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The kingdom of God in a heart: the centurion of Capernaum

The Kingdom of God in the hearts: a tremendous mission

The Lord Jesus came from the Father to establish the Kingdom of God in the hearts of those who trust Him. A great mission!

How does Jesus proceed?

Strange to say: he does not form a party, he does not formulate a strategy, he does not seek advice from anyone and does not distribute a programme… The main thrust of his action is to train 12 men after praying to choose them, and to have a host of interviews with individuals or groups, which are sometimes numerous.
From this mass of contacts, the evangelists have selected a good number, no doubt on the basis of their significant value for his mission.

Let us recall a very typical example: Matthew 8:5-13.

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 
“Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” 
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 
But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

1. The framework of this episode

Jesus begins to announce the Kingdom of God. His speeches are accompanied by many acts of liberation and healing that attract crowds.

Awakening attention with words

The principle is that his actions must draw attention to his words. Both serve to identify him as sent by God, as the Messiah expected by Jewish believers.
So, after a first time of itinerancy through the country, one day Jesus gathers the crowd to a height and speaks at length to them about this Kingdom of God, in a very practical way.

God at the centre of the believer’s life

The believer is salt and light in his environment. All aspects of his life are carried out under the authority and inspiration of God. His spiritual life is a matter of the heart and not simply of practices, rites, which can be hypocritical. His social life is based on respect and love of one’s neighbour. In his economic life the relationship to God and to the neighbour prevails over the relationship to material goods. In short, God is at the centre of everyone’s life and interpersonal relationships function according to the “golden rule”: Mt 7:12.

A reciprocal commitment

An impressive program! But beware, we are at the opposite of an election campaign. It is not a program that, as a certain president once cynically admitted, only engages those who believe in it. This is a reciprocal commitment in a relationship where it is God who does what is essential: 2 Cor 5:17-18; 1 Thess 5:23-24. Once the Charter of the Kingdom of God has thus been exposed and developed, Jesus does not isolate himself up there in the dreams of theory, surrounded by a small circle of privileged collaborators.

Close to reality

He immediately goes down the hill and faces the down-to-earth and painful realities of disease: a leper, the servant of the centurion, Peter’s mother-in-law. No rabbi would have approached a leper: it is forbidden by the Law and it is a stain that cuts off the community in the Temple. No Jew would have considered entering the home of a pagan, and definitely not the home of a military occupier. No rabbi would have wasted time with a woman; a woman doesn’t count. However, Jesus never lets himself be stopped by a social convention that people would like to put before human distress.

No barriers

For him, and therefore also for us, there is no racial, social, religious or political barrier that matters; there are only human beings who need him. He is taking care of a series of “unseemly” people and not only is he not defiled, but he is communicating something of his purity to them. Let us remember this detail: the measure in which he can touch me, in which I let him dwell in me, is the measure in which he can transmit his purity to me and then use me to come into contact with others.

2. The centurion

Luke, who recounts the same incident (7:1-10), points out that the officer did not even dare to speak himself to Jesus, but indirectly solicited him by Jewish friends who really appreciated him, beyond anything that could separate them.

A humble man, concerned for his servant

What separates Jews infinitely from the centurion is their way of approaching Jesus. Jewish leaders believe that the good that this centurion did them, qualifies him largely to be heard by Jesus: “He really deserves that you grant him this favor”. The centurion has the opposite attitude: “Don’t bother so much… I’m not qualified to receive you” This is not a proud officer in front of a little Jew, whose land he is occupying. On the contrary, he is a simple man who acknowledges the value of Jewish culture and the elevation of its ethics and monotheism. And today he is a humble man panicked at the thought of losing his servant whom he really loves. As a last hope, he seeks to touch this Jesus whose amazing benefits he has heared of and in whom he has recognized, beyond appearances, someone majestic, invested with great authority, far superior to his own. He makes him beg to intervene.

A process marked by love and humility

What touches Jesus is not a merit of the officer, however obvious it may be, it is the worried love, the respectful humility that motivates his approach. After the delegation of his Jewish friends, the centurion may have come himself to meet Jesus. From the outset he only talks about his servant, who is nevertheless only a slave: it must be an evolutionary paralysis with muscle spasms that create serious respiratory problems (v.5). And now he gets a beautifully simple and direct answer: I will go to your house and heal him!

A great intuition: just say one word …

He must have been staggered by this incredible spontaneity. He feels quite unworthy that Jesus should come to his house and now, even before he had had time to express a request, he is assured that it will be granted. And then he has a brilliant intuition: is it really necessary for Jesus to take this trouble? A personality who has the power, the authority of Jesus can exercise this authority as he wishes, without the risk of not being heard. Even from a distance! His humility feels an obvious majesty in his interlocutor: “All it takes is one word. You have only one word to say and my servant will be healed” This is what a psalmist had already perceived: Ps 33:8-9.

The Word of Jesus taken at its word

This is how this pagan approaches our Lord Jesus. With such a conviction he leaves far behind all his fellow pagans who have no idea of such power. He also leaves behind a good part of the Jewish world and even the Christian people, including myself, who know that God is quite capable of anything by a simple word, but often do not dare to expect him to do it indeed. It simply consists in taking the words of God for what they are: dynamic, effective, creative: Hebrews 4:12.
And what put the centurion on the path to this certainty? A common sense statement: I am a subordinate with a small authority. And yet when I give an order, it sets my subordinates, my slave in motion, my order is executed.

