(St. Matt. viii.1, 5-15; St. Mark iii.20, 21; St. Luke vii.1-10.)
We are once again in Capernaum. It is remarkable how much, connected not only with the Ministry of Jesus, but with His innermost Life, gathers around that little fishing town. In all probability its prosperity was chiefly due to the neighbouring Tiberias, which Herod Antipas had built, about ten years previously. Noteworthy is it also, how many of the most attractive characters and incidents in the Gospel-history are connected with that Capernaum, which, as a city, rejected its own real glory, and, like Israel, and for the same reason, at last incurred a prophetic doom commensurate to its former privileges.
But as yet Capernaum was still exalted up to heaven.' Here was the home of that believing Court-official, whose child Jesus had healed. Here also was the household of Peter; and here the paralytic had found, together with forgiveness of his sins, health of body. Its streets, with their outlook on the deep blue Lake, had been thronged by eager multitudes in search of life to body and soul. Here Matthew-Levi had heard and followed the call of Jesus; and here the good Centurion had in stillness learned to love Israel, and serve Israel's King, and built with no niggard hand that Synagogue, most splendid of those yet exhumed in Galilee, which had been consecrated by the Presence and Teaching of Jesus, and by prayers, of which the conversion of Jairus, its chief ruler, seems the blessed answer. And now, from the Mount of Beatitudes, it was again to His temporary home at Capernaum that Jesus retired. Yet not either to solitude or to rest. For, of that multitude which had hung entranced on His Words many followed Him, and there was now such constant pressure around Him, that, in the zeal of their attendance upon the wants and demands of those who hungered after the Bread of Life, alike Master and disciples found not leisure so much as for the necessary sustenance of the body.
The circumstances, the incessant work, and the all-consuming zeal which even His friends' could but ill understand, led to the apprehension - the like of which is so often entertained by well-meaning persons in all ages, in their practical ignorance of the all-engrossing but also sustaining character of engagements about the Kingdom - that the balance of judgment might be overweighted, and high reason brought into bondage to the poverty of our earthly frame. In its briefness, the account of what these friends,' or rather those from Him' - His home - said and did, is most pictorial. On tidings reaching them, with reiterated, growing, and perhaps Orientally exaggerating details, they hastened out of their house in a neighbouring street to take possession of Him, as if He had needed their charge. It is not necessary to include the Mother of Jesus in the number of those who actually went. Indeed, the later express mention of His Mother and brethren' seems rather opposed to the supposition. Still less does the objection deserve serious refutation, that any such procedure, assumedly, on the part of the Virgin-Mother, would be incompatible with the history of Jesus' Nativity. For, all must have felt, that the zeal' of God's House was, literally, consuming' Him, and the other view of it, that it was setting on fire, not the physical, but the psychical framework of His humiliation, seems in no way inconsistent with what loftiest, though as yet dim, thought had come to the Virgin about her Divine Son. On the other hand, this idea, that He was beside Himself,' afforded the only explanation of what otherwise would have been to them well-nigh inexplicable. To the Eastern mind especially this want of self-possession, the being beside' oneself, would point to possession by another - God or Devil. It was on the ground of such supposition that the charge was so constantly raised by the Scribes, and unthinkingly taken up by the people, that Jesus was mad, and had a devil: not a demoniacal possession, be it marked, but possession by the Devil, in the absence of self-possessedness. And hence our Lord characterised this charge as really blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. And this also explains how, while unable to deny the reality of His Works, they could still resist their evidential force.
However that incident may for the present have ended, it could have caused but brief interruption to His Work. Presently there came the summons of the heathen Centurion and the healing of His servant, which both St. Matthew and St. Luke record, as specially bearing on the progressive unfolding of Christ's Mission. Notably - these two Evangelists; and notably - with variations due to the peculiar standpoint of their narratives. No really serious difficulties will be encountered in trying to harmonise the details of these two narratives; that is, if any one should attach importance to such precise harmony. At any rate, we cannot fail to perceive the reason of these variations. Meyer regards the account of St. Luke as the original, Keim that of St. Matthew - both on subjective rather than historical grounds. But we may as well note, that the circumstance, that the event is passed over by St. Mark, militates against the favourite modern theory of the Gospels being derived from an original tradition (what is called the original Mark,' Ur-Marcus).
