“The centurion’s house he did not in fact enter, but he took possession of his heart”

In the gospel we heard our own faith extolled as it was manifested by humility. The Lord Jesus agreed to go to the centurion’s house to cure his servant, but he replied: “I am not worthy to have you under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” In protesting his unworthiness the centurion showed himself worthy to have Christ enter not his house but his heart. Yet he could not have said this with such faith and humility unless he already bore within his heart the one he was too overawed to have within his house. In any case, there would have been no great happiness at the entry of the Lord Jesus within his walls if he were not present in his heart. The Master who taught humility by both word and example dined in the house of a certain proud Pharisee called Simon; but though he was in his house, the Son of Man found nowhere in the Pharisee’s heart where he could lay his head. The centurion’s house he did not in fact enter, but he took possession of his heart. The centurion said: “I am not worthy to have you under my roof.” The Lord praised the faith shown by his humility, replying: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found faith like this.” He meant Israel in a physical sense, for the centurion was already an Israelite in spirit.

The Lord had come to the people of Israel, that is to the Jews, to seek out the lost sheep first among that people in whom and from whom he had taken flesh; but not even there, he says, did he find such faith. We can only judge a person’s faith from a human viewpoint; but he who sees the heart and whom no one ever deceives testified to the state of this man’s heart: on hearing the centurion’s humble words he pronounced his assurance of healing.

But what emboldened the centurion to act as he did? “I am under authority myself,” he said, “and have soldiers under me; and I say to one man, Go, and he goes; to another, Come here, and he comes; to my servant, Go this, and he does it.” I exercise authority over my subordinates, and am myself subject to those with authority over me. If I then, a man subject to authority, have authority to give orders, what must be the extent of your authority which all authorities obey?

Now the man who said this was a Gentile as well as a centurion. He was a professional soldier and, as a centurion, acted according to his rank: subject to authority and exercising authority, obeying as a subordinate and giving orders to those subordinate to him. As for the Lord, though living among the Jewish people, he was already beginning to make it known that his Church would extend throughout the whole world into which he was about to send his apostles. Although the Gentiles would not see him they would believe in him, whereas the Jewish leaders who saw him would put him to death.

The Lord did not enter the centurion’s house in person, but, though absent in body, he was present by his divine power, bringing healing of body and soul. And it was the same with the Gentiles. Only among the Jews was he bodily present. Among no other people was he born of a virgin, among no others did he suffer, travel on foot, endure our human lot, or perform divine wonders. No, he did none of these things among other peoples, and yet the prophecy about him was fulfilled: “People unknown to me served me.” How was that possible if they did not know him? “As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me.” Indeed, the whole world has heard and has obeyed.

St Augustine of Hippo

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