The centurion and his servant

The gospel reading for today is the well known account of the Roman centurion encountering Jesus on behalf of his servant. Stories like this one from Jesus’ ministry were crucial during the debate of the early church concerning the mission to the Gentiles. The nationality of the centurion is not given, but he was not a Jew. He would have been a member of Herod’s peacekeeping force rather than a member of the imperial army, which had no forces in Galilee at this date. In Luke, this incident foreshadows the various statements in Acts that God knows no partiality; rather, “The man of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34–35; see 15:9). If even the observant Jews of Jesus’ own time brought a non-Jew to Jesus, and if Jesus went to him without quibble — the church’s argument must have run — why shouldn’t Jewish Christians accept Gentiles?

The centurion is introduced as a compassionate man seeking the compassion of Jesus. His Jewish friends argue in his favor that he has been generous to their people. In the light of what Jesus has just said about selfless generosity in the verses preceding our gospel, this would not have been the compelling motive of his action. The centurion surprises him with his humility and his faith. Possibly the officer’s thoughtfulness is implied here, too: he would have known that entering the house of a Gentile rendered a Jew ritually unfit for worship. But it is the centurion’s faith, not the good works that captivated the man’s Jewish friends, that Jesus wants to impress on his listeners. The healing is mentioned almost as an afterthought.

St. Bonaventure says that “humility is the guardian and gateway of all the other virtues.” In today’s gospel we have the Centurion as a one who has stored up for himself what is pleasing to God.

Image credit: Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, Public Domain

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