In the Roman Empire slaves did not matter. “Master and slave have nothing in common; a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.” A slave was no better than a thing. On the other hand, centurions were high class. They were the finest men in the Roman army.Q1 We will consider the faith of an extraordinary centurion who loved his slave so much that he was prepared to lose his reputation among the Jews.

“I Have Not Found So Great Faith… in Israel”

In Capernaum this Roman centurion came to Jesus to ask him to heal his servant of an agonizing or painful paralysis.Q2 Or did he? Matthew writesQ3 that he came to Jesus and entreated him. However, Luke makes it clear that two lots of messengers came on his behalf.4 Luke informs us that the centurion did not consider himself worthy to even come to Jesus (7:7). Yet his first messengers, the Judaistic elders of the Jews, said that, because of what he had done, he was worthy and begged Jesus to come and help him. Presumably the Centurion was advised that Jesus was on his way to his house. Mortified, he immediately sent more messengers to Jesus, this time his friends, with a message of concern—for Jesus!5 He asked Jesus not to trouble himself, “for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof” (Luke 7:6). “For I also am a man set under authority”, he said, adding that whatever he commanded was done. Jesus marvelled at this statement of faith. He was astonished, and the Greek word is used of Jesus on only one other occasion— when he marvelled at the unbelief of his own people in Nazareth (Mark 6:6). What an irony! Why was this confession so marvellous? Because a Gentile, himself subject to Caesar, was acknowledging that the God of Israel, Jesus’ superior, existed and that God’s words as spoken by Jesus were effectual. “He spake and it was done.” The centurion believed therefore that Jesus only had to speak and the slave would be healed. And he was right.

But what is the point of this incident? Luke says that Jesus “turned him about” and said to those following him, “I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel”.Q4 The centurion was the prototype of Gentiles accepted into “Israel’s Kingdom”. Now these Jews would never have thought it possible that any Gentile would sit down at the Messianic banquet. But Jesus revealed that, in the Kingdom, there will be some awful surprises— Gentiles eating with Abraham’s family and the privileged children of Israel locked out, clearly because of their faithlessness. Truly, the tables will be turned. Jesus taught that the only aristocracy in the Kingdom of God will be the aristocracy of faith. Assembled at the table will be individuals “out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation”, all the children of faith and called out of the Gentiles to be a people for the Name (Acts 15:14).

Reflections on Faith and Worthiness

The final commendation to the centurion is a guide for us: “as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee” (Matt 8:13). God will reward us with our belief. Let not the Master have to say to us what he said to his own disciples, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25). We are reassured by this incident that though Christ is physically absent, his power annihilates distance and is ready to operate on our behalf. We can receive benefit from God even though we cannot personally see Him. Do we consider God’s words sufficient for our own salvation (cp John 20:29)? And what of our own worthiness? Only when we sincerely register our real unworthiness can God declare His verdict of ‘worthy’ on us. Furthermore, we cannot make ourselves worthy by our effort to do things, even if as grand as building a synagogue for the Jews at our own expense. Paul counsels every man “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Romans 12:3).

“O Woman, Great is Thy Faith”

Recently rejected by his own (John 6:60,66), and in conflict with the Jewish leaders over defilement—“what comes out of his mouth… that defiles a man”—Jesus strategically withdrew into the vicinity of Tyre and SidonQ5 (Matt 15:21). Mark’s portrayal implies that, in this, Jesus enacted the spirit of Paul’s words based on Isaiah 49:6,“lo, we turn to the Gentiles”. This seeing of the great light of Nazareth by one walking in the region of darkness (Isa 9:1,2) was a forerunner of the day when the Gentiles shall seek Christ and “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”. The immediate sequel to this sole recorded incident in Jesus’ foray towards Tyre and Sidon was the feeding of the 4,000 quasi-Gentiles in Decapolis. This significant miracle also highlighted Christ’s work to save for ever “whosoever believeth in him” through the operation of his word.

Mark’s record hints that it was as if Jesus deliberately set about to find an ‘Elijah’s woman of Zarephath’, yet another of the four Gospels’ ‘defiled’ Gentiles6, to have her demonstrate to his disciples that also out of the mouth “confession is made unto salvation” when faith is active.

Jesus was looking for rest. But the nature of Christ was, and is, that he could not be hid. Unexpectedly (or was it?) the mother of a little girl smitten with “a devil”, possibly epilepsy, heard of Jesus, and came from the region of Tyre and Sidon to the house in which Jesus was hiding. She began to cry out to Jesus again and again, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil” (Matthew only). Can we see the headline now—“Canaanite woman, speaking Greek in a Roman occupied city, pleads for mercy from the Messiah of Israel”? What right had a Gentile to claim mercy from the Son of David? Jesus’ loud silence was no doubt intended to instruct her that his sonship of David conferred no privileges on her.

