Commentary on Matthew 8:5-17
Today we read the second of the 10 miracles of Jesus described by Matthew after the Sermon on the Mount. It is a story also found in Luke and John but, strangely enough, not in Mark.
The significant element in this story is the fact that the person asking for help is a centurion, a soldier and presumably not a Jew. Yet he has this great faith in Jesus. It is a sign of the future role of Gentiles in the originally all-Jewish Christian community.
He asks Jesus to cure a servant who has become paralysed. Jesus immediately responds that he will go and cure him. “No, no,” replies the centurion. “I am not worthy that you should come to my house. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” (Words very familiar to us from their paraphrase used in the prayers before sharing in Communion.) And he goes on to say that as an army officer, he just has to give commands and they are carried out on the spot. When it comes to healing, he knows that Jesus can do the same.
Jesus is astonished at the faith of this pagan: “Nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this!” And he foretells that this is a sign of what is going to happen in the future when Gentiles from all over the world will enter the Kingdom while many of Jesus’ own people will be left outside. What is more they will become God’s people sharing glory with the Jewish ancestors: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is a sad theme running through the whole of this gospel: the rejection of Jesus by so many of his own people and their self-chosen exclusion from the Kingdom.
The faith that Jesus expects is not an acceptance of religious doctrines. It is rather an act of total trust and surrender by which people commit themselves to the power of God – in this case, the power of God in Jesus. “Christ asks for this faith especially when he works his miracles, which are not so much acts of mercy as signs attesting his mission and witnessing to the kingdom; hence he cannot work miracles unless he finds the faith without which the miracles lose their true significance.” (Jerusalem Bible, loc. cit. Text references omitted.)
For this reason this faith was not easy to give, especially for many of Jesus’ hearers who could not see the presence of God in Jesus and hence could not commit themselves to him. Even the disciples were slow to believe. We see this especially in Mark’s gospel. But, once present, such a faith can bring about the transformation of a person’s life, as many converts to Christianity can attest.
Turning to the centurion Jesus says, “Go back home; you have believed, so let this be done for you.” The servant was cured at that very moment.
What is clear from this story and from many other healings by Jesus is the crucial element of faith in the one approaching Jesus. It is the only condition necessary – racial origins are irrelevant. Luke will tell us that Jesus was restricted in the help he could give to the people in his home town of Nazareth because they simply did not have faith in him.
Let us pray that we may never lose that gift of faith which has, in the mysterious ways of divine Providence, been given to us. And let us remember that, without that faith, God will be hampered in reaching out his healing love to us.