Outsider. For most people being shunned, pushed away, deliberately left out is the very definition of loneliness. It is the pain of looking through a window at people who are having fun but the door is locked. Or sitting on the bench through the entire game. Or trying to join in only to be dismissed. Even after many years the sting can still linger.
The centurion in this story would was an outsider. His command of 100 Roman soldiers did not protect him from scorn as part of the hated occupation of Palestine. Everywhere he went he was noticed. He could not speak without people knowing he was not one of them.
Being an outsider could have made him bitter and angry. The Bible tells us that, though he came as a conqueror, his own heart had been conquered. Weary of the tales of the drunken, adulterous and murdering gods of Roman mythology, he found himself drawn to the Jewish religion that proclaimed a holy God, transcendent above all creation yet who chose to draw near to humanity in love. Opening his heart to the true God now made him an outsider among his own troops.
The proof of his conversion was evidenced in how he regarded the Jewish people that were popularly regarded to be of no account. When asking for a favor from Jesus, the Jewish elders reported his good deeds, “If anyone deserves your help, he does,” they said, “for he loves the Jewish people and even built a synagogue for us” (Luke 7:4-5).
Soldiers were notoriously underpaid. How did the centurion have the means to build a whole synagogue? He could have been born into wealth but this is unlikely. Soldiers were known to extort money from conquered populations but this would have been well known among the Jewish people had he done that. Most likely he was a career soldier who had joined in many military campaigns. The custom of the day included the division of spoils among the officers and men, the size of the share according to rank. The wealth he had accumulated was most likely from risking his life for the Emperor, no doubt with scars to prove his bravery.
Another proof that he was a changed man was his love for his servant. Again, the servant was likely one of the spoils of war, taken to be a lackey. But as the centurion’s heart was changed, he saw the man as something more than that. Here again he became more of an outsider among his fellow Romans. A well known Roman Christian teacher named Chrysolgus wrote about slaves: “Whatever a master does to a slave, undeservedly, in anger, willingly, unwillingly, in forgetfulness, after careful thought, knowingly, unknowingly, is judgment, justice and law.” So it was there was no inhumane act prohibited when it came to slaves.
The slave was deathly ill and hearing of Jesus, the centurion firmly believed that if Jesus would come his servant would be healed. He asked the Jewish leaders to intercede with Jesus for him, knowing that Jews tried to avoid direct contact with Gentiles. But even as the men were talking with Jesus, the centurion realized that asking Jesus to come to enter a Gentile’s house was worse still. He could have demanded it as a high ranking officer in the Roman army and ordered Jesus to come. Instead he was mortified that in his desire to see his servant healed, he might have offended Christ.
For His part, Jesus was not bothered in the least. He had already proven He would touch the untouchable and receive anyone who came to Him. He was on His way when “just before they arrived at the house, the officer sent some friends to say, ‘Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet You. Just say the word from where You are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, “Go,” and they go, or “Come,” and they come. And if I say to my slaves, “Do this,” they do it” (vs. 6-8). The centurion apparently grasped what eluded most of the Jewish leaders – that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate. He reasoned that if a mere mortal like him could send a soldier forward in battle to certain death and expect obedience, how much more authority over life would Jesus have? If He was God then there was nothing impossible to Him, and certainly no obstacle such as distance, that could keep Him from doing His work. And further, since Jesus was God the centurion was even more unworthy to have Him walk into his house.
The Bible says that Jesus was “amazed.” We sing of amazing grace. How wonderful would it be to hear the Lord say we had amazing faith! The centurion’s faith was both an encouragement and a rebuke: “Turning to the crowd that was following Him, He said, ‘I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!’ (vs. 9). On which side of faith do you stand?
The centurion’s simple but profound faith was not only recognized but rewarded. The slave was healed. In Matthew’s account of this miracle (8:5-13), Jesus further remarked, “’I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven’” (vs. 11). Here the rejects, the outsiders, people on the fringe find a place to sit and dine with the Most High God. Here all who are in Christ are honored friends, beloved members of the family. The outsiders are taken in.