“Truly, I say unto you, that not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Christ spoke these words about the Roman Centurion in this morning’s gospel.
And according to the sequence of St. Matthew’s gospel, this story is significance because it stands as the first of Christ’s encounters with someone who was not a member of the chosen people of Israel.
Here it would do us well to remember that Jesus was Jewish through and through, meaning that according to custom, He should have had no dealings with Gentiles. The Old Testament writings tell us that the people of Israel, at this point in their history, classified anyone who was a non-Jew as being unclean, and that for this reason any interaction with the such persons was proscribed. Yet this morning, Christ not only converses with a Roman Centurion, but He praises the man on account of His faith. “Go, be it done for you, as you have believed.”
And this is the most remarkable thing about today’s narrative. Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, places the bottom rung on the top by declaring that a Roman Gentile is closer to the truth of salvation than any of His Jewish contemporaries. This was, and continues to be, the scandal of the gospel, that the first become the last. That tax collectors, thieves, prostitutes, and Roman Centurions enter into the Kingdom of God before any of what law-abiding people of Jesus’ own day.
But this is not all. For it is here, too, in this same hearing of the gospel, that we find a summons concerning the substance of our own faith. Jesus Christ was challenging the people of that day to believe in Him. He was looking for what He called “such faith,” the great faith of the Centurion. And today, Christ is looking to exact from us the same.
For in the end, what we discover in the Church is that there are really only three possibilities for us in life.
The first possibility is to have no faith at all, that is, to go through the journey of life with what the letter to the Hebrews calls a hard and unbelieving heart. Many people do just this, without ever thinking that there can be any other way of life than the way of the flesh. Speaking to them about matters of the Spirit is like speaking to them in Klingon, they just don’t get it. The second possibility is for a person to have some faith. Faith is there, yes, in that it has begun to take root in the human heart. But this faith is the little faith that has remained stunted and underdeveloped on account of the fact that it has yet to be nourished by prayer and the reading of the Holy Scriptures. More than once Jesus chastises His disciples with the words, “O ye men of little faith, how long shall I bear with you?” Nonetheless, the third possibility, the one that Christ wants to evoke from us this morning, is for us to attain the kind of faith that is truly great because it opens up the human soul to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. No faith, little faith, and great faith. These are the three ways that lie before us in life.
Now as a priest and pastor, it is my estimation that the majority of us church-goers have become entrenched in the number two category. We are men and women of little faith. God has provided us with all that we need in order to move ourselves from the lesser to the greater. He has given us the ten talents. He has given us the vineyard of the soul and has planted within it the choicest of its fruits. He has poured out into our hearts all the fullness of the Holy Spirit. All of this has been given to us. But our sin is that we have still not arrived at a true and authentic faith.
Let’s ask ourselves, why not? Here’s the reason – one reason may be because we have not yet understood what it means to be obedient. We do not live our lives “under authority” of Christ’s word as did the Roman Centurion. He knew it from his position in life, “I am a man under authority.” Christ Himself gives us the perfect example because He too, even as the King of Israel, submitted Himself to the will of His Father. “I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. “ This is a difficult concept for us Westerners because we have been taught to believe that the only authority in life is the authority of our own will, and that that for us to humble ourselves through obedience to the authority of another is sign of self-deprecation.
Yet the truth of the matter is that when obedience is given and received in freedom and in love, it lays the foundation for the possibility of great faith. There are some, certainly who have abused their authority over others, both in and out of the Church, and have caused great harm to young and old alike. But this does not disqualify obedience as a whole, far from it; what it disqualifies is the kind of slavish obedience that is devoid of love and which quickly degenerates into tyranny and oppression. No, this is not what we say about obedience; what we say is that by surrendering our will to Christ’s word we gain greater faith through the practice of obedience. This is the testimony of all the saints in the Church – that the more we surrender our will to the life of the Church, specifically to prayer, to fasting, to liturgizing, to confession, and to the guidance of a spiritual father, the greater the blessings there will be.
So today, may God help us to ask the hard questions that need to be asked in regard to our faith. How vital is our faith? Is it a faith that is pleasing to God? Or is it a faith that has yet to fully blossom only because we have not yet learned how to be obedient to the only One Who is worthy of our trust?