Tales of Faith: Centurion vs. Disciples

Don: We’ve been studying the subject of faith since the month of August. We’ve come a fair distance, but we’re still looking for a working definition of faith. We’ve been using Hebrews 11 as our curriculum of sorts in looking at faith as evidenced by Old Testament stories of ancient prophets.

Today, I’d like to shift gears, to look at the faith of Jesus. What did Jesus teach about faith? Can we gain further insight from stories of Jesus in the New Testament?

In Matthew 8 are two stories where faith is explicitly mentioned by Jesus. In one, featuring a centurion, he refers to “great faith.” Indeed, you might say the greatest faith, since he indicated that the centurion had greater faith than anyone in Israel. The other story references little faith in the context of a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Both stories followed immediately on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount.

If you could boil down the words of the Sermon on the Mount to a few ideas, a few themes, you might say that Jesus taught that religion is to simply love God and love your neighbor as yourself, that the kingdom of heaven is not just something for the by-and-by, but something for the here-and-now. But you might also realize that religion in the kingdom of heaven is not what you’ve been thinking it is.

Jesus says six times in the Sermon on the Mount, “You’ve been told this, but this is really what the situation is; This is what you’ve learned, but this is the reality.” In the kingdom of heaven, you turn the other cheek, you give away not just $1 but $2, you do good to those who do you bad, you love your enemies, you go the back of the line. To his contemporary listeners, perhaps most shocking of all:

“… unless your righteousness far surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

What did he mean by that? Keep this in mind as we study two stories of faith that make us ask the question, “What makes the faith of one man different from the faith of another?”

 And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, begging Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, terribly tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He was amazed and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Matthew 8:5-13)

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea…. When He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold, a violent storm developed on the sea, so that the boat was being covered by the waves; but Jesus Himself was asleep. And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm. The men were amazed, and said, “What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:18, 23–27)

Notice the similarities in these stories. Both take place on the metaphorical road and metaphorical sea of life: The centurion on the road of life to Capernaum, the disciples on the sea of life and Galilee. Things happen on the metaphorical road and sea, things that are unexpected, catastrophic, disabling, even life threatening. They are as unpredictable as the weather, and they’re not of our own choosing. God is on the road of life as well. God is on the sea of life. In fact, God is in the boat.

But there are some differences as well. When the storms of life arise, one seeks God, but it seems that God is asleep. To God, a calm sea and a life-threatening gale seem to be the same thing. His actions are the same, and as Hebrews 13:8 says, “He is the same, now and forever.” Notice, too, that the centurion proclaims his unworthiness to host Jesus. This is just the opposite of our view of faith. We want God at our house, and we claim it by faith. As a matter of fact, if God is with us at our house, we claim it’s because we have great faith. It means that we’ve had faith enough to get him there—enough faith, enough prayer, enough anointing, enough belief. That is what gets God to your home to relieve your suffering. For the centurion, however, this was unnecessary. He saw no need to corral God, no need to possess God, no need to control God, no need to exclusively retain or to occupy him.

The disciples in the boat had possession of God already, and demanded that he save them: “And they came and they woke him and saying, ‘Save us, Lord, we are perishing.’ And He said to them, ‘Why are you timid, you men of little faith?'” (Some translations say “fearful,” some say “afraid.”) What is timid about pleading for God’s help? What is fearful about demanding deliverance?

Notice that the disciples “marveled” that the winds in the sea would obey Jesus. This word “marvel” is the same one Jesus used in verse 10: “When Jesus heard this, he marveled, and said to those who are following him, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such faith with anyone in Israel.’ The disciples marvel at the at the works of Jesus, while Jesus marvels at the faith of the centurion.

Put these stories side by side, then look at their similarities. Both supplicants need help, having exhausted themselves of their ability to help themselves and overcome by stress and distress in life. Both of them turn to God. Both of them have a favorable outcome. One has great faith, even “the greatest” faith; one has little faith. One has bold faith, one has timid faith. One has confident faith, one has feeble faith.

What makes faith great? What makes faith timid or little? Looking at the similarities and the differences, what do these stories teach us about faith, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount?

Donald: In the last few weeks we have wrestled with the idea of whether faith “is” binary—on or off—or whether faith can be on a continuum from little to great. We’ve talked about the relationship of faith and prayer. I guess you could have faith and not pray. But I would think prayer does correlate with your reaching out toward a greater being.

