On Being Worthy
When Jesus completed His foundational teaching on the mount, He went to nearby Capernaum. On the way, He healed a leper, as recorded by Matthew but not by Luke. The main story comes after Jesus’ arrival in Capernaum. Luke 7:1, 2 says,
1 When He had completed all His discourse in the hearing of the people, He went to Capernaum. 2 And a certain centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die.
As we will see, Jesus healed this centurion’s slave after arriving in Capernaum. Luke passes over the leper’s healing, which He did on the way to Capernaum, but it is mentioned in Matt. 8:1-4. Then he says in Matt. 8:5-7,
5 And when He had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, entreating Him, 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering great pain.” 7 And He said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
We can gather from the wording in both gospel accounts that the mountain where Jesus gave His “Sermon on the Mount” was near Capernaum, not near Jerusalem. It was probably one of the foothills of Mount Hermon.
The Roman Centurion
Jesus then finished His teaching, dismissed the crowd, and began walking toward His new ministry center in Capernaum. On the way, He healed the leper, and after arriving in Capernaum, Jesus received a request from a Roman centurion (captain of a hundred soldiers) to come and heal his beloved slave.
Matthew’s account seems to say that the centurion came personally to make this request, but Luke says that his request came through Jewish elders. Luke 7:3-5 says,
3 And when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his servant. 4 And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; 5 for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue.”
There is no real contradiction between Matthew and Luke, because Matthew only tells us that the centurion made this request. Such a request could be made in person or through emissaries, for either way, it was the centurion entreating Jesus. This centurion was apparently well known and well respected for funding the construction of their synagogue. Jesus immediately went with those Jewish elders on His mission to heal the centurion’s slave.
The Second Request
Luke 7:6-8 says,
6 Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; 7 for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me and I say to this one, “Go!” and he goes; and to another, “Come!” and he comes; and to my slave, “Do this!” and he does it.”
So Jesus had only gone a short way from Capernaum when friends of the centurion came with a second message. Jesus was obviously impressed with his faith, and we will comment on this shortly. But first we must consider the humility of the centurion and why this story would be important to Luke himself.
Why did the centurion first send “Jewish elders” to Jesus? It appears from Matthew’s account that his identity as a Roman made him feel very inadequate, since he was not one of the “chosen people.” Hence, he said, “I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You.” Secondly, he was a soldier, the captain of a hundred men who were all seen as the face of Rome, the hated oppressor. Normally, such men were hated, but this centurion was obviously a convert to Judaism and had even used his own funds to build a new synagogue within walking distance of Capernaum.
The Jewish elders “earnestly entreated Him, saying, ‘He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue’.” The centurion felt that he needed Jewish elders to recommend him. But then, while Jesus had gone but a short way, the centurion changed his mind and “sent friends” to Jesus, asking Him to just heal the slave from a distance. He felt unworthy for Jesus to be under his roof.
The Cultural Background
His humility is commendable, of course, and Jesus commented favorably on his faith, as we will see. However, when we look at the cultural context of the story, Luke’s unstated but underlying purpose begins to emerge. Remember that Luke was a Greek doctor, and he understood the Jewish attitude toward non-Jews. In many ways he could identify with the Roman centurion. Converts to Judaism were regularly treated not as equals before God, but as people who were required to serve the Jews.
In other words, the conflict between Judea and Rome was that each nation believed itself to have the right to enslave the other. What was a Roman centurion to do, then, when he converted to Judaism? It is likely that he was attempting to do what was required of him by serving the Jews and by building a synagogue for the people. In this small way he was trying to become “worthy” before God, as the result of Jewish teaching.
The centurion’s hunger for God is thus manifested. Yet whenever he went to the temple, he had to remain in the outer part of the courtyard, while the Jewish men went past the sign forbidding all non-Jews from drawing near to God—on pain of death. No doubt the centurion longed to draw close to God, but he could find no way to get past his genealogy.
Luke understood this, perhaps more than any of the other gospel writers, for he too had never crossed that barrier in the temple. Only the Apostle Paul truly understood him, for no doubt they had discussed this thoroughly throughout their ministry. Luke certainly shared his heart and enlightened the apostle about the tremendous psychological and spiritual damage being done every day at the temple.
