Remember the centurion at Capernaum, the one who wows Jesus with his ‘woke’ faith?
If so, I want to take a brief minute to talk about him.
‘Cause truth is: While most read this story as faith leading to healing, we often overlook the context behind the dialogue. For instance, what led to the centurion feeling unworthy? Did he actually meet Jesus1? And what about the servant/centurion relationship? Is their bond in light of the social scene a big deal? Or is there a bigger reason Matthew and Luke included this account in their Gospels?
To be fair, we could be here all day unraveling these mysteries; for now, let’s focus our discussion on why the centurion built the Jewish synagogue and why it’s significant for marketplace leaders today.
First, let’s dig in starting with Luke 7:1-10 (ESV)…
“After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying 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 say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too 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 servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.”
There are several directions we can go from here, but to me, it’s hard to ignore the overarching contrast between Jewish faith and the Roman world. Like the Hebrews and Egyptians, the Jews and Romans were oil and water linked by oppression, an expiring dictatorship, and a deliverer in waiting; however, they were also similar in demographic disparity and the need for legislation. Perhaps this is why Herod Antipas assigned centurions as royal troops exempt from army duty – to balance the frontline action with local jurisdiction.
Either way, centurions were widely regarded as the real professionals of the Roman army. As Helen Bond states in Bible Odyssey...
“Most owed their position not to family connections but to their military prowess. Besides a level of command on the battlefield, they engaged in a wide range of other activities: general policing (see Acts 27:1-3, Acts 27:43), customs work, and the supervision of capital penalties (Mark 15:39). The troops of Antipas seem to have been garrisoned within towns. Although centurions are presented positively in the New Testament, contemporary scholarship makes it clear that most were disliked by ordinary folk, who regarded them as cruel, violent, and self-serving.”
However, this was not the case with the centurion at Capernaum. As v. 4-5 confirm, the centurion not only oversaw the construction of the Jewish synagogue but served as a benefactor to the community at large. This seemingly small detail carries radical significance as it proves the centurion’s goodwill was rooted in empathy and unity as well as diligence.
V. 4-5 in the Amplified drives this home…
When they reached Jesus, they pleaded with Him earnestly [to come], saying, “He is worthy for You to do this for him, because he loves our nation and he built us our synagogue [at his own expense].”
A couple of things stand out here:
- Note how ‘loves our nation‘ precedes ‘built us our synagogue‘. Based on this order alone, one can assume the centurion’s love was not only contagious before it was constructive but inspired the elders to represent him (v. 3).
- Note how the centurion personally funded this operation! This tells me the synagogue was not only a social sacrifice but a financial and likely physical one as well. No wonder the elders pleaded earnestly with Jesus given the centurion was actively entering into their suffering.
- While off-script, it’s probable Jesus carried this example into Nain (v. 11) as news of His miracles spread through all of Judea.
The centurion template is a fascinating one to discuss. Whether you analyze it through an exegetical or historical lens, the story reminds us what the power of breaking walls through selfless service can do.
Consider this excerpt from Jon Bloom, Executive Director of Desiring God:
“The centurion is a reminder to us that ‘man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7). I think we will be surprised someday when Jesus doles out rewards. Most of the great ones among us will probably have lived in obscurity. Jesus is not as impressed with titles, degrees, and achievements as we are. He is impressed with those who really do humbly believe him. [As Billy Graham once said], ‘God will not reward fruitfulness, he will reward faithfulness.’ The centurion was faith-full. I want to be like him when I grow up.”
As to what we can glean as vocations, starting with the centurion’s rapport with the Jews makes sense. After all, the centurion could have easily constructed a building detached from relational foundation. But as we see, the centurion cared far more about people finding freedom than notoriety and quotas. To him, excellence was not a metric to be measured, but a sacrifice to be invested. Granted, his position offered security, but his heart could not help but share it with those less fortunate.
And it’s here, I submit, we take inventory. Like the centurion, we may struggle to champion the underdog as those in authority. We may wonder if our tasks are being effective or if our bandwidths are hindering our influence; however, as long as we lay down our lives for the sake of another, as long we seek to serve through benevolence and compassion, we will make the difference we crave. For God did not create us to ‘get by’, but to ‘let die’ the reservations and preservations compromising our generosity. Accordingly, we never have to fear the extent of our giving or the bounds of our effort since the Lord will continuously provide outlets for both.
As for our colleagues, no question there will be times of disagreement when organization feels like a lame duck sitting in a sea of chaos. In those moments you feel overwhelmed by what you can’t control, dare to ask God for what you need with a centurion’s heart:
“Lord, I know by myself I’m not worthy. I don’t ask these things out of entitlement or false expectancy. Rather, I know, as one set under and in authority, you have given me all I need for goodness and godliness at my job. I have the mind of Christ; however, this doesn’t mean I lack weakness. Though you’ve wired me with skill and creativity, I’m not immune to your healing touch… your desire to restore my inner being. Honestly, there’s so much I don’t know or understand. Yet, I know as long as I align to your will, you WILL come through. Though my faith may suffer, I know as long as I say the word, you will be there…and if you say the word, it will be done. With this as my forefront, I make these requests known to you so that your glory be known as faith expresses itself through love. To you and in you I commit the fruit of my labor and the spirit behind it. Amen.”