What is faith in relationship to God interceding? When we want something to happen (and I think we have struggled with this, at least I have) are we actually thinking we’re going to change God’s mind, or the way it’s going to play out, if we pray earnestly? Or does my prayer reflect my faith and build strength in me because it demonstrates my faith in God? In times of crisis or need, I think we reach out and I think that just brings assurance independent of whether God changes the way things play out.

I don’t know that I’ve said anything new. But I think we’re all feeling like we’re not all on the same page regarding faith. Maybe I’m wrong on that.

Anonymous: With regard to the centurion’s faith compared to the disciples’ faith, maybe the difference is fear. The centurion is not afraid for the life of his servant. He has the confidence of a man in authority, like Jesus. So he approaches Jesus and is kind of confident that things will work out, because he’s in authority and only has to say the word for things to be done.

The centurion is not afraid for himself, unlike the disciples, who fear for their lives. That must make a lot of difference. When we pray with fear for our lives, it’s not easy to be confident, to be relaxed, to just talk calmly to Jesus, like the centurion. But I imagine the disciples going frightened to him: “Come on, do something! We’re perishing.” Maybe that’s that’s the difference.

Chris: The thing I find striking is that the response of the disciples in their little boat being overwhelmed by the waves is actually a little bit selfish. “We are going to perish. You need to save us.” They were not worried about their fellow man, but worried about themselves, whereas the centurion is worried about a mere servant. What did one servant really mean to such a powerful man? He could easily have gotten another servant. He already had the ability to tell multiple servants, “You go here, you go there, you do this, you do that” and they would jump to it. But he went to Jesus not for himself or to meet some need of his own. He went for somebody else—an almost selfless act, which is why I think Jesus pointed out he’s never seen anybody with greater faith.

As these two stories were compared, I think about the times in my own life when I’ve asked for help and in the end, while I may have been praying for somebody else to be healed, or somebody else to have peace because of some trial, I think maybe there was a little bit of a selfish thought to help myself feel better because I was also distraught. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask for things for ourselves. But I think there may be something in this that lies behind the true intent of what faith should be and how faith should be exercised.

Don: Anyone want to stand up for asking God for help in times of trouble?

David: In both cases, the supplicants were blessed. The centurion was blessed because God was clearly already present in his house, so it wasn’t even necessary for Jesus to go there. The centurion was obeying the golden rule: Love your fellow man. If you love your fellow man, then you’re automatically loving God whether you know it or admit it or not.

The disciples in the boat were blessed for a different reason. Theirs too was the kingdom of God, because if you go back a couple of chapters to the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) you read: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Well, the disciples were pretty poor in spirit in that tiny boat caught in a dreadful storm. And they were blessed. Indeed they were. They had Jesus with them, and he answered their prayer.

But such stories will all be taken as examples of God intervening in worldly affairs and I don’t believe that can be the meaning. It’s easy enough to explain as God stepping in to help people at the point of death but he does it to help with the transition, not to prevent it. Neither the centurion nor his servant were at the point of death—the servant was just paralyzed and in pain. But the stories give the impression that if you’re in pain, God will intervene . And we’ve seen enough examples to know that it ain’t necessarily so, not in this life.

Donald: These examples suggest that prayer is not for building one’s own personal strength in God, it is rather for change, to have God intercede. But last week we asked how many Adventist anointings result in a change in circumstance? I’m not sure where we are on this. We want change to transpire. We continually ask if it’s possible. But often the result seems the same as if we hadn’t prayed to begin with.

Anonymous: The word “marvel’ also struck a chord in me. The disciples saw Jesus doing miracles. They of all people knew the most about Jesus. They accompanied him all the time, yet they still marveled when he calmed the storm. It’s like it was something new to them, something they didn’t expect. The centurion, on the other hand, may never have seen Jesus in action but had only heard of him. He was not even a Jew, not even a believer. Most likely he heard and believed without seeing. That’s where the strength of his faith came from. No wonder Jesus marveled that he believed without seeing.

The disciples saw Jesus all the time yet they marveled at the unexpected. We should learn from our experience of the works of God in our lives. Our lives are a series of daily miracles. We see them every day. They could be small as “Lord, please help me get through the traffic light without being caught in the middle.” If he answers and you get through the lights, then: “Thank you, Lord, this is a miracle!” It may seem small and insignificant to some people but it is very meaningful to others. The disciples saw miracles big and small, yet they still marveled. I don’t know if that’s evidence of little faith?!

