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Matthew 8 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

A Roman Exception

The Gentile mission was at most peripheral to Jesus' earthly ministry: he did not actively seek out Gentiles for ministry (Mt 10:5), and both occasions on which he heals Gentiles he does so from a distance (8:13; 15:28). The Gentile mission became central to the early church, however, and early Christians naturally looked to accounts of Jesus' life for examples of ministry to the Gentiles (compare 1:3, 5-6; 2:1-2, 11; 3:9; 4:15). Matthew here draws from Q material (on the Q hypothesis, see the introduction) to emphasize his theme favoring the Gentile mission.

The significance of the passage is clarified by some basic information about Roman centurions and what they represented to Jewish people in the first century. In this period soldiers in the Roman legions served twenty years (Ferguson 1987:39). Unlike aristocrats, who could become tribunes or higher officials immediately, most centurions rose to their position from within the ranks and became members of the equestrian (knight) class when they retired (J. Jones 1971:201-3). Roman soldiers participated in pagan religious oaths to the divine emperor (J. Jones 1971:212).

Matthew here demonstrates that a call to missions work demands that disciples first abandon ethnic and cultural prejudice. His Jewish readers would be tempted to hate Romans, especially Roman soldiers, and perhaps their officers even more; this would be especially true after A.D. 70. Jesus' teaching about accommodating a Roman soldier's unjust request (5:41), paying taxes to a pagan state that used the funds in part for armies (22:21) or paying a temple tax that the Romans later confiscated for pagan worship (17:24-27) would seem intolerable to anyone whose allegiance to Christ was not greater than his or her allegiance to family and community. But Jesus is not satisfied by our treating an enemy respectfully; he demands that we actually love that enemy (5:44). No one challenges our prejudices-and sometimes provokes our antagonism-more than a "good" member of a group that has unjustly treated people we love. This narrative challenges prejudice in a number of ways.

The Centurion Humbles Himself on Behalf of a Servant (8:5-6)

This Roman soldier was one that Jewish people would have to count as an exception (compare explicitly in Lk 7:4-5). The slave was probably the centurion's entire "family" (Roman soldiers were not permitted to have legal families during their two decades of military service; A. Jones 1970:155-56). (Matthew's audience may even think of Jewish relatives enslaved by the Romans after Jerusalem's fall in A.D. 70.)

The Centurion Acknowledges His Inferior Status as a Gentile (8:7-8)

Matthew reports such self-humbling on the part of both Gentiles who entreat Jesus for help (here and 15:27). The centurion's initial announcement of the need (8:6) is an oblique form of request; one rarely simply presumed on others' favor (compare Lk 24:28-29; Jn 1:38-39), and one of higher social status rarely would utter a direct request unless desperate (compare Jn 2:3). But Jesus forces the centurion to admit his status as a suppliant.

The emphatic Greek I in 8:7 suggests that Jesus' words there are probably better translated as a question: "Shall I come and heal him?" (France 1977:257). Most Palestinian Jews, after all, considered entering Gentile homes questionable (compare Acts 10:28; m. Pesahim 8:8; Oholot 18:7). Here Jesus erects a barrier the Gentile must surmount, as in 15:24, 26: an outsider who would entreat his favor must first acknowledge the privilege of Israel, whom other peoples had oppressed or disregarded (compare Jn 4:22). Such initial rejection was a not uncommon ploy for demanding greater commitment (see comment on Mt 19:16-22). Rather than protesting, the centurion acknowledges his questionable merit before Jesus (compare Lk 7:4, 6), adopting the appropriate role of a suppliant totally dependent on a patron's benefaction-a role centurions themselves often filled for local populations (Malina 1981:78; Malina and Rohrbaugh 1992:70).

The Centurion Recognizes Jesus' Unlimited Authority to Heal (8:8-9)

The man shows faith not only by acknowledging his own unworthiness but also by recognizing that Jesus' power is so great that this request is small to him. Most of the centurion's contemporaries would have balked at such faith; even Jewish people considered long-distance miracles especially difficult and rare, the domain of only the most powerful holy men like Hanina ben Dosa. The centurion reasons, however, from what he knows: he himself can issue commands and receive obedience because he is under authority, that is, backed by the full authority of the Roman Empire, which he represents to his troops. In the same way, the authority of Israel's God backs Jesus, and a mere command from his lips banishes powers in subjection under him, such as sickness.

