As I was preparing for a bible study this past week, I noticed a handful of differences between Matthew's account of the Centurion and Luke's account (cf. Matthew 8:5-13 & Luke 7:1-10). Below is a list of five things that stood out to me, one of which deserves some extra special attention (as you will see below):
1) If both gospels are compared chronologically, Matthew’s story takes place before Luke’s account does. Matthew places the two miracles of healing a leper and a centurion’s servant after the Sermon on the Mount. Luke, however, places the healing of the leper before Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the healing of the centurion’s servant after the Sermon. Many faithful scholars attempt to distinguish Luke's "sermon" as being "on a Plain" and not on a "Mount," as in Matthew, and as though they were two separate "sermons." But because the content and environment of each sermon account remains remarkably similar (as though it were the exact same sermon), I am comfortable assuming that they are the same. And I just think that makes many scholars uncomfortable. It may be the case that many Christians don't want to accept the viewpoint that Matthew's gospel was written with different literary conventions than modern ones, because that may lead some people to consider it as historical fiction, instead of true historical accounts. Anyway, sorry for the digression. My point is that the chronology is noticeably different, and I don't think that is enough evidence to conclude that both accounts are contradictory or fictitious. Rather, I believe that this is another very clear indicator that Matthew is writing his gospel to a very specific audience which understood and used different literary conventions than Luke's audience, and therefore none of the history recorded in each gospel ought to be viewed as fictitious or contradictory if interpreted from each perspective (as shown below).
2) Another thing which stands out is that Matthew’s gospel describes a beloved servant-child1 who is "paralyzed" and "suffering terribly," whereas Luke’s gospel describes a valuable slave (doulos) who is "sick" and "at the point of death." These two descriptions are not contradictory, but the differences do appear to be striking at first glance. It is evident that each author wants his audience to focus upon certain details and not others. In this instance, the focus of Matthew's version is upon a specific illness (paralyzation) which needs healing, and nothing more. Luke's account, however, is more general in it's description. Matthew's account describes a condition in which one can anticipate a life of agony for the servant-son and his loving master, the Centurion; whereas Luke's account get's right to the point: there is a Centurion whose highly valued slave is at the point of death. And this particular Centurion also happens to be highly valued by the Jews because he helped build their local synagogue (Luke 7:5).
3) Matthew's account is also written in such a way that it appears as though the Centurion himself is talking with Jesus. But in Luke’s account, the centurion sends leaders from the Jewish community to represent him, and to talk with Jesus, and there is also no indication that Jesus ever meets the Centurion face-to-face. It's as though the Centurion sends2 his own "apostles" to represent him before Jesus. This again, is another indicator that Matthew is writing his gospel with a different literary convention than Luke. Matthew records this historical account with a heavy emphasis upon Jesus' communication with the Centurion, and nothing more. The communication between Jesus and the Centurion is the most important factor of Matthew's account, because if the reader can sense what the Centurion is feeling for his servant, the reader can also sense Jesus' feelings for his servant (the Centurion).
4) This brings us to the most striking aspect of Matthew's account (in my opinion). Only Matthew's account records the first and last words which Jesus uses to address the Centurion. Luke's account shows more about Jesus' actions, but doesn't tell us what Jesus actually said to the Centurion. Just look briefly at a red-letter bible. Matthew's account shows what Jesus actually said. And when the Centurion provides a question for Jesus to answer, Jesus doesn't respond immediately with an affirmative "yes" (contrary to modern translations). Instead, Jesus responds with a question: "Am I to come and heal him?"3 Another way of looking at this scenario is through the more subtle lens of Luke's account, which says that after "pleading with Jesus earnestly," Jesus went to visit the Centurion's suffering servant (Luke 7:4). In Matthew's account, the reader is supposed to feel and empathize with the agony of the paralyzed servant-son and his compassionate lord (the Gentile Centurion). But after finally reaching Jesus, he is not immediately received with compassion, as he probably was among the other Jews who knew that he loved Israel and built them a synagogue. Instead, Matthew's account shows that Jesus is the cautious one. And it appears as though Jesus is cautious because he is being solicited by a Gentile from afar. This sets the stage for the reader to imagine what Jesus' reaction might be if other faithful Gentiles in the future came to him from afar. The response of the Centurion is what really seals this feeling of distance between Jew (Jesus) and Gentile (the Centurion), which, as we'll see in a few moments, leads us into understanding why Jesus' spoke even more shocking words to his surrounding Jewish audience.
