In Matthew 8:5-13, we read the staggering account of a senior military officer in the Roman army requesting Jesus miraculously heal his beloved servant. In the middle of talking with this centurion, Jesus pauses and commends the man’s great faith.
Sometimes people use this passage as evidence that Jesus approved of military service. However, as I hope you will soon see, not only is this interpretation incorrect, but it entirely misses the point Jesus was attempting to make. When Jesus commended the centurion’s faith, He was actually teaching two lessons that are foundational to His peacemaking approach.
Lesson #1: Jesus refused to identify any person, group, nation or cause as entirely evil.
In Jesus’ day, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and the Roman occupation were four groups prone to being considered purely wicked by the Jews. Yet here is one of the major shockers found in the Gospels: Jesus intentionally hung out with people from these four despised groups! In fact, Jesus often commended their actions: a prostitute’s incredible sacrifice in pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, a tax collector’s repentant act of generosity, a Samaritan’s compassionate care for a stranger, and this occupying soldier’s incredible faith in Jesus’ ability to heal. All four examples burst the notion that these sinners were purely evil.
To deem people as entirely evil is to dehumanize and demonize them. Once this occurs, it becomes far easier for us to justify the evil we inflict on them. It also tends to result in a belief that the people we have demonized are beyond the reach of God’s transforming power.
Today, some people believe that by attacking Muslim terrorists we will “rid the world of evil” (to quote George W. Bush). However, as Christ-followers we ought to know better. Even “terrorists” are within the reach of God’s transforming power. After all, a converted terrorist named Paul wrote half of our New Testament!
Lesson #2: Jesus refused to identify any person, group, nation or cause as entirely good.
Knowing the correct answer to the question I am about to ask you is a prerequisite to accurately interpreting this encounter between Jesus and the centurion. If you do not know the answer, you will not understand this passage.
To whom did Jesus make the announcement about the centurion’s great faith?
I’ll give you a hint: it was not to the centurion. On the contrary, the passage makes it quite clear that Jesus made this announcement to the crowd of Israelites following after Him. What’s even more shocking is that Jesus not only commended the centurion’s faith (Lesson #1); He went one step further by juxtaposing the centurion’s faith with that of the Israelites (Lesson #2)! Thus, to the crowd of Israelites, Jesus turns and says, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matthew 8:10).
In essence, Jesus’ fellow Israelites would have understood Him to be saying, “You think all Roman military personnel are purely evil because they occupy your land, yet I tell you that I have seen this man place more trust in God’s power and goodness than any of you do.”
Thus, in commending before the Israelites the faith of their enemy, Jesus teaches us that we must guard against deeming ourselves (and those groups allied with us) as always in the right while also refusing to judge our enemies as being the epitome of evil. To say it a different way, Jesus was refuting tribalism (though today we tend to call it nationalism or patriotism). Jesus was overturning the belief that God is always allied with our tribe/group/nation and against all our enemies.
When we consider ourselves to be entirely in the right, we fail to recognize, acknowledge the wrongs we have committed against others. We carry none of the blame for the growing enmity. There are no past actions of ours that need confessed and made right. Thus, when another group does something evil against us, we interpret their atrocious action as the start of a provocation, not their reaction to an ongoing cycle of returning evil for evil.
These are two lessons we urgently need to remember as we strive to cultivate peace in places where longstanding enmity has reigned. And these lessons tend to go hand-in-hand. For you see, it is difficult to demonize an enemy unless we have first declared our actions and motives to be pure and holy. Yet, when we recognize that the line between good and evil divides each of our hearts, we will be far more likely to love both the oppressed and the oppressors. When we acknowledge that we are all sinners yet beautifully created in the image of God, we will be in a better position to love all people.
Before I conclude, let me pause and point out a slight inconsistency in the logic usually applied to this passage. None of us would argue that Jesus approved of prostitution or over-taxation when He commended a prostitutes costly gift or a tax collector’s repentant act of lavish generosity. Yet for some reason, we tend argue the reverse when it comes to Jesus’ encounter with this centurion. Many have used this passage as evidence that Jesus approves of military service. Yet all that can be said for certain from this passage is that Jesus commends the centurion’s faith, not his occupation.
In the end, we’ve discovered that the account of Jesus’ interaction with a Roman centurion should not be used to legitimize Christians using violence. Rather, it teaches us two fundamental principles of Jesus’ approach to peacemaking. Because we refuse to identify one side as entirely evil and the other side (almost always our own) as totally good, we choose to love both the oppressed and the oppressors.
Time For Your Feedback: I’d appreciate hearing from you. Were the lessons I derived from Jesus’ encounter with the Roman centurion helpful for you and applicable to the contexts in which you’re working for peace? Are there ways I could have improved this reflection? Areas of disagreement? Additional lessons you glean from this passage?
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