A Centurion’s Faith and a Widow’s Son

Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–17

A centurion commanded 100 soldiers, but centurions fought alongside their men, unlike other commanding officers. Perhaps, for this reason, they enjoyed a specific bond with those they commanded. The structure of the Roman military was: legions (6,000 soldiers), cohorts (600 soldiers), and centuries (100 soldiers).  The centurion disciplined, recruited, and enforced orders among his men. They were often referred to as the “backbones” of the Roman army.

Soldiers weren’t stationed in Galilee until AD 44 (cf. Tacitus Annals 4.5). However, Herod Antipas could levy soldiers from outside his region since Capernaum was a garrison city and an import customs post. That this centurion is mentioned as having built their synagogue is contextual of a centurion’s pay, not to mention employing his troops as laborers.

This particular centurion loved the Jewish nation, so he was worthy of Christ to help in the eyes of the elders. The centurion loved the Jewish nation so much that he was aware of Jewish customs as they pertained to Jewish/Gentile relations. He was respectful not to breach the law and entertain a Jewish rabbi (cf. Acts 10:28; 11:12). Instead of Jesus’ presence, the centurion knew that as he commanded his soldiers, so too could Christ simply command the illness to be healed, and it would.

Some have suggested, based on Matthew’s account, that the “slave” (doulos) of Luke’s account should be interpreted in light of Matthew’s “servant” (pais) and that the term translated in Matthew was used in antiquity as the passive partner of a same-sex relationship. However, every other time Matthew uses this term, it’s translated as “servant” (12:18; 14:2), “child” (17:18; 21:15), or “young boy” (2:16). He wouldn’t have meant it as a homosexual relationship on this one occasion when he used it a certain way in all others. So the term Matthew used was indeed used of the passive partner of a same-sex relationship, but that was in classical Greek, whereas he wrote in koine Greek. For proponents of homosexuality, this would be a reasonable interpretation, but we take Luke’s later writing as an interpretation of Matthew’s. Therefore, Luke’s use of a word that indicates a servant or enslaved person is his interpretation of what Matthew wrote.

The following story very closely resembles Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17–24): 

●       Both were widows

●       Both had lost their only son

●       Both sons were touched by men of God

●       Both sons were revived

●       Both sons were delivered to their mothers

●       Both resulted in exclaiming to the healers the powers of God

However, there are also some notable differences. The son of Luke’s account is being carried to his burial. The process of taking the dead to their burial is thus described: 

The corpse was…taken on a bier carried by “shoulders” in bare feet so that they would not trip. The shoulders had the right to trample over sown fields….The “shoulders” changed frequently, so as to give as many as possible the chance to share in the honour of carrying the dead. The conventional number of stops (or “stations”) was seven, and the burial places had a field to which the mourners would direct their procession. 

The strong point of Christ’s compassion likely came because he knew the destitution of a widow with no sons to care for her (cf. Jer. 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech. 12:10). Therefore, as Ephrem the Syrian put it, “The Virgin’s son met the widow’s son” (Diatessaron 6.23).

Widows were considered to be under the special care of the Lord (Deut. 10:18; Ps. 68:5; 146:9; Prov. 15:25), and care for them on the part of others was regarded as distinguishing of pure religion (Job 31:16; James 1:27). To exploit a widow was reprehensible to God (cf. Exod. 22:22; Deut. 24:17). Later in the New Testament, Paul wrote about the qualifications for widows which included their being provided for by their families (1 Tim. 5:4), but if they had no families, the church would be their portion and care (1 Tim. 5:16; cf. Acts 6:1ff).

That this widow had no one to care for her was a sad state. Gregory of Nyssa said that Luke had given us, in his portrayal of this widow, “the sum of misery in a few words” (quoted in Aquinas, Catena Aurea 3.1.238). To erase her misery was Christ and his compassion for her lot. Once Jesus touched the dead body, he would have been considered unclean according to Jewish law (Num. 6:6, 11; 9:6–13.), but for him who had the power over death, he reversed the authority of uncleanness.