Reinhard: To me the stories are very interesting as metaphors. The experience of the disciples is interesting. They are close to Jesus, yet it seems their faith in Jesus is not strong enough, or not mature enough. They don’t have the feeling that he is God who can do anything, perform any miracle, even though they have seen him miraculously cure sick people. The centurion, in contrast, already has mature faith. Maybe he was a keen observer of Jesus but, as an outsider to the Jewish religion, forced to observe from afar. Even so, his faith grew to the point that he knew for a certainty that when he came to Jesus, Jesus would heal his servant. As a centurion, a leader, he knew that Jesus didn’t have to go in person to the house to make it happen, he just had to say the word and it would be done.

Through our Christian life, our spiritual life, we too need to build up our faith. Because as happened to the disciples in the boat, a crisis can arise in an instant, and we need to be prepared. The disciples were not prepared. They didn’t have faith in their hearts about what Jesus could do. The centurion already had very mature faith, developed from afar. The disciples were close to Jesus, they saw his every move, but their faith was not mature. So when faced with a life threatening situation, they lost it completely.

Kiran: The disciples asked Jesus, in effect: “Don’t you care that we’re about to die?!” But the centurion said: “I’m not worthy to have you under my roof” and made a humble plea. He didn’t want to waste the time of the Lord, but he definitely wanted a good outcome for his servant. He trusted that God had his best interest in mind, and then he would do good. In the case of the disciples, as Reinhard says, they saw him do good deeds and saw that he never turned away anybody who came for help, but despite all that history, when the powerful storm came, they practically accused him of not having their best interest in mind. So part of them believes that they have to do something before God will do something good for them; otherwise, he will just leave them alone and let the worst outcome happen to them.

I think that’s the difference between the two stories. The centurion is not using a morsel because he said that he didn’t have even a morsel of faith to make Jesus do something for his unworthy self. But the disciples think they have something in them and tell God to take action because they were going to perish. So they’re using some morsel of faith to make God do something good for them.

I think Jesus marveled at the centurion because he (the centurion) realized his unworthiness. He realized that he didn’t deserve anything, but he still believed that Jesus had his best interest in mind to save him. Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but the two cases show faith as something that God does to you for whatever reason God chooses and is something that exercises a muscle, so that God can change his mind.

David: I still think we may be trying to compare apples with oranges. To me, the two stories are quite different. We’ve talked about the three weightier matters of the law: Justice, mercy and faith. The centurion story is about faith—an automatic faith. The centurion just believes that God is, is there, and will help. The story of the disciples is about mercy. it seems to me. There’s no faith in that boat, there is simply the example of the mercy of Jesus. The two stories may be reflecting different aspects of the weightier matters of the law.

Kiran: There are other questions, too. Why does the centurion love this servant? In Roman culture in those days, servants were dispensable. The fact that he loved this servant means there was something extra going on there. If it was immoral, surely Jesus would have perceived that. On the other hand, Jews are God’s chosen people.

This is all getting very complex. The exercise of faith, I guess, doesn’t have to do with what church you attend and who you worship. I think it’s simply recognition that God has our best interest in mind and will do something in the end for our good.

Donald: Simple faith is an interesting concept. We talk about mature faith, little faith, great faith. Simple faith is almost childlike. You don’t think about it too hard. We’re trying to analyze this thing pretty carefully. Simple faith can probably behave in different ways at different times based upon the circumstance.

Don: Perhaps we overanalyze because the outcome we expect from faith is not what we experience. We’re told that if we ask, we’ll receive; that If we have enough faith, the outcome will be predictable. We go through life wanting to exercise our faith like a muscle, or as a commodity or a currency that we can lay down at the time that it’s needed. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s our view of faith.

And yet time and time and time again, the outcomes don’t match what our expectation is. Then the question arises, “What is the problem?” The problem is we don’t have enough faith, because if we had enough faith, then the outcome would be the way that we’re expecting it.

Chris: Did the disciples even exercise faith in the boat? I ask because if they truly had faith, they would have never woken Jesus up. They would have let him sleep. If they truly knew who Jesus was, they would have already known the outcome of the storm. But human nature wants to take control of the situation, to figure out the solution to it, instead of letting it play out and having faith that what’s going to happen is going to happen. Christ wouldn’t have perished in that boat, and the disciples probably wouldn’t have perished in that boat, if they had let him sleep.

David: In other words, if you have faith, there is no need for prayer.

Chris: I think there’s still need for prayer, but prayer is not just founded on faith. We’re dancing around faith in outcomes that we want. I don’t believe that’s the type of prayer and faith that should be exercised. But I have a very strong component of faith as far as relationships are concerned.

