A brutal soldier, trained to kill in a barbaric way, a worshiper of a false god, and a sworn enemy of the Jews has just asked for a miracle for his slave (Luke 7:1-10). You know… just your everyday, vanilla story from the Bible. I'm a sucker for back story. I am the guy who watches a movie and immediately jumps on Amazon.com to find the book for my kindle - even though I know what's going to happen. Weird, I know. A character (especially the minor roles) will grab me and I want to dig into their lives, sit across the table from them, hear their version of events. If this is true for movies, the stories in the Bible just about push me over the edge with their seeming lack of details.
A Roman Commander who loves his slave so much that he loses his mind enough to ask for a traveling Jewish Rabbi to consider healing him? Really? It's like starting a story with a truckload of red flags. I hear the intro to this tale and I'm the kid squirming in my seat with my hand raised. Wait a minute. Who? A centurion? As in… a soldier with hundreds of men under his command, probably has ten to twenty servants, but here he is asking for help for one? I'm confused. How did he even know about Jesus and his ability to do miraculous things? Who is this servant? Why does he care for him so much? No doubt he had already spent a serious amount of time and money and it hadn't worked. He resorts to this? What will the soldiers under his command think of this acquiescence to a very Jewish phenomenon? If anything, we know that most Roman soldiers despised this dumpy little Jewish outpost. Now one of their prominent commanders is "bowing the knee" to a possible miracle worker?
What leads a man to even consider a "miraculous" solution? What happens in the heart to bring someone to a place of hopelessness in their own ability and a smidgen of faith in the impossible? You have to be desperate and a bit out of your mind.
While the details (or lack thereof) of the centurion's motivation and actions cannot be nailed down, his love for his servant appears to be set in stone. This guy really cares about him to go to such lengths and such irrational behavior.
If we leave it there, it's just another good-will story. Way to go, very important Roman soldier dude. You dropped your status and pomp for a moment to care for someone less than you. You can throw it on your resume later when you return to Rome. You will be known for being kind and compassionate to slaves.
But just like any other Jesus story, we can't leave it there. It has a depth and grace to it that causes Jesus to say something any one of us would hope to hear of our own lives.
I've never seen this kind of faith before.
I can picture the looks on the disciples, the crowd, the friends sent by the centurion. A brief moment of stunned silence. A camel with a mouthful of hay, pausing in between chews, turning its head to recognize a holy moment. The Creator of heaven and earth just said something about a man who wasn't even in the room (he sent the elders the first time, his friends the second).
He hadn't sat under the teaching of this rabbi, attended a service, raised his hands in worship, led a small group, gone on a mission trip, had his name put on a brick for giving to the new building. Nothing. At least… nothing that we would usually attribute to "following Jesus".
Yet Jesus seems to think his faith is unlike anything he had found in all of Israel. In fact, it says that he was amazed at his faith. This was the only time Jesus said this about anyone. Of all people, it was a Roman, the very definition of an enemy of Israel.
Now, if you're a good American consumer, you hear someone say that "such and such is the best thing and you haven't ever had anything like it," you immediately start to think about how you can get such a thing. Maybe we can get a one on one with the Centurion and ask him to divulge the steps he took to have such faith. Maybe he can come and speak, write a book, package it, sell it, bless it, etc.
And we would be missing it.
Here's the mystery. Faith is a gift. (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Peter 1:1; Philippians 1:29; Acts 3:16) It all comes from and through Him. As much as we try to give a step by step approach to discipleship (helpful at times), come up with evangelism strategies, plan events, stay committed in our Bible reading, pray at all times (ha)… He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and we can't add to it.
The best part of this story is that the Centurion didn’t (that we know of) ever lay eyes on Jesus (Matthew 8 seems to give a different account, but most scholars agree there is no discrepancy). He sent others in his stead.
Yet, at a certain moment, the door burst open, and his friends, out of breath but beaming with hope, give a nod. He looks across the room and sees his servant and friend sit up in bed with a smile stretched across his face.
And that small amount of faith in his heart went from a flicker to a raging blaze that would change his life forever.
I'm sure of it. I plan on having that sit down with the centurion. Maybe in year 9876 (who will be counting?) of my homecoming in Heaven, we will have that cup of coffee and he will tell me all about it.