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§ 160. Healing of the Heathen Centurion’s Slave at Capernaum.417417 Matt., viii., 5; Luke, vii., 2. The chronological agreement of the accounts, derived from separate sources, is proof of their veracity. We follow Luke’s, as the more original.—The Deputation of Elders.—Faith of the Centurion.
As soon as Christ arrived at Capernaum, his aid was sought in behalf of another sufferer. The elders of the synagogue came to him with a petition in the name of a centurion. He was a heathen; but, like many other heathens of that age, unsatisfied with the old and languishing popular religion, and impressed, by the moral and religious spirit of the Jewish Theism, he has been led to believe in JEHOVAH as the Almighty. Whether a proselyte of the gate418418 The relation in which he appears to stand to Judaism and the Jews would make it probable that he was a proselyte of the gate. But, on the other hand, if he had been, the Jewish elders would probably have mentioned it in their recommendation of him; he would have had the usual designation, σεβόμενος, φοβούμενος τὸν Θεὸν.. or not, he had proved his faith by building a Jewish synagogue at his own expense.
His love and care for a faithful slave419419 The word used in Matthew is, παῖς, נַעַר; which may, indeed, mean slave, but seems to be intended by him for “son,” as he uses the article throughout the narrative (ὁ παῖς). This, however, may be explained on the ground that either the centurion had but one slave, or that he valued this one particularly. If “son” were intended, it might be accounted for from the ambiguity of the word both in Hebrew and Greek; the high degree of love which the centurion displayed, also, was more likely to be felt for a son than a slave, and this may have led to the use of the word. shows how his piety had influenced his character. During Christ’s absence this slave became severely ill; and just when he was ready to die, the centurion heard, to his great joy, of the Saviour’s return. Placing his only hopes in Him, he hastened to ask his assistance. But he had been accustomed to look upon the Jews alone as consecrated to the worship of the Most High; and Christ yet appeared to belong only to that people. He did not venture, therefore, as a heathen, to apply to him directly, but sought the mediation of the elders, whom he had laid under obligation.420420 Luke’s account, on its face, shows that it was taken from life; but Strauss (with whom De Wette agrees) thinks it bears the marks of a later hand, working over Matthew’s purer and more original statement. According to Strauss, the humility with which the centurion himself addressed Christ (Matt., viii., 8) gave rise to the conclusion that a heathen who had had so low an opinion of himself could not possibly have applied to Christ except through Jewish mediation; and then it was necessary to invent such an embassy, in order to assign a proper motive for Christ’s immediate compliance with the request of the heathen. Grant, for a moment, that it were in itself reasonable and in harmony with the simplicity of our Evangelists; still, we should expect such an interpolation rather in Matthew, whose narrative is supposed to be derived from a Palestine Jewish-Christian tradition, than in Luke, who belonged more to the type of Paul. True, the conduct of the centurion, as stated by Luke, is precisely suited to his character, as shown in his words recorded by Matthew; to his mode of thought in regard to the person of Christ and the relation between Jews and heathen. But must the very naturalness and probability of the statement itself be made a ground to suspect it as an invention? As for Matthew’s statement, that the centurion himself applied to Christ, it may naturally and easily be explained on the supposition of an abbreviation of the narrative, or obliteration of individual features of the occurrence.239
The centurion heard that Christ, in compliance with the request of the elders, was approaching his house. But then the thought arose, “Hast thou not gone too far in asking the Son of God, who has spirits at his command, to come to thy house? Hast thou not lowered him, by presuming that his corporeal presence is necessary to the healing of thy slave? Could he not have employed one of his hosts of ministering spirits to accomplish it?” [“Say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. For I, also . . . say unto one, ‘Come,’ and he cometh; and to another, ‘Go,’ and he goeth.”421421 We cannot admit Dr. Strauss’s assertion that the prayer sent by the elders (Luke. vii., 3) is inconsistent with the second message (v. 6), and that, therefore, the connexion which in Matthew is natural is unnatural in Luke. Had Luke’s account been a fiction, instead of making the centurion take back his prayer sent by the elders, it would have given the prayer a different character from the beginning. Considering it as a narrative of fact, it bears precisely the stamp of real life: the centurion, at first, absorbed in his anxiety, sends for Christ to come to him; afterward, when he finds the fulfilment of his desire at hand, the sense of his unworthiness in comparison with the greatness of Christ becomes prominent, and with it a sense of the impropriety of his request.] Although his hesitation, doubtless, arose in part from his unwillingness, as a heathen, to summon the Saviour to his house, his words imply that it arose far more from his conscious unworthiness in comparison with Christ’s greatness. He conceived Christ to be the Son of God in a sense natural to one who had, from paganism, become a believer in Theism.
The centurion illustrates a state of heart which, in all ages of Christianity, belongs to those who are susceptible of admitting and embracing Christ: the consciousness, namely, of His loftiness and our own unworthiness. Here was the deep import of his signs of faith; and here the ground of these striking words of Christ addressed to the attendant multitudes: “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” He had, indeed, found access to the people; he had, indeed, found faith, but not such faith as that of this pagan. The faith of the Jews, prejudiced by their peculiar notions of the Messiahship, could not, as yet, raise itself to a just intuition of the super-human greatness of Christ. But the pagan, viewing Christ as Lord of the World of Spirits, had reached a point which the Apostles themselves were only to attain at a later period. And here we have a sign that the true and high intuition of the person of Christ was to come rather from the stand-point of paganism than of Judaism.
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