That One Verse Everyone Knows and Misuses

Matthew 7:1–8:1

Everyone and their mother knows Matthew 7:1, and they use it—often inappropriately. Yet, there’s more to this passage than telling people not to judge. For example, just a few verses later, Jesus warns against false teachers. To dub a person a false teacher, you have to be willing to judge what they teach and how they live (Matt. 7:15–20). Notice what follows: how we judge is how we will be judged (7:2). This critical person sees only the fault in others but none in themselves (7:3–5). We’re to judge righteously (John 7:24). Unrighteous judgment is according to appearance. Righteous judgment, however, is with grace, mercy, and God’s will as the standard. There’s always what we see and reality. Sometimes the two are the same, but sometimes they’re not. When we look for the worst, that’s what we’ll find every time. 

In matters of righteousness, we’re to judge our brethren and not outsiders (1 Cor. 5:12). Judgment here isn’t a condemnation but discernment. When a Christian doesn’t bear fruits of the spirit but works of the flesh, unrepentantly, we’re to address the issue. When you read the thought uninterrupted, it flows into the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, which denounced lawsuits among brethren. This matter is one of discipline (cf. Deut. 17:6–7; Matt. 18:15–20).

Next, Jesus urges persistent prayer (7:7–11). Then he gives the golden rule, which was meant to guide interpreting the Law (7:12). The golden rule parallels similar statements from other civilizations. 

Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. And what you hate, do not do to anyone. (Tobit 4:14–15; second century BC)

Let us show our generosity in the same manner that we would wish to have it bestowed on us. (Seneca, De Beneficiis 2.1.1; contemporary of Jesus)

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn! (Hillel, b. Sabb. 31a; 70 BC–AD 10)

Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you. (Confucius, Analects 15.23)

Anything that might seem as if we should treat another in a certain way must be turned on ourselves and asked whether or not we’d wish to be treated in that way. The two ways of verses 13–14 have parallels in other passages (Deut. 30:15; Ps. 1:1–2). 

The false prophets of whom Jesus speaks (7:15–20) must be set in the backdrop of how he said we should regard our enemies. In the decades following Jesus, prophets arose, leading revolts against the occupying Romans. Theudas (AD 44–46) led a band of people massacred by a squadron, the head of Theudas being paraded through Jerusalem. An Egyptian during Felix’s reign (AD 52–60) led several thousand people to the Mount of Olives, where he promised to command the city walls to fall and subsequently be installed as Israel’s king. Hundreds were killed, and hundreds were imprisoned, the Egyptian man having escaped. They could tell who the false prophets were by their fruits—if contrary to what Jesus taught them (non-violence), they were known to be false. 

Once more, he emphasizes proper action over confession (7:21–23). The false prophets would be known by their fruits. His disciples were to let their light shine through their good works (5:16). He wanted their righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes (5:20). At every turn, Jesus wanted his disciples to show, by their actions, fidelity to God. They’re not to make a show of it for others but to quietly serve God, trusting in him. Their house will stand if they heed his instructions (7:24–27). 

The response to Jesus’ teaching as having authority stems from his teaching coming directly from himself. Pharisees and rabbis would have cited the collective wisdom of the rabbis, the Law, or other Jewish writings. Jesus alludes to them but speaks with authority and settles the matter. He taught, unlike any other teacher that lived, citing other sources. 

You Have Heard It Said, But I Say To You

Matthew 6:1–34

Jesus addresses a concept exposing faults in the Pharisees and scribes. They did things to be seen (vv. 2, 5, 16). Verse one has “piety” or “charitable deeds.” The former is from a more ancient version of Scripture. The three acts of piety are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. A second-century BCE text highlights the relationship between the three.

Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies. (Tobit 12:8–10)

Each deed was to have been done privately, without drawing attention to oneself so that God receives glory (vv. 3–4, 6–7, 17–18). 

Almsgiving is commanded in the law (Deut. 14:28–29; 15:11), but it’s out of service to God and one’s neighbor that it is done and not for personal acclaim. The chests in the temple that people would place alms in were shaped like trumpets (shofar). The term translated as “hypocrite” is an old word for “actor.” One who plays a part or character that isn’t who they are is a hypocrite—an actor. 

Jews prayed three times daily: 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. (Ps. 55:17; cf. Dan. 6:10). The morning and evening prayers were at the same time as two of the daily sacrifices, so those living around Jerusalem would have heard the blast of the trumpets at the times of the burnt offerings (cf. 2 Chron. 29:26–30). Presumably, some would go about their day, and when the time of prayer came, they’d stop wherever they were to pray, drawing the notice of those present. The inner room Jesus speaks of here isn’t a closet per se but a storage room. The condemnation of vain repetition isn’t repetition altogether because Jesus did that (cf. Matt. 26:44). The idea here is showboating with too many words or bloviating. 

