[no_toc]IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY the ruins of a Byzantine-era synagogue in Capernaum were identified by a British cartographer. Later exploration showed that this so-called “White Synagogue” was built on the ruins of a first-century synagogue. Could this have been the one build by the centurion?
Capernaum was not a major city. If Roman soldiers were stationed there, enforcing the collection of taxes may have been their chief duty. In the time of Caesar Augustus Roman soldiers were directed to build temples wherever they were stationed. The theory was that supporting the local religion would make their presence more palatable.
Personal piety may have motivated this centurion, however, according to the testimony of the Jewish elders: “he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). The centurion is certainly familiar with Jewish practice; as Jesus nears the house, the man’s friends bring Him this message: “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed” (vv. 6, 7). To enter a non-Jewish home would have rendered Jesus ritually unclean according to Jewish practice.
The centurion’s reluctance has inspired believers for centuries, particularly as they prepare to receive the Eucharist. The second prayer in the Byzantine service of Preparation for Holy Communion, attributed to St John Chrysostom, begins: “O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy or sufficient that you should come under the roof of the house of my soul.” Christ enters each believer in the mystery of the Eucharist just as He was prepared to enter the centurion’s home.
While the centurion may have been thinking about Jewish ritual impurity, the Christian using his expression has something else in mind. It is our brokenness, expressed in our sins and transgressions, which renders us unworthy of union with Christ. We are “held in the bonds of slavery to the world, sick with deadly passions” (St Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 5.83).
It is Christ’s love for mankind which removes this obstacle for each of us. Thus the seventh pre-Communion prayer repeats the sentiment but adds: “Since you in your love for man willed to dwell in me, I take courage and approach. You commanded: I will open wide the doors which you alone created, that you may enter with love as is Your nature.”
The Centurion’s Faith
This centurion may have been like the centurion in Acts 10 whom St Luke calls a God-Fearer: a Gentile who was nearly a convert to Judaism, keeping as much of the Law as possible, but not submitting to circumcision. A God-Fearer might keep the Sabbath and observe the dietary laws and be permitted to participate in Jewish worship to some degree.
In any case, the centurion clearly had faith in the Lord Jesus’ ability to heal his servant. Jesus commends the centurion for his faith, which exceeds that of God’s chosen people: “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” (v.7) Israel had received the Covenant, the Law and the Promised Land; yet this foreigner is extolled above them for the quality of his faith.
In Matthew’s telling of the story the Lord Jesus adds, “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12). The story becomes an indictment of the “sons of the kingdom” in addition to a praise of the centurion’s faith.
What Do We Mean by Faith?
In ordinary speech “faith” is taken to mean “accepting the truth of a certain body of teaching.” We believe in the God described in the Scriptures and expressed in the Creed. We recognize that their teachings are objectively true. This kind of faith is both good and essential for being a Christian. The priest asks the catechumen seeking baptism, “Do you believe in Christ as king and God?” The catechumen responds by reciting the Creed. This is not the only kind of faith, however. Accepting the truth of God does not make someone a God-Fearer. “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19)
There are deeper levels of faith frequently described in Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers. In the Epistle of St James quoted above, the Apostle teaches the need for what has been called “acted-on faith.” A person’s faith must result in works. Thus, if we believe in God, we must worship Him. If we believe that Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church, we must live our Christian life in it. If we believe that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must prove it by the way we act.
There is another level of faith which St Paul teaches is a specific gift of the Holy Spirit not given to everyone in the Church; rather it is given to specific persons for the sake of everyone. “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit… But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit…” (1 Corithians 12:4-9). On this level “faith” is a particular gift over and above the believing and “acted-on” faith proper to all believers.
One level of this deeper faith has been called “confident faith.” This is the assurance deep within a person that “… the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps His covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9). It is the confidence that He is compassionate and merciful, “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
It is this certainty that God ever loves us which enables the Christian to say to the Father with a full and trusting heart, “Thy will be done.”
An even more intense form of faith has been called “expectant faith,” the confidence that God will act in a specific situation. This is the faith of the centurion – a faith which the Lord described in another context, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him’” (Mark 11:22-23). Expectant faith is the hope and simple innocence that every child knows at some point in its life.
This level of faith is often tied to the gift of knowledge, where God’s will has been revealed to the believer. The Russian Saint John Maximovich, a man of continual prayer, was called to give Communion to a dying man in a Shanghai hospital. On his arrival he spotted a gregarious young man in his twenties playing a harmonica, who was to be discharged the next day. St John said to him, “I want to give you Communion right now.” The young man immediately confessed his sins and received Communion. The saint’s companion asked why he did not go to the dying man, but prayed with this obviously healthy young man instead. The saint answered: “He will die tonight, and the other, who is seriously ill, will live many years.” And so it happened.