-13 (continued)

Not only was this centurion quite extraordinary in his attitude to his servant; he was also a man of a most extraordinary faith. He wished for Jesus’ power to help and to heal his servant, but there was one problem. He was a Gentile and Jesus was a Jew, and, according to the Jewish law, a Jew could not enter the house of a Gentile for all Gentile dwelling-places were unclean. The Mishnah lays it down: “The dwelling-places of Gentiles are unclean.” It is to that Jesus refers when he puts the question: “Am I to come and heal him?”

It was not that this law of uncleanness meant anything to Jesus; it was not that he would have refused to enter any man’s dwelling; it was simply that he was testing the other’s faith. It was then that the centurion’s faith reached its peak. As a soldier he well knew what it was to give a command and to have that command instantly and unquestionably carried out; so he said to Jesus, “You don’t need to come to my house; I am not fit for you to enter my house; all you have to do is to speak the word of command, and that command will be obeyed.” There spoke the voice of faith, and Jesus laid it down that faith is the only passport to the blessedness of God.

Here Jesus uses a famous and vivid Jewish picture. The Jews believed that when the Messiah came there would be a great banquet at which all Jews would sit down to feast. Behemoth, the greatest of the land beasts, and leviathan, the greatest of the denizens of the sea, would provide the fare for the banqueters. “Thou has reserved them to be devoured by whom Thou wilt and when” (4 Ezra 6: 52). “And behemoth shall be revealed from his place, and leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation, and shall have kept until that time; and then shall they be food for all that are left” (2 Baruch 29: 4).

The Jews looked forward with all their hearts to this Messianic banquet; but it never for a moment crossed their minds that any Gentile would ever sit down at it. By that time the Gentiles would have been destroyed. “The nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall the utterly laid waste” (Isa.60:12). Yet here is Jesus saying that many shall come from the east and from the west, and sit down at table at that banquet.

Still worse, he says that many of the sons of the kingdom will be shut out. A son is an heir; therefore the son of the kingdom is the man who is to inherit the kingdom, for the son is always heir; but the Jews are to lose their inheritance. Always in Jewish thought “the inheritance of sinners is darkness” (Wis.15:11). The rabbis had a saying, “The sinners in Gehenna (GSN1067) will be covered with darkness.” To the Jew the extraordinary and the shattering thing about all this was that the Gentile, whom he expected to be absolutely shut out, was to be a guest at the Messianic banquet, and the Jew, whom he expected to be welcomed with open arms, is to be shut out in the outer darkness. The tables were to be turned, and all expectations were to be reversed.

The Jew had to learn that the passport to God’s presence is not membership of any nation; it is faith. The Jew believed that he belonged to the chosen people and that because he was a Jew he was therefore dear to God. He belonged to God’s herrenvolk, and that was enough automatically to gain him salvation. Jesus taught that the only aristocracy in the Kingdom of God is the aristocracy of faith. Jesus Christ is not the possession of any one race of men; Jesus Christ is the possession of every man in every race in whose heart there is faith.

THE POWER WHICH ANNIHILATES DISTANCE

Matt. 8:5-13 (continued)

So Jesus spoke the word and the servant of the centurion was healed. Not so very long ago this would have been a miracle at which the minds of most people would have staggered. It is not so very difficult to think of Jesus heating when he and the sufferer were in actual contact; but to think of Jesus healing at a distance, healing with a word a man he had never seen and never touched, seemed a thing almost, if not completely, beyond belief. But the strange thing is that science itself has come to see that there are forces which are working in a way which is still mysterious, but which is undeniable.

Again and again men have been confronted by a power which does not travel by the ordinary contacts and the ordinary routes and the ordinary channels.

One of the classic instances of this comes from the life of Emanuel Swedenborg. In 1759 Swedenborg was in Gotenborg. He described a fire occurring in Stockholm 300 miles away. He gave an account of the fire to the city authorities. He told them when it began, where it began, the name of the owner of the house, and when it was put out, and subsequent research proved him correct in every detail. Knowledge had come to him by a route which was not any of the routes known to men.

  1. B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, had experiences like this. He had certain symbols for certain things, and he experimented, not so much scientifically, but in everyday life, in the transmission of these symbols to other people by what might be called the sheer power of thought. He had an uncle in Sligo, who was by no means a mystical or devotional or spiritual man. He used to visit him each summer. “There are some high sandhills and low cliffs, and I adopted the practice of walking by the seashore while he walked on the cliffs of sandhills; 1, without speaking, would imagine the symbol, and he would notice what passed before his mind’s eye, and in a short time he would practically never fail of the appropriate vision.” Yeats tells of an incident at a London dinner party, where all the guests were intimate friends: “I had written upon a piece of paper: `In five minutes York Powell will talk of a burning house,’ thrust the paper under my neighbours plate, and imagined my fire symbol, and waited in silence. Powell shifted the conversation from topic to topic, and within the five minutes was describing a fire he had seen as a young man.”

Men have always quoted things like that, but within our own generation Dr. J. B. Rhine began definite scientific experiments in what he called Extra-Sensory Perception, a phenomenon which has become so much discussed that it is commonly called by its initial letters, ESP. Dr. Rhine has carried out, in Duke University in America, thousands of experiments which go to show that men can become aware of things by other means than the ordinary senses. A pack of twenty-five cards marked with certain symbols is used. A person is asked to name the cards as they are dealt, without seeing them. One of the students who participated in these experiments was called Hubert Pearce. On the first five thousand trials–a trial is a run through the whole pack of cards–he averaged ten correct out of twenty-five, when the laws of chance would say that four correct could be expected. On one occasion, in conditions of special concentration, he named the whole twenty-five cards correctly. The mathematical odds against this feat being pure chance are 298,023,223,876,953,125 to 1.

An experimenter called Brugman carried out another experiment. He selected two subjects. He put the sender of the messages in an upstairs room and the receiver below. Between the rooms there was an opening covered by two layers of glass with an air space between, so that the sending of any message based on sound was quite impossible. Through the glass panel the sender looked at the hands of the receiver. In front of the receiver was a table with forty-eight squares. The receiver was blindfolded. Between him and the squared table was a thick curtain. He held a pointer which passed through the curtain on to the table. The experiment was that the sender had to will the receiver to move the pointer to a certain square. According to the laws of chance the receiver should have been right in four out of one hundred and eighty results. In point of fact he was right in sixty. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the mind of the sender was influencing the mind of the receiver.

It is a definitely proven fact that a certain Dr. Janet in eighteen out of twenty-five cases was able to hypnotise subjects at a distance, and he was partially successful in four other cases.

There is no doubt that mind can act on mind across the distances in a way which we are beginning to see, although yet we are far from understanding. If human minds can get to this length, how much more the mind of Jesus? The strange thing about this miracle is that modern thought, instead of making it harder, has made it easier to believe it.

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Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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