One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is in Matthew 8: the story of the centurion who came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant.
The centurion was obviously Roman, and a Gentile, and by his own admission a man with authority and a man subject to authority. When he arrives, he shares with Jesus his problem: his servant at home is paralyzed and suffering.
In response, Jesus asks if the centurion would like him to come and to heal the servant. And this is the servant’s response:
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Jesus is genuinely delighted by the request:
“When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
This is an enormous compliment, no? “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” I would want that written on my tombstone if Jesus ever said it about me. Something about the centurion’s request deeply impressed Jesus, to the point that he alludes to the salvation of the Gentiles – to all those who will one share in the glorious feast at God’s table.
My pastor pointed out a while back that part of what likely impressed Jesus is the centurion’s seeming grasp of exactly who Jesus was and how he operated. By pointing out that he is a man under authority but also with authority, the centurion is implicitly acknowledging that Jesus has authority (given by God) and is also working under the authority and with the implicit approval of God. The truth that Jesus attempted to share over and over again with the disciples – who seemed to get it, only to betray later that they weren’t quite sure what He meant – is clearly evident to this man who has come for healing. The centurion recognized Jesus in a most meaningful way, and a had a clear grasp of both what He could do, and how.
But what makes me smile the most is that Jesus “was amazed.” Jesus was amazed! I love to imagine the look on His face after the centurion’s words: the smile breaking over his face, the absolute delight. Yes. Someone gets it. And what a someone! A military man of the Roman Empire, of all things.
I think we have grown to think of God as un-amazeable. As a being who cannot be astonished or delighted or moved to any spontaneous emotion. As a deity who knows everything, has it all figured out, and sort of watches it all play out with an occasional nod of the head: “Yes, yes, going as planned.” We can think of God as stern, as loving, as firm, as angry, as concerned, but delight and amazement is something we rarely attribute to His character.
Yet as far back as the Old Testament it’s clear that our God is a feeling God: He rants, He pleads, He promises, He coaxes, He woos, He soothes. This is the same God who seems to approach David with eager sincerity: “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt…” (2 Samuel 7:5). And it is the same God who, upon hearing the centurion’s humble request and seeing his assurance, responds with unmitigated amazement.
I love the idea that Jesus was amazed. That it was possible to amaze Jesus. And that it undoubtedly still is. I really do believe that God is delighted by our little, simple acts of faith – perhaps far more than the grandiose and difficult acts we wish He’d be impressed by. And it’s a strong motivator to me, to think that my simple understanding of who God is, and my willingness to let that guide my behavior, is something that could bring God – God! – great joy.
I can’t help but wonder, too, if Jesus’ delight in that moment is because He had a glimpse that no one else had of what would come. The centurion, in a small way, represented what would astonish the disciples after the resurrection: the spread of the Gospel to everyone. To all manner of people in countries that they had not visited, had never seen, could barely imagine. For Jesus, this interaction is a sneak peek at the grandeur of what God has planned: the beginnings of God’s great church, composed of people from all nations.
So many times when it comes to our Christian walk we act out of selfishness (“I want to get something” / “I want to avoid something”) or because we feel that we “should” or because God asked us to do it and we know we ought to obey. But it’s something else entirely to act in the hope of amazing God, of giving Him a small gift of joy with our faith and our understanding.
And that makes everything we do feel so much more worthwhile.