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.
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