Today's reading from Matthew 8 keeps up the Epiphany theme of Christ's continuing self-disclosure as God stepping right into the thick of things, involving Himself directly and even dangerously into our human predicament. In this passage we see Jesus performing two miracles, both miracles of healing.
The first miracle ministers to a leper, clearly a Jewish person. The second occurs at the behest of a Gentile. This reminds us that the first Epiphany, the apparition of the star to the wise men, was "the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles." He is not only the anointed Messiah of the Jewish people; He is the Saviour of the world, the Redeemer of all mankind, all nations and races. In Christ the promise to Abraham comes true. "And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3).
Jesus gives special praise to the Gentile, who is a Roman army officer. "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel." This implies a contrast in the two miracle stories which are read together. The faith of the Jewish leper is not impressive. His question is almost skeptical in tone: "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean." He makes a rather minimal affirmation of Jesus' power (does he mean Divine power, or only the power of a magician?), but is too timid to ask boldly for Jesus to act. But no matter; the Divine compassion in Jesus moves Him to grant immediate healing.
The faith of the centurion, however, is of a deeper sort. How or what he had previously known of Jesus is not related to us. But he knows that Jesus has power to heal at a distance; this is the point of our Lord's praise for him. It was remarkable in itself that Jesus offered to come to the centurion's home. That was the risk of ritual uncleanness. Remember how the priests and temple personnel refrained from entering the house of Pilate! Jesus' kind offer strangely anticipates a later occasion when He would indeed set foot in a Gentile home.
The centurion responded with words familiar to us as a prayer which we utter just before we go to the Altar rail, "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed."
Whether faith is of a poor doubtful quality or whether it shines with heroic confidence ultimately makes no difference. The sovereign grace of God acts powerfully for those in need. For all we know, the centurion's servant had no faith at all. But he was healed, nonetheless.
In this wonderful season we see God in Christ reaching out to all mankind, to all sorts and conditions of men, to those of great faith, little faith, and even no faith, healing, transforming and making new. In His mercy He reaches even to us. In His love He comes even to our house. LKW