After receiving Jesus' sharp response, the Centurion responds as one whose faith was unshakable. Not only does he respond by addressing Jesus directly as his "Lord," but he argues further that he is not even worthy to have the Lord under his roof. Moreover, his faith is so great that he truly believes Jesus only has to say "a word" and his servant would be healed. (Modern translations have "but only say the word," when actually the Greek is much more casual than that: "but say only a word, and my servant will be healed.") The faith of this centurion is marvelous indeed! But this is not all! Not only has the centurion endured a blockade of caution from Jesus, but he presses onward and over that apparent obstacle with a testimony of faith which trusts God so much that even though his servant is far away, all his Lord would have to do is say one word -- any word -- and His will would be done.
At this point in the story, we might want to take a breath and pause for a moment or two just to reflect upon how great this man's faith was. This Centurion is not acting in mere desperation, believing blindly in anyone who claims they can help him. No! This Gentile has true faith in the Lord of all creation! And just when we might think the Centurion has shown us how great his faith is, Matthew provides us with one more illustration of his faith, straight from the centurion's own mouth. It's always great to see a man whose faith is unshaken by obstacles and disappointments in life. It's even more encouraging to see such a man confess a faith so great that he doesn't need to see the miracle in order to know that its power is standing before his very own eyes. But this man has such a marvelous faith that, after all this, he is willing to admit publicly that he is a man under authority like Jesus. He says, "for I also am a man under authority." This Gentile Centurion knows what it's like to tell one of his servants, "Go!" and his will is accomplished. He says "Come!" to another, and his will is obeyed with only a word. And he believes that Jesus is Lord over all creatures, and because He is the Lord, He only has to say a word. This Gentile has an extra-ordinary faith! It has not even dawned across this Gentile's mind that Jesus is merely a prophetic leader like John the Baptizer, or simply another self-proclaimed leader, like Judas Maccabaeus, who has come to restore pure worship and begin a revolution in Israel again. Instead, this Centurion sees Jesus as someone under authority, as well as someone with authority over life itself. And it is to this compound expression of faith which Jesus "marvels" (Matt. 8:10).
The fact that Jesus "marvels" is really fascinating. “Marveling” is the typical response of the people who see Jesus’ miraculous works (cf. 8:27; 9:33; 15:31). But Jesus is the one who marvels this time! And then Jesus turns to the crowds that followed him, saying "with no one in Israel have I found such faith!" (v. 10) And it is to that faith which Jesus finally responds directly to the Centurion. And he does so with only a word. He says "Go." No long drawn-out explanation of what to do next, and no protracted conditions. Further assurance is simply granted by the closing statements of Jesus and Matthew: "' It shall be done for you as you have believed.' And the servant was healed at that very moment."
5) It's no wonder that Matthew's account includes the somewhat cryptic statement of Jesus about Gentiles traveling from all over the world -- from east and west -- coming to feast with the patriarchs in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11-12). The Jews considered themselves to be the "children of the kingdom" who, of course, thought they had inherent legal rights to recline and feast with the saints of God in heaven. But Jesus does not mince words with the crowds who followed him. He's explicit about a promised flood of faithful saints from east and west -- saints with faith like the Gentile centurion standing before him -- who would inherit a place at the Lord's Table. Interestingly, Jesus describes the kind of place where the "children of the kingdom" (who are wise and righteous in their own eyes) will be while the kingdom of heaven is ushering in faithful saints from east and west. The place is described as a location where there will be "gnashing of teeth" and "weeping" in complete "darkness" (8:12). Now, it doesn't take much imagination to realize that when teeth are being gnashed together, it's probably not because they are trying to express great comfort. And weeping isn't supposed to conjure up expressions of joy either. In other words, this place of "darkness" is probably not a place where the patriarchs spend a whole lot of time when they're not feasting with the rest of God's saints. And that's Matthew's point. That's why he highlights the fact that Jesus "marveled." Jesus wasn't marveling at mere faith, but a faith that stood out as being so contrary to the faith proposed by "children of the kingdom." The self-righteous "children of the kingdom" who remain completely befuddled by the faith of this Gentile are not going to be feasting at the Lord's Table with all His saints.
1. The Greek word παῖς used here can mean both "servant","child", and "son."
2. The Greek verb for "sent" used here in Luke 7:3 is apesteilen, from which the noun, "apostle," is derived. The Centurion "sent [apesteilen] to him elders of the Jews."
3. Most modern translations have Jesus saying: "I will come and heal him." But in order to get that particular translation from the Greek, the pronoun Ἐγὼ ("I myself") has to be overlooked. And that pronoun is not only grammatically unnecessary to form a declarative sentence in Greek, but, according to R.T. France, it "is also given added emphasis" for forming an interrogative sentence "by being placed first in the sentence." [NICNT: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007) p. 313]. The Nestle-Aland Greek text and United Bible Society Greek text both give the interrogative punctuation in the margin.