If we keep in view the historical object of St. Matthew, as primarily addressing himself to Jewish, while St. Luke wrote more especially for Gentile readers, we arrive, at least, at one remarkable outcome of the variations in their narratives. Strange to say, the Judæan Gospel gives the pro-Gentile, the Gentile narrative the pro-Jewish, presentation of the event. Thus, in St. Matthew the history is throughout sketched as personal and direct dealing with the heathen Centurion on the part of Christ, while in the Gentile narrative of St. Luke the dealing with the heathen is throughout indirect, by the intervention of Jews, and on the ground of the Centurion's spiritual sympathy with Israel. Again, St. Matthew quotes the saying of the Lord which holds out to the faith of Gentiles a blessed equality with Israel in the great hope of the future, while it puts aside the mere claim of Israel after the flesh, and dooms Israel to certain judgment. On the other hand, St. Luke omits all this. A strange inversion it might seem, that the Judæan Gospel should contain what the Gentile account omits, except for this, that St. Matthew argues with his countrymen the real standing of the Gentiles, while St. Luke pleads with the Gentiles for sympathy and love with Jewish modes of thinking. The one is not only an exposition, but a justification, of the event as against Israel; the other an Eirenicon, as well as a touching representation of the plea of the younger with his elder brother at the door of the Father's House.
But the fundamental truth in both accounts is the same; nor is it just to say that in the narrative the Gentiles are preferred before Israel. So far from this, their faith is only put on an equality with that of believing Israel. It is not Israel, but Israel's fleshly claims and unbelief, that are rejected; and Gentile faith occupies, not a new position outside Israel, but shares with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the fulfilment of the promise made to their faith. Thus we have here the widest Jewish universalism, the true interpretation of Israel's hope; and this, even by the admission of our opponents, not as a later addition, but as forming part of Christ's original teaching. But if so, it revives, only in accentuated manner, the question: Whence this essential difference between the teaching of Christ on this subject, and that of contemporary Rabbinism.
Yet another point may be gained from the admissions of negative criticism, at least on the part of its more thoughtful representatives. Keim is obliged to acknowledge the authenticity of the narrative. It is immaterial here which recension' of it may be regarded as the original. The Christ did say what the Gospels represent! But Strauss has shown, that in such case any natural or semi-natural explanation of the healing is impossible. Accordingly, the Trilemma' left is: either Christ was really what the Gospels represent Him, or He was a daring enthusiast, or (saddest of all) He must be regarded as a conscious impostor. If either of the two last alternatives were adopted, it would, in the first instance, be necessary to point out some ground for the claim of such power on the part of Jesus. What could have prompted Him to do so? Old Testament precedent there was none; certainly not in the cure of Naaman by Elisha. And Rabbinic parallelism there was none. For, although a sudden cure, and at a distance, is related in connection with a Rabbi, all the circumstances are absolutely different. In the Jewish story recourse was, indeed, had to a Rabbi; but for prayer that the sick might be healed of God, not for actual healing by the Rabbi. Having prayed, the Rabbi informed the messengers who had come to implore his help, that the fever had left the sick. But when asked by them whether he claimed to be a prophet, he expressly repudiated any prophetic knowledge, far more any supernatural power of healing, and explained that liberty in prayer always indicated to him that his prayer had been answered. All analogy thus failing, the only explanation left to negative criticism, in view of the admitted authenticity of the narrative, is, that the cure was the result of the psychical influence of the Centurion's faith and of that of his servant. But what, in that case, of the words which Jesus admittedly spoke? Can we, as some would have it, rationally account for their use by the circumstance that Jesus had had experience of such psychical influences on disease? or that Christ's words were, so to speak, only an affirmation of the Centurion's faith - something between a benedictory wish' and an act? Surely, suggestions like these carry their own refutation.
