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Pastor Glenn McDonald: The Centurion Slave

Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    


Among the three dozen or so miracles that are attributed to Jesus, one of them scales two first-century social barriers in a single bound.


That’s impressive. 


At the same time, a number of 21st century readers wonder why Jesus didn’t keep right on going and perform an even more extraordinary miracle. In their minds, that’s an omission that should be considered downright offensive. 


The story we have in mind comes from Matthew 8:5-10, where we find these words:


When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. (ESV) 


The first social barrier that Jesus brushes aside is having a respectful conversation with a Roman soldier. 


The Romans were the enemy.  They dominated the Mediterranean world before and after the time of Jesus, having occupied Judea since 63 BC.  Ever-increasing taxes – landing somewhere between 40 and 60% of annual income – were levied upon the people.  These were coins that went back to the coffers in Rome, not to local infrastructure projects. 


The Romans, who prized order, were generally considerate of the various nations and ethnicities that had been incorporated into their far-flung empire.  Stay out of trouble, they declared, and we will give you no trouble.


But the Jews, notoriously, refused to stay out of trouble.


For a Roman soldier, occupation duty in Judea was no picnic.  The people of Israel worshiped what they insisted was the one true God.  Roman gods and goddesses were laughable pretenders.  The Jews were incurably resistant to the idea that the Roman emperor was divine and therefore deserving of worship.  They refused to let outsiders enter their temple, and armed revolutionaries were always chafing for a fight – any opportunity to throw off the yoke of these Gentile pigs.


That, after all, was the spiritual assessment of these intruders.  They were irrevocably beyond the scope of God’s love and grace. 


Jews, by law, could not cross the threshold of a Gentile house without becoming ritually unclean. The centurion in Matthew’s account knows this.  He wouldn’t dream of asking Jesus to defile himself. 


But he understands authority.  A Roman legion consisted of 6,000 soldiers.  They were divided into 60 “centuries,” or squads of 100 fighting men, each presided over by a centurion.  This man is used to giving commands and seeing people obey.  He concludes that if the rabbi simply speaks authoritative words at a distance, that will be enough. 


For a Gentile outsider, this is an astonishing expression of faith.


The second barrier that Jesus hurdles is reaching out compassionately to a slave.


Here we should pause and point out that for most of us there is a world of difference between the words “servant” and “slave.”  In our own recent historical experience, servants are free to come and go at the end of the day.  Slaves are not.  But there wasn’t nearly as much difference in Bible times, and both words can serve as accurate translations of the single Greek word doulos.  So in the ESV translation above, we should understand that this “servant” is definitely someone we would consider a slave.


Slavery has been part and parcel of every chapter of human history.  Historians estimate that during classical times, as many as one third of all adults were slaves.  Another third were former slaves.


What was slavery like during Roman times?  The spectrum was wide.  At one end, a number of slaves were employed (and even paid) by their masters as teachers, business managers, and caregivers.  The other end of the spectrum was considerably less happy.  Many slaves were considered less than human.


The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “For master and slave have nothing in common.  A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.” 


If you were considered a living tool, your health and survival would be strictly a matter of your master’s whims.  According to Varro, a Roman expert on agriculture, the only difference between a slave, an ox, and an oxcart is that the slave could talk.  The Roman intellectual Cato urged farmers to sell, if they could, old wagons, old oxen, and old slaves.  They were essentially equal.  Throw them away.


Those realities shine a warm spotlight on the character of this Roman centurion.  He loves this slave.  He yearns for his restoration.  He pleads with Jesus.


In response, Jesus makes an extraordinary statement – one that sweeps away the dividing walls of spiritual Insiders and Outsiders.   


I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Matthew 8:11-13)


That’s wonderful. There is hope for everyone – even Gentiles (those who will come “from east and west”).  And even those who are considered living tools. 


But wait.  Couldn’t Jesus have done more? 


In recent centuries, Christianity has taken hits from critics who say that Jesus and his followers have turned a blind eye to slavery.  Shouldn’t he have said to the centurion, “If you really love this man, set him free”?  Here was God-With-Us, in the flesh.  If slavery is wrong – and people of good will all over the world have come to believe that slavery is indeed a grave injustice – why didn’t Jesus say something or do something or somehow miraculously intercede on behalf of all those who were suffering under its dark cloud?


Slavery has unquestionably been a blight on the history of the North American church.  Multitudes of people identifying themselves as faithful Christians were complicit in the horrors of the 300-year history of chattel slavery.


But that’s hardly the whole story.


While some Christians turned a blind eye, it was the combined efforts of multitudes of other Christians that ultimately eliminated slavery from Europe and the New World.  It appears that Jesus always intended for us to take on this momentous task.


The convictions of the reformers sprang from the Bible’s affirmation that every human being is created in God’s image.  Believing slaves are not a different category of human being, but brothers and sisters in Christ.  Mary, hearing the news that she would bring the Messiah into the world, identified herself as the Lord’s doulos or slave (Luke 1:38).  And Jesus himself declared that he “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). 


Paul identified himself and his co-workers as slaves of Christ at the beginning of almost all his New Testament letters.  And he authored these barrier-shattering words in Colossians 3:11: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” 


In the ancient world, many slaves were Christians.  And all Christians thought of themselves as slaves – free people who were nevertheless God’s slaves.  


Gradually it dawned on the church’s leaders that Christianity alone had the spiritual foundations to bring down the global slave trade – and that God desired people everywhere to be free.   


Tragically, it took a very long time.


And we still have a long way to go to heal the wounds that have been left behind. 


But there’s an irony in this miracle of Jesus.  The man who extended his healing power to the household of a Roman centurion would one day see his hands and feet physically extended by a Roman execution squad, presided over by a centurion. 


Yet the healing he initiated is still happening – every time we choose to see outsiders as insiders, and those who have been deemed unworthy as deserving of God’s deepest kindness. 



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