5 When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too 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 servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
The idea of somebody healing somebody else from a distance is a fascinating idea, and not one without historical attestation. For instance, Walter Wilson has noted that “the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana…was credited with a miracle that amounted to performing an exorcism through the mail” when “[u]pon hearing the appeal of a woman to help her possessed son, he produced a threatening letter, instructing her to deliver it to the demon in question.”
Well! That is something sure enough. An exorcism through the mail! Here is another alleged instance:
In b. Ber. 34b is an account of a miracle associated with a mid-first-century Palestinian, Hanina ben Dosa:
Our rabbis say, once upon a time Rabban Gamaliel’s son got sick. He sent two men of learning to Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa to beg him mercy from God concerning him. He saw them coming and went to a room upstairs and asked mercy from God concerning him. When he had come back down he said to them, “Go, the fever has left him.”…They sat down and wrote and determined exactly the moment he said this, and when they came back to Rabban Gamaliel he said to them, “By the temple service! You are neither too early nor too late but this is what happened: in that moment the fever left him and he asked for water!”
In this instance, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa allegedly healed Rabbi Gamaliel’s son from a distance. What are we to make of these claims? It is not for us to say. Surely God is a healing God and may do so in unusual ways. We do know this: Jesus once healed a person from a distance. This physical miracle is fascinating and illuminating, to be sure, but what makes this account so much more interesting are the social and political dynamics that were also at play and the way that Jesus’ character and love and power are further demonstrated against this backdrop.
The long reach of the love of Jesus.
In considering the healing of the leper in the beginning of Matthew 8 we said that there is a wideness in Jesus’ love. Jesus’ love takes in even the ostracized and broken and lonely (and we said that, in truth, this is good news for us all since, in so many ways, this is an apt description for us all). In this second healing story from Matthew 8 we see the long reach of Jesus’ love.
5 When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
A first century Jew would have been as agitated by the approach of a Roman centurion as he would have been by the approach of a leper, though for different reasons. Yes, both were undesirable company and both were unclean, but the leper would have at least been recognized as a Jew (if indeed he was a Jew) whereas the centurion would have been viewed not only as an outsider but as a hostile and wicked presence. This man who comes to Jesus has a lot going against him! He is:
- a Gentile
- a Roman
- a centurion
- coming on behalf of a slave
As a Gentile there were numerous cultural and religious barriers between him and the Jewish people of the land. He would have been considered unclean and outside the covenant promises of God. As a Roman he would have been considered part of an evil occupying foreign force who was oppressing the people of God. As a centurion he would have been seen as an active participant in the brutal and despised Roman military machine. And in coming on behalf of a slave he would have been seen to be advocating for somebody amazingly even lower than himself!
Walter Wilson has pointed out that while the leper in the first part of Matthew 8 “was excluded from the community of God’s people on account of his ritual impurity, the centurion, being a Gentile, is not considered a member of the community to begin with.” He further notes that “the one on whose behalf he pleads for healing is not only a Gentile as well, but also a slave, the ultimate ‘nobody’ in the eyes of ancient Mediterranean society.”
In other words, this Roman centurion was far off from where he needed to be to be accepted and valued. But here again Jesus confounds the crowd by (a) not rebuking the centurion, (b) healing the centurion’s servant, (c) speaking admirably of the man’s great faith, and (d) depicting the Kingdom of God as belong to such as this.
In other words, Jesus’ love reached way over there to the centurion, across all of those boundaries! Perhaps this is why the New Testament has a habit of speaking of the objects of God’s love as being “far off.” It is a recurring image. Consider:
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)
and in Hades, being in torment, he [the rich man] lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. (Luke 16:23)
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Luke 18:13)
For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (Acts 2:39)
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.(Ephesians 2:13)
And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:17)
It would appear, then, that God is in the business of reaching those who far off with the long reach of His love: the Roman centurion, the prodigal son, poor Lazarus, the repentant tax collector, and you and me! The love of Christ draws us in.
Commenting on Jesus’ interaction with the centurion, the HCSB Study Bible notes:
Jesus’ willingness to enter the home of a Gentile shocked the centurion, for Jewish law banned Jews from doing this (Ac 10: 28).
“Shocked” is a good word. This is the best way to describe the long reach of the love of God. Jesus’s love extends to centurions and prostitutes and tax collectors and, perhaps most shocking of all, to you and to me! Do you feel distant, “far off”? He sees you and He loves you!
The true nature of saving faith.
Like the leper, the centurion too demonstrated true and saving faith in the way he came to Jesus. Hear again the account and pay special attention to how the centurion came.