Apart, then, from explanations which have been shown untenable, what is the impression left on our minds of an event, the record of which is admitted to be authentic? The heathen Centurion is a real historical personage. He was captain of the troop quartered in Capernaum, and in the service of Herod Antipas. We know that such troops were chiefly recruited from Samaritans and Gentiles of Cæsarea. Nor is there the slightest evidence that this Centurion was a proselyte of righteousness.' The accounts both in St. Matthew and in St. Luke are incompatible with this idea. A proselyte of righteousness' could have had no reason for not approaching Christ directly, nor would he have spoken of himself as unfit' that Christ should come under his roof. But such language quite accorded with Jewish notions of a Gentile, since the houses of Gentiles were considered as defiled, and as defiling those who entered them. On the other hand, the proselytes of righteousness' were in all respects equal to Jews, so that the words of Christ concerning Jews and Gentiles, as reported by St. Matthew, would not have been applicable to them. The Centurion was simply one who had learned to love Israel and to reverence Israel's God; one who, not only in his official position, but from love and reverence, had built that Synagogue, of which, strangely enough, now after eighteen centuries, the remains, in their rich and elaborate carvings of cornices and entablatures, of capitals and niches, show with what liberal hand he had dealt his votive offerings.
We know too little of the history of the man, to judge what earlier impulses had led him to such reverence for Israel's God. There might have been something to incline him towards it in his early upbringing, perhaps in Cæsarea; or in his family relationships; perhaps in that very servant (possibly a Jew) whose implicit obedience to his master seems in part to have led him up to faith in analogous submission of all things to the behests of Christ. The circumstances, the times, the place, the very position of the man, make such suppositions rational, event suggested them. In that case, his whole bearing would be consistent with itself, and with what we know of the views and feelings of the time. In the place where the son of his fellow official at the Court of Herod had been healed by the Word of Jesus, spoken at a distance, in the Capernaum which was the home of Jesus and the scene of so many miracles, it was only what we might expect, that in such case he should turn to Jesus and ask His help. Quiet consistent with his character is the straightforwardness of his expectancy, characteristically illustrated by his military experience - what Bengel designates as the wisdom of his faith beautifully shining out in the bluffness of the soldier. When he had learned to own Israel's God, and to believe in the absolute unlimited power of Jesus, no such difficulties would come to him, nor, assuredly, such cavils rise, as in the minds of the Scribes, or even of the Jewish laity. Nor is it even necessary to suppose that, in his unlimited faith in Jesus, the Centurion had distinct apprehension of His essential Divinity. In general, it holds true, that, throughout the Evangelic history, belief in the Divinity of our Lord was the outcome of experience of His Person and Work, not the condition and postulate of it, as is the case since the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Ghost and His indwelling in the Church.
In view of these facts, the question with the Centurion would be: not, Could Jesus heal his servant, but, Would He do so? And again, this other specifically: Since, so far as he knew, no application from any in Israel, be it even publican or sinner, had been doomed to disappointment, would he, as a Gentile, be barred from share in this blessing? was he unworthy,' or, rather, unfit' for it? Thus this history presents a crucial question, not only as regarded the character of Christ's work, but the relation to it of the Gentile world. Quiet consist with this - nay, its necessary outcome - were the scruples of the Centurion to make direct, personal application to Jesus. In measure as he reverenced Jesus, would these scruples, from his own standpoint, increase. As the houses of Gentiles were unclean,' entrance into them, and still more familiar fellowship, would defile.' The Centurion must have known this; and the higher he placed Jesus on the pinnacle of Judaism, the more natural was it for him to communicate with Christ through the elders of the Jews, and not to expect the Personal Presence of the Master, even if the application to him were attended with success. And here it is important (for the criticism of this history) to mark that, alike in the view of the Centurion, and even in that of the Jewish elders who under-took his commission, Jesus as yet occupied the purely Jewish stand-point.