Donald: But a perfect example of this dilemma right now is church meetings. Christians say: “I’m going to church. I have faith that God is going to see me through this virus. You’re not going to stop me from going to church, and I’m going to behave the way I would normally behave because I have faith in God to carry me through this, and to separate me from church is to separate me from God.”

Chris: Sounds pretty selfish to me.

Bryan: The crux of the issue is this tension between strong faith and weak faith. We’re supposed to pray and if our faith is good enough, we’ll be answered. The story of Jesus in the boat never really made a lot of sense to me, because if he was truly human and the storm was as violent as the story says, how was he asleep and everyone else was awake? Was he pretending to be asleep? I don’t know how he could have been asleep if everybody else in the boat was awake and the storm was as violent as it was. Was he pretending to sleep in order to see what they would do?

It seems to me easy to say “Thy will be done” if you don’t have a dog in the fight, like the centurion. He’s praying for someone else. If it doesn’t happen, okay, well, it must have been God’s will. Contrast this with the disciples in the boat, whose own lives were in danger. It’s a little harder to accept “Thy will be done” in those circumstances. And that’s why I’m tending more and more to think that faith is yes or no, it’s not multiple levels. You either have it or you don’t. And it’s hard to discern whether or not there is strong faith or weak faith, because it doesn’t seem to make any difference.

David: I agree.

Robin: I think the disciples were afraid because they were in such a violent storm. You can’t fault them for that. But their tone seems to be demanding: “Don’t you care?” That’s accusatory, whereas the centurion was just completely humbled and saying “I don’t even have the right to be in your presence.” And he wasn’t asking for himself, either. He was asking for someone else.

I think we also have to get to the point—and it’s not easy because we’re human—where we’re not just fair weather friends with God; where if I want something so badly, and I’m asking him to give it to me, and I can’t see anything wrong with it and I think it should be perfectly acceptable or justifiable, maybe. If I don’t get that, then does my faith get destroyed? What do I have faith in? Faith in my own mind to figure out the best answer? Or do I have faith in a mind that is superior and knows the beginning and the end?

Reinhard: The disciples had little faith, the centurion had full faith or mature faith. The outcome of the events are miracles: a servant is healed, a sea is calmed. The centurion had full faith, strong faith, such that Jesus marveled at it. The disciples had little faith, yet in both cases, God still came to the rescue, and still performed miracles. Does God pick and choose who he’s going to help? Do you get special treatment only if you are with Jesus?

As Christians knowing God (the disciples even had Jesus with them in the boat) we should learn that even if we have God in our heart, even if we have trust, there are times that temptation is strong, or the situation is a very threatening, and big trouble may result. So we have to be on guard. Having faith doesn’t guarantee that we’re not going to go through life with ease.

Miracles resulted from both of the event related in the stories. Miracles happen to us every day, I believe, in our lives.

Don: One conclusion you could draw is whether you have great or little faith there’s a good outcome waiting for you in either case.

Reinhard: Faced with death, the disciples called on Jesus to help and he did. The centurion retained his composure because he observed from afar that Jesus was the man who had the power to do miracles, that he is God.

Chris: Whether your faith is great or little, God’s outcome awaits you. I think that’s the key. If we can find peace in God’s outcome for us (which, ultimately, we know we can}, if we can exercise our faith within that context, it changes the ballgame. Because in the end, it removes me.

Susan: Could faith be equal to trust? The centurion trusted, the disciples didn’t. The disciples were unique in that God handpicked them, and did use lots of examples to build them for building his church. But at this point, did the disciples not have complete trust? They had just thrown the nets back into the sea and had a huge catch, right before the storm, as I recall. They had seen that, but does trust build over time? And does trust equal relationship? A child trusts a parent that necessarily would say “No!”, but they do trust that person completely, basically. So could faith equal trust equal relationship?

Chris: Maybe the disciples were in their teenage years!

Susan: The trust is on your side, it really has nothing to do with God. So if you have a little trust, it doesn’t change how God treats you. He didn’t treat the disciples different. It was the disciples that didn’t trust. God is the same. But trust is from you to them. So then they had little trust or little faith, as opposed to the centurion who trusted that what God could do, he would do. So it didn’t change God. But does it change you?

David: Trust is certainly on a continuum: You can have a little trust and a lot of trust. So I don’t think that trust is faith, I would rather use the word “belief” because to me, belief is not on a continuum. You either believe or you don’t believe. You can’t believe a little bit or believe a lot. You either believe in something or you don’t. So I would challenge the equation of faith with trust.

