The Ultimate Authority

Monday of the First Week in Advent, Year A: Isaiah 4:2-6, Matthew 8:5-11.

Today’s gospel reading is repeated, in part, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The final words that we, the faithful, say before receiving Communion are derived from the centurion in today’s reading. They are also some of my favorite words used in the Mass, where we all set ourselves bare before our Lord and declare our faith in his supernatural authority. Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. If we could only have this admission of our abject reliance on God stay with us throughout our entire day, every day!

Let’s unpack this meeting between Christ and the centurion to better understand those words and why Jesus was so amazed by them. In Matthew’s gospel, this scene happens right after the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus shares his great teachings, the Beatitudes. The feeling in the air was electric. As Matthew relates, “when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29). The crowds are struck by the density and reality of who Jesus is and the teachings he gives them. He is no normal teacher, this man who just told them he has come to “fulfill” the law and the prophets, who calls God “our father in heaven,” and who declares which people will go to heaven and which won’t. As he comes down the mountain, great crowds follow him, caught up in his words and his very being. Upon reaching the bottom of the mountain, he heals a leper who says “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean” (Mt 8:2b), which symbolizes the sickness of the world being swept away by God’s choice to send His Son and also anticipates the thrust of the next scene with the centurion. Jesus’s response, “I do choose. Be made clean!” is a fantastic example of the fundamental relationship we bear to him: we ask in humility for his help, with full trust and faith in his power; then, he meets our plea with mercy and the full, free will of the Creator to lift us up.

Jesus and the Centurion, part of the Polyptych of the Charola of the Convent of Christ, Tomar, Portugal (1510), Jorge Afonso | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia. Note the Mount of the Beatitudes on the right, although the kneeling centurion lacks his authentic first-century garb, to be sure! The dog is a common symbol of fidelity (faith). However, I’m not sure what to make of the monkey wearing a robe in between the two dogs – monkeys often symbolized the base instincts and sin.

This fundamental structure of our relationship to God is further illustrated by the centurion. He pleads with Jesus to help his suffering servant, to which Jesus simply replies, “I will come and cure him.” You would think that the centurion would jump at this chance to have Jesus come to his home and heal the servant, like everyone else in the gospel stories. But he doesn’t – he actually takes his own humility and trust in the Lord’s power to a deeper level than we see elsewhere. He gives Jesus a great gift: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” Only say the word! How many levels of meaning can we find in that phrase! 

Some scholars might point out that this humility, while surprising coming from the Roman occupiers of the region, is actually appropriate given the fact that any gentile should not expect a great rabbi to risk becoming impure by visiting their home. So, is this just a courtesy offered to Jesus, acknowledging religious custom and purity laws? Matthew makes a point of saying that’s not the case; something else is going on. The centurion explains himself: “For I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave,  ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” The centurion is emphasizing his life of obedience as a soldier. He is used to being subject to a greater authority and being that greater authority for others. But this is just an analogy of the authority that he recognizes in Jesus – a divine authority to command the natural and the supernatural worlds to obey him.

The fact that the centurion is part of a Roman occupying force is, in fact, central to the scene, but in a surprising way. The discipline that the military life has ground into him has surfaced to serve a greater purpose in his life. Millennia of Catholics have seen the benefit of obeying authority in conforming themselves humbly to God. We see this in our strict Church hierarchy from the Pope, through the Bishops and our pastors, and notably it became central to the monastic traditions. A vow of obedience by monks and nuns can draw the lineage of its spiritual power and efficacy directly to this scene with the centurion.

And, behold, the Lord himself is “amazed” by this human, this despised Roman gentile. He emphasizes the fact that the centurion is not Jewish, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus then affirms that many non-Jews will recline “at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.” What is left out of the lectionary today is the severe warning to the Jews that they, the heirs to the kingdom, “will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” thanks to their unbelief. Also missing from the lectionary are his final words to the centurion: “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” I love this simple response in part because it shows us that our relationship with God is just that: a two-way relationship. The centurion isn’t just included in Matthew’s gospel as a “type” or straw man for a teaching. Jesus makes the effort to respond personally to him, as he does to all of those who come seeking him throughout the gospels. Moreover, Jesus reminds us that the centurion has shown us what faith is. Faith is this unflagging trust in the ultimate authority of God that whatever He says will be done. Faith is won by obedience, not by continual testing, probing, and skepticism. That is the great contrast between the Jewish scribes, priests, and Pharisees and the centurion. They try to test Jesus and his Word by skeptically questioning, not by trusting his authority. We might recognize this way of “knowing,” which only increased through the Enlightenment as humans increasingly considered ourselves the only arbiters over what is true. Today, our scientific-oriented society wouldn’t think of accepting physical healing based on the word of a remarkable holy man (not even the Son of God, I’m afraid). We are taught that it is a great virtue to interrogate everything, to hold back on belief until we are convinced by unbiased facts. But the great scholastic thinker and Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, pursued his deep dive into human reason with a pre-existing, deep faith in God and His ultimate authority and sovereignty over Creation. While Aquinas believed that there were many ways to find evidence for the existence of God, he also acknowledges that salvific knowledge arrives in a different manner: “it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation” (Summa, Ia, 1.1). He is saying that there are truths that exceed human reason. This is important, and something no die-hard, atheistic scientist would admit. Further, Aquinas is saying that God has deigned to share with us these truths through revelation – a statement that speaks to the love God has for us and the faculties other than reason that humans are capable of. So, while Aquinas really prioritizes and devotes himself to proofs of reason, he concedes that for some people it is perfectly appropriate to accept truths of the faith on the basis of sacred teaching, while others attempt to demonstrate these truths by means of reason (Summa, Ia 2.2 ad 1). And here we arrive at faith, that is, accepting truths on the basis of sacred teaching alone.

Allegory of Faith with Saints Dominic and Peter of Verona and the Donor, Baltasar Francisco Ramírez and his Wife, unknown painter (1626) | Image from The Allegory of Faith is a common Christian topic for painters, and many earlier versions were highly symbolic. By this date, however, the painter has chosen simply the symbols of the Eucharist and the Cross, themselves rich enough to symbolize the entire scope of salvation history. Of course, I chose this because our father in the rule, St. Dominic appears on the left and across from him the martyred St. Peter of Verona, another early Dominican.


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s fantastic book Introduction of Christianity emphasizes that we accept this character of our faith every time we pray: “‘Amen’ simply says once again in its own way what belief means: the trustful placing of myself on a ground that upholds me, not because I have made it and checked it by my own calculations but, rather, precisely because I have not made it and cannot check it” (75). As modern Catholics, we must work to uphold this ground of faith upon which we walk as a legitimate and essential aspect of being human. Jesus certainly did.


Note: for a further exploration of the connection between the Logos and “Amen,” see the post Amen, The Logos is the Great I AM

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