THE GOSPELS PRESENT A PICTURE of the world in which Christ lived which is not always understood. While they focus on His interaction with the leaders of Israel, the Gospels also show us how many other groups and peoples He encountered. Official Judaism, centered on Jerusalem, was made up of several strains. We hear of the Pharisees (the rabbis, focused on the Torah) and the Sadducees (the priests, centered on temple worship). The Gospels also mention the Samaritans with their reverence for the ancient shrines rather than Jerusalem. And we know of others groups who did not esteem the Jerusalem establishment but retired to the Judean desert to await the expected Messiah. Many feel that John the Forerunner was one of them.
Besides these representatives of mainstream and fringe Judaism, the area was also home to Gentiles. Some were native to the area. Jesus often traveled to the east side of the Jordan, called by Isaiah (and quoted in Matthew 4:15) “the Galilee of the Gentiles.” Visiting the area of Tyre and Sidon Jesus encountered many Gentiles as well. Then, of course there were the colonists who inhabited the cities of the Decapolis, ten Roman and Greek cities in today’s Jordan and Syria, and the Roman presence, based in Caesarea on the Mediterranean which governed the area in the name of Caesar. Some of these Gentiles respected Jewish belief and were known as “God-fearing” although they were not part of the Jewish people.
The centurion in [reference-pericope]Matthew 8:5-13[/reference-pericope] was probably one of these God-fearers, attached to the provincial capital at Capernaum. The corresponding passage in Luke cites the praise of the local Jews that “he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5).
The story of the centurion and his servant reveal two themes important to the Jewish believers for whom the Gospel of Matthew was written. The first theme is the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. Like all Jews, these believers held that the Messianic era would be marked by physical as well as spiritual renewal. In crafting the Gospel the Evangelist intersperses the five Discourses (Jesus’ teachings) with accounts of how Jesus’ presence revitalized people. This would be the proof that He was the Messiah, as we read in His encounter with the disciples of John the Baptist:
“Now when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them’ ” (Matthew 11:2-5).
In other words the messianic signs are evident – the Messiah is at hand.
The second theme would be increasingly important as more Gentiles entered the community of the Church. It is expressed in the words of Jesus concerning the centurion, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! 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 8:10-12). Gentiles would believe and by their faith they would displace the Jews in the people of God.
The Gentile Church in Rome
In some areas, like the eastern end of the Roman Empire and beyond in Persian territory, Jewish believers would remain as the dominant presence in the Church for many years. In other areas, such as in Rome, the opposite would be true. Gentiles came to dominate the Christian community even in St. Paul’s lifetime.
Speaking to these Gentile Christians St Paul uses terms that may surprise us. “For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness” (Romans 6:19). How could St. Paul call the Romans, who gave the world law, philosophy and civil order “slaves of uncleanness”?
For Jews the greatest uncleanness and lawlessness was idolatry, not believing in the one true God. Roman society was based on a religion of many gods and goddesses; for Paul that made it de facto unclean and lawless. And it led to “more uncleanness.” When we recall that devotion to “the protectress of Rome,” the fertility goddess Cymbele, involved intercourse with temple prostitutes we can understand how – at least as far as St Paul was concerned – idolatry begets immorality, making its followers “slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness.” Having been baptized, Roman Christians were now to be “slaves of righteousness” instead.
For St. Paul, righteousness was certainly not to be found in the idolatry of pagan Rome nor in the observances of Rabbinic Judaism. While the Jews considered righteousness a matter of keeping the Law of Moses, St. Paul insisted that righteousness was found only through our relationship with Christ. The bulk of the Epistle to the Romans would elaborate this teaching.
Connecting righteousness to the Messiah did not originate with St. Paul. One of the last of the Hebrew prophecies in the Old Testament, Malachi, spoke of the coming of “the Sun of Righteousness” in words which seem to summarize the entire Gospel. Early Christians saw this as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus and His Forerunner, John the Baptist:
“Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple – even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. … But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings…” (Malachi 3:1, 4:2)
Early Christians soon connected this image of Christ as the Sun of Righteousness to the progress of the Gospel among the Gentiles. The Sun of Righteousness shone His light over the darkness of idolatry and eclipsed it. To this day we proclaim this in the troparion of the Nativity, speaking of the Persian magi, “through it [Christ’s birth] those who worshipped stars were taught by a star to worship You, the Sun of Righteousness.”
And so we hear Christ proclaimed today as the fulfillment of the Messianic hopes of the Jewish people and the One who shines the light of true righteousness among the Gentiles. He is, as we sing so often in the Canticle of Simeon, “Light to the revelation of the Gentiles and the glory of Your people, Israel.”
Before the Light comes the lamp-stand, the reflection of the Sun of Righteousness, the ray which announces His coming for the renewal of all and the salvation of our souls.