After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
The focus of this story is different from that of Luke's earlier miracle accounts. Here the miracle itself is not the focus, since it is mentioned only very briefly at the end. Instead, the emphasis is on the centurion’s attitude.
The centurion shows great sensitivity and courtesy. As a Gentile he did not presume to come to Jesus himself, but sent Jewish elders to speak for him. Later, he showed that he was sensitive to the fact that Jews were forbidden to enter a Gentile house. The centurion’s request shows that Jesus was becoming known to people in surprising places and from different backgrounds. Jesus readily acceded to his request. As for Paul, so for Jesus: there is neither Jew nor Gentile in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
Jesus was “amazed” at him. Matthew’s account of the incident uses the same word (8:10). He praised the “faith” of this Gentile: a thing that must have been even more amazing to his hearers. Today we would not be so surprised; we esteem religious tolerance very highly. This is surely a positive development in itself, but you have to wonder if sometimes it is because we care less about religion. The test of tolerance is whether we can be tolerant about things that matter profoundly to us. This is positive tolerance. There is a kind of neutral tolerance that amounts only to indifference. Then there is intolerance. This can become as passionate as a religion: it can become a kind of perverted religion, as we have every reason to know. We don’t even have to go further afield than our own religion to see signs of it.
We have to reach back to deeper sources of healing. Julian of Norwich (14th century) used a striking phrase in this connection: we ought to hate sin, she said, as God hates it. We have to hate sin in the way the father of the prodigal son hated it, not in the way the older brother hated it (Luke 15). God loves the sinner, even while hating sin. Applying this, we can say: no matter how profoundly we disagree with someone, we should still more profoundly love them.
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