Closely considered, whatever verbal differences, there is not any real discrepancy in this respect between the Judæan presentation of the event in St. Matthew and the fuller Gentile account of it by St. Luke. From both narratives we are led to infer that the house of the Centurion was not in Capernaum itself, but in its immediate neighbourhood, probably on the road to Tiberias. And so in St. Matt. viii.7, we read the words of our Saviour when consenting: I, having come, will heal him;' just as in St. Luke's narrative a space of time intervenes, in which intimation is conveyed to the Centurion, when he sends friends' to arrest Christ's actual coming into his house. Nor does St. Matthew speak of any actual request on the part of the Centurion, even though at first sight his narrative seems to imply a personal appearance. The general statement beseeching Him' - although it is not added in what manner, with what words, nor for what special thing - must be explained by more detailed narrative of the embassy of Jewish Elders. There is another marked agreement in the seeming difference of the two accounts. In St. Luke's narrative, the second message of the Centurion embodies two different expressions, which our Authorised Version unfortunately renders by the same word. It should read: Trouble not Thyself, for I am not fit (Levitically speaking) that Thou shouldest enter under my roof;' Levitically, or Judaistically speaking, my house is not a fit place for Thy entrance; Wherefore neither did I judge myself worthy (spiritually, morally, religiously) [xosa, Pondus habens, ejusdem ponderis cum aliqo, pretio aequans] to come unto Thee.' Now, markedly, in St. Matthew's presentation of the same event to the Jews, this latter worthiness' is omitted, and we only have St. Luke's first term, fit' (kans): I am not fit that thou shouldest come under my roof,' my house is unfitting Thine entrance. This seems to bear out the reasons previously indicated for the characteristic peculiarities of the two narratives.
But in their grand leading features the two narratives entirely agree. There is earnest supplication for his sick, seemingly dying servant. Again, the Centurion in the fullest sense believes in the power of Jesus to heal, in the same manner as he knows his own commands as an officer would be implicitly obeyed; for, surely, no thoughtful reader would seriously entertain the suggestion, that the military language of the Centurion only meant, that he regarded disease as caused by evil demons or noxious power who obeyed Jesus, as soldiers or servants do their officer or master. Such might have been the underlying Jewish view of the times; but the fact, that in this very thing Jesus contrasted the faith of the Gentile with that of Israel, indicates that the language in question must be taken in its obvious sense. But in his self-acknowledged unfitness' lay the real fitness' of this good soldier for membership with the true Israel; and his deep-felt unworthiness' the real worthiness' (the ejusdem ponderis) for the Kingdom' and its blessings. It was this utter disclaimer of all claim, outward or inward, which prompted that absoluteness of trust which deemed all things possible with Jesus, and marked the real faith of the true Israel. Here was one, who was in the state described in the first clauses of the Beatitudes,' and to whom came the promise of the second clauses; because Christ is the connecting link between the two, and because He consciously was such to the Centurion, and, indeed, the only possible connecting link between them.
And so we mark it, in what must be regarded as the high-point in this history, so far as its teaching to us all, and therefore the reason of its record in the New Testament, is concerned: that participation in the blessedness of the kingdom is not connected with any outward relationship towards it, nor belongs to our inward consciousness in regard to it; but is granted by the King to that faith which in deepest simplicity realises, and holds fast by Him. And yet, although discarding every Jewish claim to them - or, it may be, in our days, everything that is merely outwardly Christian - these blessings are not outside, still less beyond, what was the hope of the Old Testament, nor in our days the expectancy of the Church, but are literally its fulfilment; the sitting down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.' Higher than, and beyond this not even Christ's provision can take us.