Don: If my faith has no effect on God, then what good is it? I want my faith to be a tool. I want to be able to leverage God, at least a little bit, with my faith. Otherwise, what’s it useful for? What’s it good for?

Anonymous: Maybe faith is a tool of learning for us. We started talking about the faith of Jesus. That was the subject of today’s discussion, the faith of Jesus. And then one of us said, “If Jesus was human, how could he be so calm?” I think the faith of Jesus is what kept him calm. We know what kind of faith Jesus had in his Father. Maybe that’s what we need to learn or to try to grasp. I believe we (at least myself, I don’t know about others) are preconditioned to see faith in a certain way, often erroneously (to say the least, based on my very many experiences). I can’t ask and then just be sure that things will be my way. I don’t think that, but I don’t know. I truly don’t know.

I’ve been trying to undo all the old learning, all my old beliefs about faith and about how to approach God. Eight years ago, when my daughter passed away, I prayed. I prayed very hard. But I could not get rid of the thought that a cancer with seven tumors did not offer much hope of survival. It was as if I was talking out of both sides of my mouth. And that’s not faith, definitely not faith. But now, I have a different different view of what was going on.

Last week I lost another friend to cancer. And I prayed, I fasted. I tried my best to appeal to God, to plea with God, but she died. I started to think maybe death is something exceptional we should not be praying about. We can pray about other things, but not about death. It’s in God’s hands alone. It’s been so since the beginning of the world. God knows when each life should end. So maybe we should not pray about that. I don’t know.

The disciples had little faith. Perhaps that’s why Jesus chose them—because they were of little faith. He didn’t come for the perfectly healthy believers—he came for the sick, for the poor of faith. This kind of person—like me, of course—needs Jesus all the time, like a baby needs its parents. We need him, we need his care all the time. We cannot do without him. We don’t have strong faith to carry us through. We need faith every day and every minute.

That’s why I ask for very little things. (Some might laugh at how little they are.) But I thank him for the little things. And I often think: “Wow, God is God is great! He’s there for me in very little things.” I’d like to see him in big things as well, like praying for a sick person with cancer on her death bed and see her come back to life. But I’ve never seen that.

When my son in law became very sick, everybody—his family, my family—was worried, but for some inexplicable reason I experienced moments of clarity, of something giving me hope against hope, something that told me he was going to be alright. So I was not as worried as the rest, even though it seemed strange to them to see me so quiet and calm. They probably thought I didn’t care. But there was something hidden going on inside of me.

I could be praying without that feeling in me and debating whether God will answer or not. I know he can, but maybe he doesn’t want to, maybe it’s not his will. But that something—I don’t know what it is—is a different feeling inside us. It gives us peace. Even though on the outside we might be going with the flow—praying and and talking to people according to their fears—something inside may be telling us: The outcome will be okay.

That’s probably the kind of faith Jesus had about his Father, so he could sleep through the storm. When we lack this feeling, our prayers are in vain. If we only have the feeling of hope, hoping God will do something if I pray a little bit more, or fast, or give alms—that’s not faith. If I don’t have that feeling inside of me—that certainty—it’s not faith.

Don: One of the questions that occurs to me that needs further refinement or further discussion is: Is faith necessary for fallen Man? Does it do something to move fallen Man back toward the garden? Was there faith in the garden? Is there necessary faith in the garden? Or is faith somehow linked to our fallen condition? It seems to me an important distinction.

Donald: I like faith as a tool. It’s kind of like, Okay, I’m going to pick it up and keep it around because it’s for me to use to solve something. But if it were like a belief, it’s different. I believe in my parents, I trust in my parents, I think they have my best interests at heart. So belief and trust in parents are the same thing. They can work together. It doesn’t mean that I’m always going to agree with my parents, that the outcome is always going to be the way I want it to be. But I trust and I believe who they are. They are the people that I go to, they are the ones that guide my life.

Jeff: To me, belief implies that you can have belief or non belief in something. I’m turning more and more to the concept of faith as an undefined something we can’t operate with, yet it is an inherent connection with God. And in that position, the child–parent analogy works, but I’m not sure what our role in that connection is.

David: I think the message from Jesus is simply: “You all worry too much. Don’t worry about faith. There’s always mercy the end of the day, if necessary. Don’t worry about it.”

Don: The ship’s going down, man. What do you mean, don’t worry about it?

Susan: Doesn’t the Bible say that even the devil and the devil’s angels believe?

Don: …and tremble.

Susan: …and tremble. So is belief enough?

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