The Jewish elders thus recommended the centurion as being worthy of healing because “he loves our nation.” But if Jesus needed a motive, He would have gone with them, not because the centurion loved Jews, but because the centurion had compassion for his slave. That was the quality that impressed Jesus, as shown by His “sermon,” because most master-servant relationships were not based on love, but upon obedience.
The Irony in Luke’s Account
The mindset of the Jewish elders made them think that “he loves our nation” was the best possible reason for Jesus to come with them. In their minds, this was not only the factor that made the centurion worthy of healing, but also his acceptance into the synagogue—as long as he remained in the “gentile” section and “knew his place.” But Luke’s mastery of words provides a subtle twist here, because “nation” is ethnos, which was often used to mean other nations, i.e., “gentiles” (Luke 21:24; Luke 22:25). In fact, Capernaum was part of the northern territory known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:15).
Luke, then, writes with a certain irony that this “gentile” Roman loved the Jewish “gentiles.” Both nations were ethnos. Perhaps it was Luke’s way of reminding Theophilus that even Judea was a “nation” and that God was more concerned with men’s love relationships than with their genealogy or patriotism.
At any rate, the story shows that the centurion had fully imbibed the Jewish teaching that he was fortunate to come within shouting distance of God in the temple and that he would never be able to attain equal standing before God with even the lowest of the Jewish men. After all, how could he argue with the rabbis and scholars who seemed to know every nuance of the law? How could they possibly be wrong?
This belief broke his heart. So when his slave became paralyzed, his humility came into conflict with his love. Love won in the end, but he did not feel worthy of even talking with Jesus. Why would Jesus—a great rabbi who even performed miracles—talk to a Roman who was employed by the most hated government and was in the worst possible line of work, a soldier of Rome? And after asking Jesus to come, he realized, to his horror, that Jesus would be rendered unclean by coming into his house.
Recall that when Jesus was being tried just before His crucifixion, the Jews “did not enter into the Praetorium in order that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (John 18:28). If Jesus had entered the centurion’s house, he would have been considered unclean for a whole week. This would have interrupted His ministry, and He would have missed a Sabbath in the synagogue.
The centurion, therefore, sent his friends to tell Jesus not to come into his house, “but just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:7). He understood Jesus’ spiritual authority, because he himself had authority in the world over soldiers and servants. Just as his own servants would immediately do what he ordered, so also would the paralysis leave his servant at Jesus’ command.
So how did Jesus respond? What was His lesson to the people? Luke 7:9, 10 says,
9 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
In other words, in all of biblical history of Israel, never was such faith ever mentioned. There were many people healed in Israel, but no one had understood spiritual authority like this, where a prophet or healer might speak the command from a distance and expect to be obeyed. They always went to the sick man’s bedside. So the centurion’s faith (as expressed by his words) was unprecedented in all Israel.
But Matthew’s account (with which Luke was no doubt familiar) gives us a more detailed account of Jesus’ account. Matt. 8:10-12 says,
10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 11 And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Luke’s modesty as a Greek seems to have restrained him from making this point to Theophilus, but the message is clear in Matthew’s account. When Jesus spoke of people coming from east and west, he specifically had the Roman centurion in mind as an example of such people of faith. Conversely, “the sons of the kingdom,” as the Jews liked to think of themselves, would be “cast out into the outer darkness.”
One can only imagine what the Jewish elders thought of this lesson. It was clear that Jesus repudiated the common belief that Jewish genealogy was the basis of their covenant relationship with God. Their outward circumcision may have gotten them closer to God in the temple as they passed by the warning sign, but in actual fact, many of these would find themselves cast out of the kingdom of light and “into the outer darkness.”
In the Age to come, when the Kingdom of God grows like the “stone” in Dan. 2:35, this growth will take time. The Kingdom, then, will have boundaries that will restrict its “light” to the nations and territories that proclaim Jesus as their King. Outside of those borders will be “outer darkness” for as long as they remain under the rule of their own fleshly kings. These boundaries will widen as time passes.
Those Jews or Israelites (by genealogy) who do not have faith or show love, as seen by the centurion, are not “worthy” and will lose their citizenship in the Kingdom. This can be reversed, of course, if and when such people repent and swear allegiance to Jesus Christ (Isaiah 45:23).