When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” Luke 7:9 NLT
Imagine having Jesus say something like that about you. The greatest faith in Israel? Isn’t this the kind of affirmation so many of us crave?
The extraordinary thing is that Jesus didn’t say it about one of his disciples. He didn’t say it about some religious leader like a Pharisee. He didn’t even say it about John the Baptist, who he gushes about a few sentences later in this chapter.
This person who Jesus said had the greatest faith in Israel was not an Israelite at all, but a Roman officer, a centurion. It is true that he was a Roman who liked the Jews and who sympathised with the Jewish religion. He may have even converted to Judaism, and he had certainly made large donations to the building fund of the local synagogue. But he was still a Roman, and therefore a pagan by birth, a representative of what many Jews saw as “the evil Empire.”
Jesus did not see the Roman centurion as an enemy. He did not see him as a foreigner, or a soldier, or a wealthy man of influence. He was not impressed by his standing in the world, nor was he afraid of him as an Imperial official.
So what did Jesus see? There is no indication that the two men met at all, so Jesus’s formed his impressions from what he heard about him and from him. He had the testimony of the Jewish elders, whose admiration for the Roman was clear to see. He heard the request they brought, for healing, a clear indication of the Roman’s belief that Jesus was able to heal. He heard the soldier’s own words, communicated to him by some friends:
“Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet you. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.”
Jesus was unaffected by how the man looked, by how old he was, by his ethnic background, his professional standing, his wealth, his influence. But he was deeply impressed by his faith. A faith that was expressed in a willingness to acknowledge his own need, his own powerlessness, as well as to publicly speak of Jesus superior authority and power, and then to invite Jesus into his life to minister to his needs, expressing trust and dependence, recognition and humility. This representative of the greatest power on earth recognised in Jesus a power that far surpassed his own, or even that of mighty Rome.
That is what it means to have faith. To recognise Jesus for who he says he is, to believe that Jesus is the ultimate healer, to be ready to stick your neck out for Jesus, risking ridicule from friends or enemies, colleagues and strangers, in order to acknowledge Jesus, honour him, and allow him to change both your own world and the world of those around.
We learn much about faith from this story. But we also learn much about God, as we look at Jesus, God’s “final word” about himself. We learn that God’s heart is not just for “the chosen”, but for all peoples. We learn that God’s love is not limited to those who are “like us” (unlike our love), but extends even to our natural enemies. We learn that God gets excited when he sees faith expressed so freely and openly, and freely and generously affirms those who express it.
Maybe I’m just a little boy at heart, but I crave that affirmation from Father God. What could give any of us more pleasure than that, to know that God gets as excited about our faith as he did about the Roman’s?