5 When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too 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 servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
- appealed to Jesus;
- called Jesus “Lord” (vv.6, 8);
- acknowledged Jesus’ greatness;
- acknowledged his own unworthiness;
- acknowledged Jesus’ sovereign power over the cosmos;
- acknowledged Jesus’ authority.
It can truly be argued that the approach of the leper at the beginning of Matthew 8 and the approach of the centurion in our text offer together a powerful example and model for us all! Such was the nature of the centurion’s faith that Jesus seemed to marvel at it: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
It is one thing to be intrigued by Jesus, it is another to believe in Him. It is one thing to be caught up in a religious moment, it is another to humble oneself before Him. It is one thing to follow Him down the mountain, it is another thing altogether to actually invite Him into your very heart.
There was something about the centurion’s faith that was different from the faith of the others. Perhaps the centurion knew his distance from God more than those who claimed to be in the family by virtue of birth. Perhaps those who are farthest away and desperately want to be near strive in their faith in a way that those who feel entitled do not.
See the elements of the centurion’s faith. See them and ask yourself this: does my own faith bear these marks? Does my own faith have these qualities? Does my own faith look like this?
The surprising citizenry of the Kingdom of God.
The physical healing is, of course, amazing, but it is what Jesus does next that is truly shocking and that reveals that much more is at stake in this episode.
10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
There is a kind of escalation of offensiveness in the three things Jesus says after seeing the centurion’s faith:
- He says that the centurion’s faith is stronger than any He has encountered in Israel.
- He says that people like the centurion will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
- He says that many of those who see themselves as God’s children will be cast out.
What can this mean? What is Jesus doing here? I recently read these verses to my daughter and said, “Honestly, it is not that surprising that they wanted to kill Jesus.”
What Jesus is doing is shedding greater light on the nature of the Kingdom while simultaneously striking a blow against Jewish exclusivism, the idea held by some (though surely not all) of the Jews that the Jewish people would be in the Kingdom by virtue of their being Jewish. It is often said by detractors of Christianity that there is a difference in the teachings of Jesus and Paul. I disagree. I would argue that Paul fleshes out in more detail what Jesus started teaching in moments like this: that to be a child of God really is a matter of the heart and not a matter of biology and birth. If this centurion—a Gentile, a Roman, a centurion—was closer to the Kingdom than the “sons” of the Kingdom, then it must mean that the “sons” had truly misunderstood something fundamental about the Kingdom.
The gate of the Kingdom is opened by grace through faith not by entitlement through birth. The Kingdom is for the humble, the lowly, the contrite, those who believe, be they Jewish or Roman or Egyptian or whatever else! The table of the Kingdom is opened to those “from east and west,” a phrase that the listening Jews would have taken to mean “outsiders like this centurion.”
Let us turn back to Ephesians 2:13.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
You were far off.
You now are near.
Why? Because the One from whom you were far off came near to you and called you home! “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life.” (John 3:6)
God truly has come near to us so that we can come to God through Him and His work on the cross.
Lepers! Centurions! Take heart: many may say that you are an outsider, but if you come in faith and repentance, trusting in and taking the offered hand of Jesus Christ, then the gates of the Kingdom will swing wide open for you!
To the one who is far, far, far off, take courage! Christ Jesus came for you! You too can come home.
To the bruised and battered one whose faith has taken a beating as well, be of good cheer! Bring your bruised and battered faith to the God who makes all things new!
To the one who feels unworthy: Christ is worthy enough for the both of you!
To the one who feels sick and broken of heart and soul: Christ is the good physician who can heal all ills!
To the forgotten: He sees you and knows your name!
To the unloved: you need never say such a thing about yourself again, for you are loved with a love above all loves!
And to the one who has never had a place at the table: a chair has been pulled back for you, and the One who pulls it back has nail-pierced hands. He is calling you! He is welcoming you! Such is the Kingdom of God. Such is the love of the King.
 Walter Wilson, Healing in the Gospel of Matthew. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press 2014): https://www.google.com/books/edition/Healing_in_the_Gospel_of_Matthew/oartAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Matthew+8:5&pg=PT65&printsec=frontcover
 Quoted in Charles H. Talbert, Matthew. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. Gen. eds. Mikeal C. Parsons and Charles H. Talbert. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), p.113.
 Walter Wilson, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Healing_in_the_Gospel_of_Matthew/oartAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Matthew+8:5&pg=PT65&printsec=frontcover
 Holman Bible Editorial Staff; Holman Bible Editorial Staff. HCSB Study Bible (Kindle Locations 133852-133853). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.