Amen I say unto you, I have not found so great faith in Israel
Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew continues the theme of these Sundays after Epiphany, the showing forth or manifestation of the nature of the Saviour. Last Sunday we heard how the changing of water into wine revealed the glory of Christ. Today we hear two examples of Jesus’ healing miracles. The first is that of the cleansing of the leper who had faith that Jesus could make him clean. Since lepers were social outcasts whom people sought to avoid, Jesus is here acting out his mission to proclaim in word and work the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God in his own person and ministry to the outcasts of Israel. When he entered into Capernaum a centurion came to him saying that his servant lay at home sick of the palsy and grievously tormented. When Jesus said that he would come and heal him the centurion replied with a great confession of faith, “Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word and my servant shall be healed.” He himself was a man subject to authority with soldiers under him who would say to this: “Go, and he goeth; and to another: Come, and he cometh; and to my servant: Do this, and he doeth it.” Jesus said that he had not seen such great faith in Israel. He told the centurion that as he has believed so it would be done to him. The servant was healed at the same hour.
What is the meaning of the incident? The main significance lies in the fact that the centurion was a Gentile. Since Jesus’ ministry was primarily directed to the gathering of the people of Israel, especially social outcasts such as the leper in today’s Gospel, he rarely encountered Gentiles. However, there were some Gentiles who were drawn towards the faith of Israel and attended synagogues but did not take it upon themselves to become circumcised Jews. The centurion in today’s Gospel was clearly one such. In St. Luke’s version of the story it is said that he was a man who had loved the Jewish nation and built a synagogue for people to worship in (Luke 7). Despite this, he was clearly a Gentile and not a Jew. Precisely because he knew that the Jews tried to keep separate from the corruption of the pagan world around them, he said that he, a Gentile, was not worthy to have a Jew come under his roof. He believed that it was only necessary for Jesus to say the word and his servant would be healed. He used the argument that he himself was responsible to his commanding officer, and he in turn to the local ruler, and he in turn is subject to Caesar. Since he was loyally obedient to his superiors he can issue orders which have behind them the ultimate authority of the emperor himself. He recognises that the authority which Jesus is expected to exert is subject to the same conditions. Jesus clearly endorsed his argument because he saw that the centurion clearly recognised that the authority that he exercises is that of God precisely because, as the only begotten Son of the Father, he alone is truly obedient to him. As St. John’s Gospel put it in another context, Jesus could do nothing on his own authority, but in all he said he had been taught by his Father. He who sent him is with him, for he always does what is acceptable to him. The word people hear is not his own, but that of the Father who sent him (John 8). It was this that led Jesus to remark that he had not found such great faith in Israel. A sympathetic outsider to the faith of Israel had grasped the secret of Jesus’ remarkable authority.
It is important to emphasise that the whole point of God’s promise to Abraham, the founding father of Israel, was that in his seed all the nations of the world would be blessed. The promises were never intended for the Jewish nation alone, but for the whole world. The redemption of Israel would be the redemption of the whole world. Hence, when the prophets looked forward to the time when God’s kingdom would finally come on earth as it is in heaven, they pictured the nations of the world renouncing their idols and coming to worship the God of Israel in Jerusalem.
The whole purpose of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in his person and ministry should be understood within this context. His primary purpose was the gathering of Israel, but beyond that he looked forward to a time when the pagan nations of the world would renounce their idols and come from east and west and north and south to share in the banquet of the messianic age with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If his own largely did not receive him, many among the nations of the heathen would come to renounce their idols and worship the God of Israel. This is anticipated by the faith of the centurion, whose faith was greater than Jesus had found in Israel.
Today we are increasingly conscious of the diversity of the religions of the world. It is difficult to find the right balance between fidelity to our own faith and a recognition of the genuine insights of other traditions. It is easy to retreat into either an exclusivism that denies any knowledge of God in other traditions, or a syncretism that does not do justice to the genuine differences and often incompatibilities between differing religious claim. Jesus encounter with the centurion points the way to avoiding the false antithesis that we are so easily tempted to fall into. He recognised that the centurion, who was not of the faith of Israel and was no more than a sympathetic outsider, had shown a greater faith than he had found in Israel. This points to the fact that we can sometimes find evidence of greater faith than our own outside our tradition. But Jesus does not use this as a reason for undervaluing the truth claim of our own tradition, but rather as a challenge to us to be more faithful to it. The God who the centurion recognised at work in Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom in his own person and ministry is the God of Israel, not that of the pagan pantheon. Since God is not only the God of Israel but that of the whole world, for he is the maker of all things and judge of all men, the redemption of Israel must also mean the redemption of the whole world, symbolised by the nations coming to renounce their idols to worship the God of Israel. The faith of the Gentile centurion anticipates the future faith of those who in ages to come would be baptised from every tribe, nation and tongue. The true light that lighteth every man had not left himself without witness, but the Word had now become flesh and dwelt among us and had revealed his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. St. Augustine later remarked that it was this conviction that the Word was made flesh that he had not found in the books of the Platonists or other philosophers, whatever valuable insights into truth they may have contained.
Hence, the truth lies neither in an exclusivism that denies any knowledge of God outside our own tradition, nor a syncretism that artificially seeks to harmonise genuine incompatibilities. It is rather to see the genuine insights that others outside our tradition may have as an incentive to be more faithful to our own. The faith of the Gentile centurion was a rebuke to the lack of faith that Jesus found in Israel and so in our own day the faith of others is often a standing rebuke to our own lack of faith. But we must never lose sight of the fundamental truth of our faith that distinguishes it from all other religions, that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and thus revealed his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.