“And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving” (Luke 7:2-4).
The title of this article could easily serve as the theme, or at least one of the themes, of the Gospel according to Luke. The stories of the good Samaritan (chapter 10), Zacchaeus (19), Lazarus the beggar, and others are about people normally despised by the supposedly righteous Jews, but shown in the third gospel with good qualities.
None of those stories exemplifies the type more than that of chapter seven. The centurion was an officer of the Roman army, one of the hated occupation forces who often oppressed the nation. One would expect to find pride, greed, disdain for the enemy, pagan immorality, and other evils in such a person. Yet that is not at all how Luke (and the Jewish elders whom he quotes) describe him. Note the following righteous traits specified in the story, contained in verses 2-10.
First, he had regard (love?) for his servant (2). The term servant may refer to a slave, or in the case of the military context, it could mean a subservient officer or soldier. Luke does not specify. In either case compassion and friendship often do not extend to those beneath one’s status. In this case, however, it certainly did.
Secondly, the centurion is said to be generous and interested in the needs of the people whom he was to keep in subjection (4-5). He had financed a synagogue for the Jews and demonstrated genuine love for the conquered nation. He was not there to rob and oppress.
Third, though one used to authority, he was genuinely humble (6-8). He did not consider himself worthy to appeal directly to Jesus, but sent emissaries (3, 7). Luke shows no indication that this was a false humility, intended to impress. Nor was it a cover for his own unwillingness to go to Jesus himself. Rather, it is the genuine meekness of one who knows there are others much greater than himself, and comfortable with his place in the order.
Finally, and this was most significant to Jesus, the centurion was a man of faith (9). Here, that quality is not belief in a doctrinal position. There is no indication that the Roman knew much about Jesus, certainly not that he was the Son of God, or the Messiah. His faith was trust. Here was a foreigner soldier who was willing to trust implicitly even though he had never met the one whom he believed could help him. It is that unquestioning reliance which Jesus admired, and which he requires from all who would follow him. And that is just the quality which he failed to find among his own people (9).
I suppose almost any experienced Christian can relate stories of surprising virtue. We all interact with people of many classes and types. And we all get surprised from time to time. Just when we think we have everyone pigeon-holed, type-cast, and perfectly understood, someone shows us depths of spiritual treasure that we never expected.
That is one of the true joys of missionary activity, or any evangelism. When we reach out and make genuine connections with others, we learn more about them. And the more we learn, the more good we find. Yes, it works the other way, also. The old saying, “There is a little good in the worst of us, and a little bad in the best of us,” does hold true. But isn’t it a joy to focus on those treasures of good we find in such unusual places? Even Jesus could be surprised and pleased at what he discovered.