The centurion was accustomed to exerting the might of Rome over the local Jewish population. Men in his position could confiscate property and conscript the local population into forced labour. As officers of a Roman military unit, centurions gave orders, not requests. So, considering the centurion’s position and power, it’s a bit strange that he doesn’t just summon Jesus to his home and command him to heal his servant.
Instead, the centurion shows unusual respect for Jewish religious boundaries. He knows that according to Jewish law, entering the home of a Gentile would bring about ritual uncleanness. So in a spirit of vulnerability and humble faith, the centurion appeals to Jesus for help from afar. “Only say the word and my servant will be healed”.
The centurion serves as an inspiration to all of us. No matter where we think we stand in relation to God, we can approach him. Even when we consider ourselves unworthy, we can come to God and ask him to look on us with mercy. The centurion’s encounter with Jesus shows us how graciously God receives people of humble heart. Far from responding with anger or impatience, he praises this pagan’s faith. He goes so far as to elevate the centurion’s faith above that of many of his fellow Jews. “Nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this!”
This is what merciful love looks like. It’s a love that involves mutual humility: ours, in acknowledging our weakness before God, and his, in extending his saving mercy. Every time we repeat the centurion’s words at Mass, we should make it a point to reinforce this message. God will take care of our needs. He will forgive our sins. And he will respond to our humility with his own humility and kindness.