So many of us have or will encounter a near universal crisis of faith.
Why is it that God doesn't seem to answer my prayers?
This can be both a feeling of deafening silence, and of many requests that go unfilled. Doesn’t the bible say that with faith of a mustard seed you will move mountains? Yet so many of us continue waiting on that request from 10 years ago or tormented by the loved one that died despite the prayers.
This gospel is a beautiful account of the encounter of man with God and just may be a message of hope to this prayer crisis.
We have a story of a Centurion, a leader of 100 soldiers and supporting units (although the title was sometimes used generically for more senior officers of the Roman legions) who comes to ask Jesus to heal his servant.
The Centurion loves this particular servant so deeply that he risks humiliation by begging publicly for his life. He, a Roman soldier, the occupier in the streets of Caperneaum, comes before a bunch of Jews who at best will tolerate him, and more likely hate him, to beg for help from a traveling rabbi.
This is scandalous.
What could possibly motivate this?
We don't know much about this Centurion. Was he a believer in God, an atheist, or somewhere in between? Did he call God “Jupiter,” or “Mithra,” or the “One God?” Did he even have a name for God?
How many people had he wounded, sent to prison, or killed? What was his upbringing? Good family? Orphan?
We don’t know anything at all about him except that he was a man capable of a deep and utterly selfless act of love and compassion.
Stop talking and ask for the right things
The Centurion does something that we ourselves so rarely do. He has become self-emptying. Or rather he has cast aside the worries of this life and to take a profound risk. The motivation of compassion overwhelms any barrier of social propriety and he comes to Jesus purely for the need of another.
The image of God shines brightly in the Centurion. The Lord, being the perfect image of the Father, looks at this soldier and sees himself.
The deep calls out to the deep and Christ is moved to compassion.
The Centurion shows us that in order to be heard by God we need to be asking for the right things. The Centurion wants not riches or fame, but the welfare of another.
And the Centurion, has done the rare act of turning from the talk track of his life and is focusing on Jesus and his servant. There is nothing but willingness to submit, to encounter, to take whatever is given.
Sometimes we need to stop talking. Most of our prayer life can be a one sided argument. Perhaps, God is waiting for us to finally finish and say “you done?”
But too often, our prayers are twisted ego-fuelled talk tracks. Compassion can be the key that can release us from our inward muddle.
In the life of St. Porphyrios, someone asks, how can I get the gift of healing? And St Porphyrios replies that one has to be willing to take the sickness of another in order to ask God for a miracle. “If you will heal them, I will take their place….”
In this Centurion's actions, we witness a profound faith. A faith demonstrated by a Gentile and not one of God’s chosen people, a recurrent theme of the stories of Jesus.
The Centurion gets who the Lord is. He doesn't put him into a box. He doesn't see the Lord as just a good moral rabbi, or someone who can help with this small area of his life. Instead he bears witness to Christ as the Cosmocrator, as the one who has supreme and divine authority.
Note the Centurion says he is under authority. The Centurion’s authority comes via a Preator from the emperor.
Through his entreaties for his servant, the Centurion is acknowledging that Jesus has power over everything. He knows that if Jesus wills it, healing will come. So all you have to do is speak it – to be Jesus' role as the Word – and it will come to pass. It doesn't matter where Jesus is, just that God can do all things. The Centurion says with the humility of a pure request, that it is up to God to do what we need.
In this request, there is a pure trust. This leads Jesus to proclaim that he hasn't seen faith like this in Israel. You see it's not the belief that God will do an act – the so-called “name and claim” pushed by certain TV preachers – it's not a magic incantation.
Rather it's the belief that God can do this, has the power to do this, “If it is Your will… Thy will be done.”
Take courage and approach
Finally we see humility. As I mentioned earlier, this is a man of considerable status, but one that sees Jesus and knows that he isn’t worthy. He simply asks.
The Centurion is asking without expectation. He accepts that if Jesus is to grant healing, it's not because the Centurion did something or is something. But because God just chooses to act in love. He knows if God will act it’s not because of what or who he is, but because of God’s mercy.
So we have a roadmap of true prayer in this episode of the life of Jesus and the Centurion. We have self emptying love motivated by compassion for others. The Centurion is asking the right thing, grounded in complete faith in God's willingness to do it; but motivated by the compassion to accept that God is in control. God has complete power, and it is up to Him.
In the end we must come to God, broken and knowing there is no reason to receive.
One of the great communion prayers that our church gives us as we approach Christ bears the same words as the humble Centurion: ‘I know, O Lord my God, that I am not worthy that you should enter under the roof of the house of my soul.” But recognizing the Lord and His goodness we say, “but since You in Your love desire to dwell in me I take courage and approach.” Let us then take courage and approach and taste and see that the Lord is good!
May God give us that true heart, and that we may continue to be conformed to His likeness.