A word that acts

Then Jesus, this powerful man among all, capable of such great things, is certainly able to command the disease to leave and it will disappear.
A word of Jesus is not merely stirred up air, a way to make people wait or even to deceive; it is certainly not something that replaces action. When spoken by Jesus, who wants what he says, this word has its effect. This is how God acts, this is how he created everything and continues to support everything with his powerful word. God said: “Let there be light!” And there was light. Gen 1.3; Psalm 33:8-9.
And that is what happens, immediately, at the same time. Shortly before that, a leper had said to Jesus a word that was hardly less magnificent: “If you want it, you can make me pure”. All you need is this one thing, it’s the only condition and then nothing will stand in the way of it, it will certainly happen. And it happened immediately. And the centurion, too, immediately receives the fulfillment of his expectation, the realization of his faith.
At the same time!

With sobriety, without deluding

But please take note: there are no appearances, no supernatural phenomena in the sky, no earthquake. This total sobriety, almost too discreet, is the trademark of God’s action, for whom the goal is to help, to express his greatness, his love and not to impress. On the other hand, sensational phenomena are often the mark of Satan’s deluding to mask his deception, even his powerlessness.

3. The declaration of verses 10 to 12

Jesus impressed by the love and faith of the centurion

Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s answer: this very strong verb is only used here about faith, the faith of a pagan, while Jesus very often comes up against the unbelief of the Jews. He is impressed by this wonderful combination of true love, humility, insight and trust. That is why he grants at this very hour the desired healing, but he adds this equally strong and solemn explanation: this pagan counts in a practical and absolute way on the power of Jesus and such a faith greatly exceeds that which Jesus is accustomed to find among the Jews, the heirs in title to the kingdom of God.

A glimpse on the future of humanity

This example of such a firm faith leads him to briefly let us have a glimpse on the future of humanity with God, inspired by Isaiah 25:6-10.

Worldwide gathering of the Jews? Not just that!

The Jews remembered that one day God will gather his own from the East and the West. For them this is the classic formula announcing the world gathering of Jews. His own would naturally be the Jews, all of them and only them. They will be gathered with their patriarchs for a wonderful banquet organized by God and reserved for them, while the pagans will be thrown into the darkness outside (v. 12b).

For all peoples, therefore also for the pagans who trust him

Have you noticed where the error is, the falsification of Isaiah’s announcement? This future is by no means reserved for Jews, even if the scene is indeed located on this mountain, on Zion. Isaiah in fact considers all peoples, just like Jesus, who therefore includes the centurion and all those who trust him equally. For the Jewish listeners of this declaration, it is the first shock: the pagans gathered with the Jews and even with the patriarchs and thus defiling this whole assembly by their presence!

A reversal of roles

But there is a second insult, much worse: those who will be thrown out, for whom there will be…”weeping and grinding of teeth”, are …Jews, of those who should have inherited the kingdom, if they had recognized and welcomed the Messiah to put all their trust in him, like this centurion! What a complete reversal of roles to praise a pagan as an authentic believer, capable of impressing the Messiah himself with his faith!

Beware of biased interpretations!

Would it perhaps also happen, as it happens to Jews, in the face of a biblical text, that we automatically and unconsciously link to it an interpretation, certainly common, but not seriously verified and in fact biased by a confessional or cultural prejudice?
Just two examples. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a witness of God an evangelical Christian should not do anything other than proclaim the Gospel to make others want to come closer to the Lord. Any social action was seen as a waste of time inspired by the world. And another example, even more delicate: is it biblical and even in conformity with Paul’s thought that in church a woman’s role is limited to listening and at most to praying aloud?

United with believers from all over the world!

Now imagine the effect that these words of Jesus must have had on the centurion.
First of all, this magnificent praise of his conception of faith: yes, it is Jesus himself who confirms it: a simple word on his part will totally transform a life, when it is received with confidence. Then Jesus opened up an extraordinary perspective for him: he will be united by God with the believers of the whole world and in particular with the patriarchs, these models of faith. To rejoice with all those who believe like him, without any more discrimination. What a welcome from God, compared to the prejudices and general contempt on the part of those who declare themselves God’s people! And finally, to receive at the very moment the total healing of his slave who is more of a friend than a servant to him. And this simply in response to a statement of faith! His faith must have been galvanized as never before.

Today, inflation and devaluation of speech

We live in an environment marked by two equally distressing parallel phenomena. On the one hand, there is the formidable inflation of more or less public speech. Everyone communicates with everyone, but to communicate what and cause what effect? On the other hand, there is an equally rampant devaluation of public speech. When a public character says three sentences, you barely hear the message and you are already wondering why he says that and not something else, what he wants to hide, what he wants to make you forget.

Trusting God

Now we Christians can and must still show God total trust in what he says, it even has absolute authority that deserves the total and natural trust that the centurion granted him.

In conclusion, just a few striking points:

– How do we manage our own declarations and promises, what is their worth in the mind of others?
– The majesty of God does not want to impress the eyes, but to touch the heart with a word perfectly confirmed by deeds. And a word is enough to restore even a desperate situation when it meets with sincere confidence.
– It is a word of the Creator who came down to the humble and excluded of our society. He likes to restore and encourage people who think they are totally disqualified for attention on his part. He also knows how to recognize the most shy faith.
– Are these not warnings to awaken us to reject any classical prejudice and to let us be used by him even in an unexpected way or environment?

J.-J. Streng