As a kid, I could always count on my parents taking the family to Catholic Mass every Sunday. Much to my delight, after Mass ended, I used to walk around my parents and head downstairs to the bookshelf located in the main lobby. Once there, I honed in on a small picture book of the Pontifical Swiss Guards. As I’m sure you are aware, this cohort represents a small de facto military force stationed in Vatican City, who is responsible for protecting the Pope. I would quickly flip through page after page as I waited for my parents to make their way through the post-church social gatherings. Although my eyes had seen the pictures of the Swiss Guards dozens of times, these imprints produced a combined afterglow of aspiration and a labyrinth of additional questions needing answers. What types of men were these? How and why does one join this legion? What or who inspired them to pursue this path…a life of a ‘road less traveled’? Undoubtedly, these were men of the best kind. Nonetheless, as an impressionable young boy, I knew there was something more profound and more significant to admire beyond the distinct Renaissance uniforms and medieval body armor.
I say all this because I have often pondered on the reasons Christ marveled at a centurion he encountered in two chapters from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It may come as a surprise, but the particular point of Christ’s admiration may not be at all what many of us are expecting. To the unfamiliar, one might assume that Christ admired the centurion’s martial skill, his regimental command and control of the most skilled army its time, or his strident voice – one that could likely travel far over the chaos of combat to maneuver a cohort of up to 80 foot-soldiers. Impressive indeed, and yet, the story says nothing of the centurion’s military apparatus or the splendid discipline of the Roman Army. Instead, Christ marveled at the remarkable faith that lies at the foundation of spiritual life in this humble Roman soldier.
Upon further research, many scholars and commentaries are quick to point to the fact that Christ marveled only twice in the New Testament. In both instances, the degrees of man's faith established the distinction between a woeful and blessed wonder. One was an example of unbelief, while the other never diminished his faith in God. We must examine the spiritual work within the heart of the centurion. For in it, one will find a good cause for wonder at the spiritual wisdom that should occupy our highest thoughts, and cause us stare in awe at the masterpiece of divine skill from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What, then, caused Christ to marvel at this centurion?
The Roman Army stationed in Israel was not the sort that we've become accustomed to seeing in contemporary movies, or TV shows. We must cast aside most of the favorable feelings for our citizen-soldiers to understand the context of spiritual grace present in this man. The Roman Army was the sort who earned their wages through maltreatment, brutality, tyranny and ransacking (Mark 15:16-32). For many, obedience to a heavenly prince was replaced by glory for self.
He was not only a believer but also one whose faith surpassed those native to Israel (Matthew 8:10). Although an outsider by nature, the abundant grace offered by God brought this far-off wanderer into the full blessings of the Kingdom of God. This idea likely resonates with those who were brought up separated from the moldings of a particular faith. Perhaps the darkness of his past manifested itself in the dead of night, the state between sleep and wakefulness, and stirred his conscience. Despite the prevailing circumstances, we can only presume that he fell in on the same books of Scripture (Luke 7:4), read them, and discovered that Jesus Christ was what he professed to be – the Son of God and the Savior of men.
Not only did Christ marvel at his belief, but also, he was amazed at the subject of the centurion’s confidence. In this story, the centurion’s servant suffered from palsy – a condition of deep paralysis and involuntary tremors that leave its victim incapacitated and the bystander frightened by a sense of helplessness. With no immediate cure in sight, and the sufferer, a mere servant, most onlookers may have thought it easy to let nature run its course. However, the centurion believed that Christ could heal the servant back to perfect health. Not by a surgeon’s advanced instruments or natural medicine, but by the Word of God (Matthew 8:8). To the everlasting, omnipotent, and omnipresent God who is beyond all time, it only takes a moment to save a soul.
I suppose that many of our sinful cases are of the same symbolic nature of the servant’s physical trial. We believe that our sin is incurable. Eventually, a sense of hopelessness begins to weave through the center of our mind, and its thread wraps around to strangle our hearts. Time and time again, we snip the yarns and unknot the strands, but it becomes twisted, the knots tightened hard as a rock, and a dark curtain begins its slow descent upon our life. But the darkness does not vanquish the light (John 1:5). There is no transgression too black to be washed by the blood of Christ. He cures all cases of spiritual disease.
Lastly, a point of wonder in the centurion’s faith is that he did not ask for a sign. If you scan through the pages of scripture, many great biblical characters looked for strength in a sign when God was about to fulfill a promise. Not the centurion. His heart remained fixed, trusting in the Lord. He only wished that Christ would heal in one word. I doubt he even needed to hear the spoken word. Perhaps he listened to the prayers of the Jews when they sang Psalm 107:20, and he looked to the same powerful word for the reestablishment of his servant’s health.
As with most people Christ encountered in the Gospels, we do not know what happens to them afterward. The same is true of the centurion. I could speculate and say that his faith had an impact on additional soldiers within the Roman Army as evidence from the scriptures in Acts. But I know one thing for sure, and that is that we all possess the mortality gene. When the final curtain draws over the eyes of all of us, we will all meet our Maker. I imagine that a man with faith such as the centurion would cheerfully enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Once standing before the Lord, he would softly kneel at the throne of God. Formerly the blackest sinner, now the brightest saint. And looking down at the ground before him, he would feel a hand gently lift him up, and a voice saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).