Rabbis often gave their disciples prayers to recite, so Jesus would have expected this prayer to be prayed verbatim. Outside the New Testament, Christian writing prescribes it to be prayed three times per day—presumably the times of prayer. 

And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” Pray thus three times a day. (Didache 8:2–3)

Many in the ancient world may have had little alternative to hunger, so to display fasting as an act of piety would have been rather insulting to those for whom hunger was common. This righteousness was often associated with mourning, repentance, and self-discipline. 

Wealth can change people. Most lottery winners go broke, and that’s after sometimes having millions of dollars. Others, however, become so changed by it that they cannot enjoy the little things. Where their treasure is, their hearts are as well (Matt. 6:21). Jesus has already warned about the eyes’ capacity to lead to sin (cf. 5:27–30), so what a person dwells on determines who they are in the inner person. If they are wealthy, they will be a slave to it. However, focusing on God and trusting in his provisions ensures their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (6:34).  

A New Way of Living

Matthew 5:13–48; Luke 6:27–36

When Jesus referred to his disciples as salt and light, the significance was not lost on them. They used salt to purify (Exod. 30:35; 2 Kings 2:19–22; Ezek. 16:4); thus, its ancient connotation symbolized purity and wisdom. Likewise, the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of “the children of light” who were on the side of God (1QS 2.3; 3.3.19–21). These two metaphors aren’t just representative of who Christians are but how their works were to be (Matt. 5:16). The works that demonstrate a Christian is acting as salt and light are partly given in Matthew 25:32–46. 

A common belief about Jesus was that he would abolish the law (Acts 6:14), so Matthew highlights that this wasn’t his intention, so much so that the most minute portions of the law would go unaltered. The jot is the Hebrew yod; it looks like an apostrophe. The tittle is even smaller but can change the entirety of the word, as seen in the differences between resh and dalet of the Hebrew alphabet.

No matter how minor a command seems, it’s still to be kept, and no one should ever minimize any law (cf. James 2:10). 

Highlighting what is said from this point onward, Jesus urges that his disciples behave more righteously than the scribes and Pharisees, known for being righteous. The first issue is murder: when committed, the Jewish court could judge the wrongdoer (Deut. 16:18; 21:1–9). Judgment can come to one who’s angry without cause (cf. 1 John 3:15). Insulting another was a legal offense, and the Jewish court could excommunicate a person for insulting a teacher (b. Ber. 19a). The progression is interesting: angry without cause = judgment; calling one “half whit” = council (Sanhedrin); calling one a “fool” = hell. Why, though? The type of anger here is long-lived and brooding over imagined or real injustices. This isn’t the type of anger that flares up and dissipates. Another term is used for the latter instead of what’s used here. In Jewish society, name-calling was a severe offense. Names indicate a person’s character or praise of God in some way, so to refer to someone as a half-whit or fool was to strip away the person’s significance by removing their name. Before offering a gift, something that might allude to Cain and Abel, God required reconciliation. 

Once more, going beyond the command, disciples are to avoid lust since it is as equal to adultery as the physical act. From here, Jesus doesn’t command self-mutilation but is speaking in hyperbole. Whatever it is that leads to the temptation should be severed. Finally, Jesus’ commands about divorce and remarriage were stricter than in most branches of Judaism at the time. The reason one may divorce is porneias. As the Old Testament used it, the related term was translated as “playing the whore.” In this case, let’s note a few things: 

  1. “Divorce” then was an exclusively religious act. In our time and culture, it is a civil action. When two people divorce today, they are unbinding themselves legally. Then, when a man gave his wife a divorce certificate, he said that he would no longer be responsible for caring for her, thus leaving her destitute if she didn’t have an adequate support system. People may legally divorce today, but the marriage has not dissolved in God’s eyes except for the condition Jesus attaches to it (Matt. 19:1–9).
  2. If a man divorces his wife for “playing the whore,” anyone who marries her commits adultery. Mind you: this isn’t limited to cheating. It can imply prostitution, incest, and other sexual sins, as Scripture defines. 

Oaths, retaliation, and resistance are forbidden. Roman soldiers could compel anyone to do something for up to a mile, but to go the extra mile demonstrates non-resistance. We’re also not to withhold but give, and we should love differently. Our love should extend to even those we would instead not love, as God loves all people. 

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