Do we have such faith to recognize the greatness of God's power? Those who are submitted to Jesus' will may act on it today, recognizing that the authority he provides to carry out his work is his and not our own (10:8, 40).

Jesus Accepts This Attitude as Faith (8:10)

Jesus accepts the centurion's recognition of Jesus' great authority as faith and heals the servant (8:13). But the text also offers a second lesson, a lesson about our prejudices. Jesus "marvels" (NIV was astonished) only twice in the Gospel traditions, here at a Gentile's faith (v. 10) and in Mark 6:6 at his hometown's unbelief (France 1977:259). It is often those closest to the truth who most take it for granted and those who have had the least exposure to it who most recognize its power when it confronts them (Mt 2:1-12).

Many church workers focus on getting people saved in churches where new people rarely visit; we may need to focus more on sharing the faith by word and deed in our communities outside church walls, and across cultural barriers as well. As one missionary statesman put it, "I do not see why anyone should hear the gospel twice when so many people have never heard it once." Or as R. T. France muses (1985:157):

@BLOCK = The centurion's story has thus highlighted faith as the "one thing needful." It is a practical faith which expects and receives results. Such faith renders tradition and heredity meaningless, and "of such is the kingdom of God." Schweizer draws an appropriately uncomfortable moral: "The warning in this story may be especially urgent in an age when Africans and Asians in the community of Jesus may well be called on to show `Christian' Europe what Christian life really is."

The Centurion Is a Promise of More Gentiles to Come (8:11-12)

Evidence supports this as an authentic saying of Jesus (Semitisms and background in Jeremias 1958:55-62). Matthew may draw Jesus' words here from another context (Lk 13:28-29) to reinforce the point that this story prefigures the Gentile mission, which Jesus endorsed in advance (France 1977:260).

Subjects of the kingdom (literally "sons of the kingdom"; compare Mt 13:38; 23:15) refers to Jewish people-those who expected salvation based on their descent from Abraham (3:9). The damnation of those who thought themselves destined for the kingdom sounded a sober warning to nationalist Jews of Matthew's day; it sounds a similar warning to complacent Christians today (Goldingay 1977:254; compare 13:38).

Rome was the great power that lay to the west, and Matthew had earlier illustrated the coming of pagans from the east (2:1). Pagans thus would recline at table (the standard posture for feasts and banquets) in the kingdom with the patriarchs-the messianic banquet Israel expected for itself (5:6; 22:2; Lk 16:23; 4 Macc 13:17; 1 Enoch 70:4).

"Exceptions" can make a difference. When one white minister living in the U.S. South was experiencing the deepest trauma of his life, some African-American Christians took him under their wing and nursed him back to spiritual and emotional health. The white minister began to experience the spiritual resources and strength that the black American church had developed through slavery, segregation and contemporary urban crises and was eventually ordained in a black Baptist church. Subsequently he discovered slave narratives and other accounts that brought him face to face with what people who looked like him had done to the near ancestors of his closest friends. He became so ashamed of the color of his skin that he wanted to rip it off. But the love of his African-American friends and the good news of Christ's love restored him, and soon he began to feel part of the community that had embraced him.

He often joined his friends in lamenting the agony of racism and its effects. But one day after a Sunday-school lesson, a minister friend said something about white people in general that he suddenly took personally. "I didn't mean you," the black minister explained quickly. "You're like a brother to me." The black minister made an exception because he knew the white Christian, but the white Christian wondered about all the people who didn't know him. He had experienced a taste of what most of his black friends regularly encountered in predominantly white circles.

The next week the ministers were studying together the story of the centurion's servant in Luke, and they noted that the centurion's Jewish contemporaries viewed him as an exception to the rule that Gentiles were oppressors. They also noted that the Gospels tell this story because that exception in Jesus' ministry points to a huge number of Gentile converts pouring in at the time when the Gospels were being written.

If even a few people become exceptions and really care enough about their brothers and sisters of other races to listen, these exceptions can show us that the racial and cultural barriers that exist in our societies do not need to continue. If we are willing to pay the price-which will sometimes include hints of rejection from people we have come to love-we can begin to bring down those barriers.

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