Matthew 8:5–13 (ESV): The Faith of a Centurion
In this passage, a centurion (a Roman officer in charge of a hundred men) approaches Jesus and tells him about one of the centurion’s servants, who is paralyzed and suffering. Jesus tells the centurion that he will come and see this servant, but the centurion replies that he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof; however, if Jesus will just say the word, he knows that his servant will be healed. After all (he reasons), he has soldiers reporting to him, and whatever he tells them to do they do, the implication being that Jesus doesn’t have to actually go to the servant, he can just command the paralysis to leave him, and it will be done.
When Jesus hears this, he marvels (verse 10 (ESV)) at the centurion’s faith. He hasn’t seen such faith in any of the Israelites!
In fact, Jesus takes this a step further: He tells his listeners that many will come “from the east and west” (in other words, non-Israelites), where they will “recline at table” in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (verse 11 (ESV)), whereas “the sons of the kingdom” will be “thrown into outer darkness” (verse 12 (ESV)).
He then tells the centurion that he may go, and the servant is healed at that very moment.
The first thing I notice about this passage is that Jesus immediately agrees to go with the centurion, even though he’s not a Jew. There are other instances where Jesus initially turned a non-Jewish person down, stating that his priority was to the children of Israel. (See, for example, Matthew 15:21–28 (ESV).) However, in a roundabout way, Jesus’ purpose is the same in both situations: it emphasizes the faith of the Gentile who is asking for help. When Jesus immediately agrees to go with the centurion, it gives the centurion the opportunity to demonstrate his faith, by saying that he believes Jesus can heal the servant simply by saying so; if Jesus had turned the centurion down, he might very well have simply given up. (After all, he already said that he didn’t think Jesus was worthy to come under his roof; perhaps, if Jesus had turned him down, he would have simply felt it was because he wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ attention, and let it be? That’s pure conjecture on my part, mind you.) In the case of the woman in the Matthew 15 passage, by initially turning her down, Jesus gives her the opportunity to demonstrate her faith in him by not giving up.
As pointed out in the ESV Study Bible, there is another telling of this story in Luke 7:1–10 (ESV), but in the account in Luke, it’s not the centurion who approaches Jesus, it’s the centurion’s servants. However, there is no contradiction in these two accounts, since the centurion sent the servants on his behalf. As the note says in the ESV Study Bible:
The accounts are not contradictory; Matthew, as is often the case, simply abbreviates the story. He actually reports what the centurion said through his messengers, based on the idea that what a person does through an agent is what the person himself does.
Incidentally, they also make a note that telling Jesus he is unworthy of having Jesus under his roof might have been cultural sensitivity, in addition to faith, since entering the home of a Gentile would make him ceremonially unclean.
When Jesus says that the “sons of the kingdom” (referring to Jews) will be thrown into the darkness, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 12 (ESV)), he obviously doesn’t mean that no Jews will be saved. (To cite an obvious example, all of the apostles were Jews.) He is simply making the point that nobody is going to enter the kingdom of heaven based on their being part of the nation of Israel, anymore than anyone will enter the kingdom of heaven simply because they go to a Christian church. The one and only criteria for entering the kingdom is faith in the Son.