Matthew 8:5-13 – The Centurion’s Servant


Matthew 8:5-13


Jesus has a surprising cross-cultural encounter with a Roman soldier that leads to a long-distance healing.


Because of where the story ends, the actions of the centurion toward Jesus are often interpreted as the height of respect. An appreciation of the cultural dynamics at play, however, shows that he may be more embarrassed than respectful. Unlike the leper who Jesus had just healed, the centurion does not kneel before Jesus, showing that he does not consider Jesus to be of higher social status than him. Jesus’ response to the centurion’s statement presses on his discomfort. His response emphasizes that he is coming to the centurion’s house; a more colloquial translation would be something like “You know it’s me who’s going to come to your house and heal him.” 

The centurion brings the exchange to the breaking point with mock humility; his claim that he is not worthy to have Jesus come to his house has already been disproven by his refusal to kneel before Jesus in making his request for healing. The cultural dynamics of his office have the centurion caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he greatly wishes to have his servant healed. On the other, as an agent of the Roman colonial administration, he is responsible for making sure that the people of Capernaum know that they are inferior to their colonial overlords. If he were to have Jesus come into his house and heal his servant, he would be acknowledging Jesus’ equality and perhaps even his superiority. 

The centurion fights his way out of the conundrum by complimenting Jesus in a backhand fashion. He acknowledges Jesus’ power to heal and command, while also removing the social awkwardness of having Jesus come to his home. As with the later story of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), Jesus is impressed with the resourcefulness of the centurion and compliments his faith in Jesus’ authority.