Now the first of these stories is the one that we read about from the eighth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. This is the first of the real narrative chapters, because if you know Matthew’s Gospel you know that in the chapters immediately proceeding this, chapters five, six, and seven, we have what we call the Sermon on the Mount. The verses immediately preceding the start of chapter five tell us that Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues and healing every disease and sickness among the people. Now those are two things we’re told he did. He went about teaching, and he went about healing. In chapters five, six, and seven we have in a summary way what his teaching was. Beginning in chapter eight, which is the chapter with which we start, we have an example of the healing. Chapters eight and nine contain a number of healings, and they’re arranged in a very stylized way, groups of three, with things interspersed, and undoubtedly that is meant to be representational of all Jesus was doing.
Now this first story has to do with a Roman centurion, and since we’re talking about encounters, it’s the encounter of this man with Jesus Christ. We want to start by seeing what kind of a man he was. Well, first of all, we need to give attention to his calling. He was a soldier. That’s what a centurion was. The Roman army was composed of legions, and each legion had six thousand men when it was at full strength. A legion was composed of what were called centuries, which was a group of one hundred men. So there were sixty of these groups in one legion. Centurions were more or less like our sergeants. They were the backbone of the army. They are the ones who trained, lived with, and fought with the troops. Usually in military encounters the officers go to the rear when the fighting starts because you don’t want to lose the officers. But the centurions would be right there with their troops on the frontline. They held the army together, even to the extent, when the empire was decaying, of resisting the onrush of barbarism for so many years.
It is interesting that when you study the centurions mentioned in the Bible you notice that they are invariably presented in a good light. You have to remember that they were officers in an occupying army. They were the ones who directed the foot soldiers and what they had to do. So the centurions were responsible for every bad thing the soldiers did in the country they occupied.
Yet when we read the New Testament we find good things being said about the centurions from the beginning to the end. There was a centurion present at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in charge of that small group of soldiers that was responsible for the crucifixion itself. He was the one who, when he saw the phenomena associated with the death of our Lord, said, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” He had amazing spiritual perception. Centurions emerge later in the story. Peter went to a centurion with the first announcement of the gospel to the Gentiles. Centurions helped the Apostle Paul. The centurion that was in charge of him on the trip to Rome when the ship was wrecked was a man of unusual sensitivity and kindness, certainly towards Paul and as a result of that to the other prisoners as well. So everywhere we go in the Bible we find good things said about these men. Soldiers, yes. Soldiers of an occupying army, yes. But nevertheless people about whom a great deal of positive things are said.
The second thing we need to notice about this man is his kindness. The reason I say that is because he was so concerned with his servant. Luke gives a parallel account of this in the seventh chapter, and there this man’s love of his servant and compassion for him emerges even more strongly than it does in Matthew’s Gospel. That’s because in Matthew’s Gospel the emphasis is upon Christ’s authority, and in Luke the emphasis is upon compassion, both from Jesus for those who are hurting and from this centurion for his servant.
When we read in v. 6, “My servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering,” we have to realize that in the context of the culture of the day that wasn’t just what we would call a mere servant, that is, somebody who was hired, but, rather, it was a slave. This is noteworthy because in antiquity nobody thought very much of slaves at all. What happened to slaves really, for the most part, didn’t count. Even the influential men of the ancient world thought that. Aristotle, one of the greatest minds, perhaps, in history, said on one occasion, “There can indeed be no friendship nor justice towards inanimate things, indeed not even toward a horse or an ox nor yet toward a slave as a slave.” The master and slave have nothing in common. A slave is a living tool just as a tool is an inanimate slave. That was the wisdom of the ancient world.
Barrow, the Roman writer on agriculture, divides the instruments of agriculture into three classes—the articulate, the inarticulate, and the mute. The articulate comprises the slaves because they could speak. The inarticulate were the cattle that pulled the plows. The mute was the category given to the vehicles of farming itself. According to Barrow the only thing that distinguished the slave from the ox is that the slave at least could talk and the ox couldn’t. Now that’s the way they thought of slaves. And yet here is this centurion, a soldier, who you would expect perhaps to be brusque and rough and insensitive actually showing a great deal of kindness to this servant who was in great suffering.