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.