Much to learn from Centurion's amazing faith

The kind of deep faith shown by the Centurion in the Gospels, and often by new Christians, can sometimes be a struggle for mature Christians. But we are still invited to amaze, even shock, Jesus with our faith, writes Anthea McCall.

By Anthea McCall

Sometimes people say things that surprise you. Children often surprise you with their wise observations of everyday life – like Annie, age eight, who said “If you want a kitten, start out by asking for a horse.”

Sometimes children stun adults by showing spiritual insight far beyond their years. Likewise, new Christians can express spiritual truths which mature followers don’t always grasp.

What could possibly amaze Jesus? Is it possible to do something that would momentarily disorient him?

You would think not. But there is. At the end of Luke 7: 1-10 it says: “When Jesus heard this he was amazed, and he turned to the crowds and said ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’”

What is it about this man and his faith that is amazing? There is much to learn here.

Powerlessness not power

The first surprise is that this man is a Gentile, so he is an outsider to the people of God. He is also an officer of the Roman army occupying Israel. In Capernaum, he would have been a big fish. And he was used to being in control.

But now he finds himself powerless. He has a servant who was precious to him – and close to death. No doubt, the Centurion had tried everything - the doctors had come and gone, but there’s nothing that can be done.

But then the Centurion hears that Jesus is in town. Now he must have heard of Jesus before. Luke has recorded the stir that was caused by Jesus – his preaching, his healing, his eating with sinners, his teaching about forgiveness even of enemies, and finally the call to build one’s life on his words.

And the Centurion knows this Jesus is the one he needs. So often in life it is when we are out of our depth that we make the most progress in faith.

Mercy not merit

Then the passage highlights his humble approach to Jesus. The centurion sends a delegation of Jewish leaders to ask Jesus to come to him. But when they get to Jesus they say, “This man deserves to have you do this because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” They plead his merit as a benefactor, and this they feel, places Jesus under some sort of obligation to him. Graciously Jesus doesn’t make any comment, but goes with them.

Yet before Jesus gets to the house, a different delegation arrives with a message from the centurion, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.”

The centurion’s speech is very different. He pleads his unworthiness before Jesus.

There we see the two different ways we can approach God – one on the basis of merit, the other pleading for mercy.

In most areas of life we operate by merit. If we want a job we plead our merits, for example. And when it comes to faith we can operate out of a merit mentality.

But the humble person knows they are undeserving. God doesn’t look at the outside, rather the inside. We know he sees right into our hearts. None of us can go to God and plead on the basis of merit.

It can sound demeaning to say “I am not worthy”. However this is not about having a low self-image, rather a true understanding of oneself in the light of God’s holiness, love and mercy. This centurion instinctively understands this truth about himself. So instead of making demands of Jesus because of his own worth, he simply comes with empty hands.

Unquestioning authority

Thirdly, the centurion places unquestioning dependence on Jesus’ authority. He understands something about Jesus. He knows that Jesus only needs to say the word and his servant will be healed. He knows from his own experience as a Roman officer that if he gives a command, those under him obey immediately, because his words have the backing of Rome. So just as he has power in his earthly sphere of influence, Jesus has power over matters of sickness and death. This is the power of Jesus’ authoritative word. It has all the backing of God behind it. Jesus doesn’t even have to be present to perform the miracle. He just says the word and it happens.

Jesus is genuinely taken aback by this man’s response. Jesus’ challenging punchline is: “I haven’t found this sort of faith even in Israel”. The people of God had been taught and trained by God for thousands of years so that they could be called the household of faith. Yet none of them had got it right about faith in the Son of God like this centurion.

The challenge before Christians

Christians, the new covenant people of God, are called to have faith like this centurion. We can delight Jesus by recognising our own powerlessness in the face of our problems, humbly approaching our Lord, and believing that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth.

Such faith can be a struggle for us. In fact sometimes it’s the outsiders, or the new Christians, who have more faith than those of us who have been following Jesus for many years.

Why is that?

Firstly, rather than humble dependence, our faith might fall into a merit mentality. In our prayers we might see ourselves or others as worthy recipients. This trap was made evident recently when a friend said to me “You’ve done so much for the church, God owes you one.” As if my own “goodness” earns God’s response to my problem. When we start calculating like that, we end up approaching God out of a warped view of ourselves and a warped view of God based on merit, not mercy.

Secondly, our faith might doubt Jesus’ authority. The faith of Luke 7 is uncomplicated. It believes the evidence about Jesus and that nothing is outside his authority. Yet, how much of our faith is “Lord, if you could just pretty please, do this for me?, or “I don’t know if this prayer is too big to ask, Jesus, but …”.

We can be sceptical of a straightforward faith which prays bold prayers. And as Anglicans, we might be afraid of a “name it and claim it” religion which reduces faith to “God said it. I believe it. Just ask it. And God will do it.”

Or thirdly, perhaps we have become cynical. We have prayed for healings, and yet don’t see the answers. We become reluctant to ask such prayers, or at least, lower our expectations. This is a genuine struggle that every Christian faces. Certainly we live in the “in between times” between Jesus’ first and second coming. We feel the tension between the arrival of the kingdom of God in Jesus, yet not fully being face to face with him in the place where all hardship, death and disease will be banished. We believe Jesus has all power and authority, yet we still live in a fallen world.

Yet in the face of these struggles and temptations, we are still invited to shock Jesus by our faith. This passage urges us to imitate the amazing faith of the Centurion, not always knowing (or seeing) how God will answer our prayers.

The Revd Anthea McCall is Acting Dean of the Anglican Institute and lecturer in Bible and Languages at Ridley College.