Three times the response of Jesus was to severely challenge and develop the woman’s faith: first by a loud silence; second, by saying that his mission was to Israel, not Gentiles; third, by saying that the Jews must eat first.Q6 Matthew highlights this with a threefold, “But he answered… ”.

Whose faith was being tested? His disciples’? or hers? or both? Both. The disciples failed their test: they reacted by telling Christ to send her away because she was bothering them. How prejudice adopts legitimate disguises! In reality, the earlier lesson of defilement had not begun to register.

Jesus did nevertheless have to make something plain to all: “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). Why did he say this when he taught that “other sheep I have which are not of this fold” (John 10:16)? Like the woman of Samaria, this Syrophoenician woman needed to fully understand her need to make a relationship with the hope of Israel. The sheepfold is an Israelitish one. Realising her position she therefore immediately fell at his feet and appealed again to Jesus, “Lord, help me”.

But faith must be purified and so Jesus answered and said that it was not right to take the children’s bread and to cast it to the ‘puppies’ (not the scavenging street dogs).7 Mark adds, “Let the children [the Chosen People] first be filled”, thus hinting that in due time the benefits of the Gospel would be extended to the Gentiles en masse, for where there is a first there may be a second.

The woman agreed that Israelites had first priority and she humbly acknowledged her race’s position. She persisted, and because Jesus loved the faith that spurred her response, he sent her away to a child restored, healed from a distance. What a commendation she received: “O woman, great is thy faith”.

After a series of three ‘No’s’, faith seized its opportunity and was rewarded with ‘Yes’. “Enlightened faith had at last called forth the responsive power of Jesus.” As the centurion had seen the Lord operating under irresistible authority from his Father, so, it seems, the woman saw him possessed of infinite abundance of spiritual food. Just the crumbs from his table would suffice. This was true ‘mega’ faith (Greek)!

Some Personal Reflections from Two Faithful Gentiles

Both incidents teach us that we have a ‘duty of prayer’ to others: our dependants, helpless little ones, our brothers and sisters, others in general. And in the discharge of this duty we will find our lips uttering the same moving plea as the woman to the universal helper, “Lord, help me”. Should we reserve this cry only for times of desperation and helplessness—or rather, pour out this plea daily? Do we really believe that the prayer of faith shall save the sick (James 5:15)? The woman’s example of perseverance in prayer was outstanding—and encouraging. We are taught to persevere in our own prayers that our faith may be crowned with a more complete reward. Do we really believe Jesus—keep on asking and it shall be given you?

By humble faith and not by ritualistic works of the law the Roman Centurion and the “woman of Canaan” found acceptance. Whatever description we read of them, they were not natural children of Abraham—but spiritually they were. Whatever our background, God can work with us as long as there is faith and humility. Our God will assess us on the same basis as they were—internal purity, not external cleanliness. Are we therefore as careful to transform our minds “with the washing of water by the word”, as we traditionally are to tell our children to wash their hands before meals? If so, we may be privileged to sit down with a centurion and a Syrophoenician woman at Abraham’s table and share fellowship with all whose humble faith was victorious in overcoming the world. The exhortation? “Have faith in God.”

Footnotes

  1. Though not called a bondslave (Gr doulos), the Centurion’s servant was a ‘boy-servant’ (Gr pais) and therefore would have had the status of a slave.
  2. This is a common scriptural way: the person responsible for the action is said to have performed it. For example, compare Mathew 20:20 with Mark 10:35; also, the centurion of Matthew 8 is said to have built a synagogue for the Jews, but obviously he did not build it with his own bare hands.
  3. The record infers that the centurion may have come out to meet Jesus, when he saw how near he was to the house.
  4. It is an interesting exercise to tally up the number of Gentiles specifically mentioned in the four Gospels and to note the number commended for their faith.
  5. This is a reference to the fragments of bread on which the guests wiped their hands and flung them to the pet dogs in the dining room. How amazing a statement it was because the children themselves, having eaten of the loaves and fishes, had so recently refused to eat the living bread (John 6).
  6. A Life of Jesus (Bro Melva Purkis),
  7. Her example of perseverance in prayer is one of the best illustrations of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:1–8 and Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 6:18,19 (weymouth, pray with “unwearied persistence and entreaty on behalf of all God’s people”).