But for the fuller understanding of the words of Christ, the Jewish modes of thought, which He used in illustration, required to be briefly explained. It was common belief, that in the day of the Messiah redeemed Israel would be gathered to a great feast, together with the patriarchs and heroes of the Jewish faith. This notion, which was but a coarsely literal application of such prophetic figures as in Is. xxv.6, had perhaps yet another and deeper meaning. As each weekly Sabbath was to be honoured by a feast, in which the best which the family could procure was to be placed on the board, so would the world's great Sabbath be marked by a feast in which the Great Householder, Israel's King, would entertain His household and Guests. Into the painfully, and, from the notions of the times, grossly realistic description of this feast, it is needless here to enter. One thing, however, was clear: Gentiles could have no part in that feast. In fact, the shame and anger of these' foes on seeing the table spread' for this Jewish feast was among the points specially noticed as fulfilling the predictions of Ps. xxiii.5. On this point, then, the words of Jesus in reference to the believing Centurion formed the most marked contrast to Jewish teaching.
In another respect also we mark similar contrariety. When our Lord consigned the unbelieving to outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,' he once more used Jewish language, only with opposite application of it. Gehinnom - of which the entrance, marked by ever ascending smoke, was in the valley of Hinnom, between two palm trees - lay beyond the mountains of darkness.' It was a place of darkness, to which in the day of the Lord, the Gentiles would be consigned. On the other hand, the merit of circumcision would in the day of the Messiah deliver Jewish sinners from Gehinnom. It seems a moot question, whether the expression outer darkness' may not have been intended to designate - besides the darkness outside the lighted house of the Father, and even beyond the darkness of Gehinnom - a place of hopeless, endless night. Associated with it is weeping and the gnashing of teeth.' In Rabbinic thought the former was connected with sorrow, the latter almost always anger - not, as generally supposed, with anguish.
To complete our apprehension of the contrast between the views of the Jews and the teaching of Jesus, we must bear in mind that, as the Gentiles could not possibly share in the feast of the Messiah, so Israel had claim and title to it. To use Rabbinic terms, the former were children of Gehinnom,' but Israel children of the Kingdom,' or, in strictly Rabbinic language, royal children,' children of God,' of heaven,' children of the upper chamber' (the Aliyah) and of the world to come.' In fact, in their view, God had first sat down on His throne as King, when the hymn of deliverance (Ex. xv.1) was raised by Israel - the people which took upon itself that yoke of the Law which all other nations of the world had rejected.
Never, surely, could the Judaism of His hearers have received more rude shock than by this inversion of all their cherished beliefs. There was a feast of Messianic fellowship, a recognition on the part of the King of all His faithful subjects, a joyous festive gathering with the fathers of the faith. But this fellowship was not of outward, but of spiritual kinship. There were children of the Kingdom,' and there was an outer darkness' with its anguish and despair. But this childship was of the Kingdom, such as He had opened it to all believers; and that outer darkness theirs, who had only outward claims to present. And so this history of the believing Centurion is at the same time an application of the Sermon on the Mount' - in this also aptly following the order of its record - and a further carrying out of its teaching. Negatively, it differentiated the Kingdom from Israel; while, positively, it placed the hope of Israel, and fellowship with its promises, within reach of all faith, whether of Jew or Gentile. He Who taught such new and strange truth could never be called a mere reformer of Judaism. There cannot be reform,' where all the fundamental principles are different. Surely He was the Son of God, the Messiah of men, Who, in such surrounding, could so speak to Jew and Gentile of God and His Kingdom. And surely also, He, Who could so bring spiritual life to the dead, could have no difficulty by the same word, in the self-same hour,' to restore life and health to the servant of him, whose faith had inherited the Kingdom. The first grafted tree of heathendom that had so blossomed could not shake off unripe fruit. If the teaching of Christ was new and was true, so must His work have been. And in this lies the highest vindication of this miracle - that He is the Miracle.