After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Translation: After he fulfilled all his words in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion's slave, who was precious to him, was sick. He was about to die. And when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Judeans to him asking him to come that he might bring his slave safely through. And when they came to Jesus, they were calling him alongside, saying, "Worthy is the one (for) whom you will do this, for he loves our people and he built the synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying, "Lord, do not be troubled, for I am not worthy that you might enter under my roof. Therefore, (I am) not myself worthy to come to you, but say a word and let my child be healed. For I am a human being appointed under authority, having 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." When Jesus heard this, he marveled at him. And turning to the ones following him, he said to the crowd, "I say to you, not even in Israel have I found so great a faith." When the ones who were sent returned into the house, they found the slave healthy.
Background and situation: The episode has parallels in Matthew (8: 6-13) and the fourth gospel (John 4: 46-54), though with notable differences between them. In Matthew, the centurion deals directly with Jesus. Likewise, in John, an Capernaum "official" journeys to Cana from Capernaum in order to meet with Jesus.
Also in John, this official is concerned about the illness of his son, not his slave. (In the Lukan story, the centurion's servant is referred to as doulos (slave) four times. In verse 7, however, the word pais (child) is used.)
Opening: The story immediately follows the "sermon on the plain" in chapter 6. In Luke, this is Jesus' first encounter following the expression of his fundamental teaching. Jesus has just spoken "all his sayings in the hearing of the people" and he entered Capernaum.
The first mention of Capernaum in Luke's gospel is in 4:23. Jesus was in his hometown to preach the sermon, and his hometown people asked him to do for them what they heard he had done in Capernaum.
Jesus told them the story of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5), a story about a gentile military man who receives roundabout information from a Jewish girl about a healer in Israel, who goes to Israel to visit the healer he never actually meets, and who is nonetheless healed at a distance.
Likewise here, Jewish elders convey information between Jesus and a gentile military man. Jesus does not actually meet the military man, and, like with Naaman, the healing takes place at some distance from the healer.
The noble gentile: The centurion, however, differs from Naaman in one important respect: Where Naaman cops an attitude, this centurion is presented as humble and diplomatic, as well as sensitive and generous to the local population.
In When Jesus Became Christian, Barrie Wilson argues that one of Luke's agendas is to provide some common ground for both Jewish and gentile versions of Christianity. Luke was doing what he could to make Pauline Christianity appeal to Jews while expressing the Judaism of Jesus and the early Jesus movement in such a way that gentiles could appreciate it and own it.
Here, the centurion is presented as a positive example throughout. He communicates to Jesus first through Jewish elders who approach Jesus and proclaim the centurion "worthy" because he "loves our people" and because he was the benefactor of their synagogue. In the patron-client relationships of that time in the middle east, the centurion has scratched their back, and now it's time to scratch his by putting in a good word for him with Jesus.
Jesus hears the request and sets off for the centurion. Jesus was "not far from the house" when it appears to have occurred to the centurion that there are issues of ritual purity to deal with. Jews of that time considered the homes of gentiles to be unclean. If Jesus understands that he is to enter the house, then the centurion has put his guest in a position of ritual defilement.
He wants to get a message to Jesus before this might happen. Another delegation is enlisted to go to Jesus. This time, however, the centurion doesn't work through the agency of the Jewish elders. He enlists his "friends" to go to Jesus to tell him that he doesn't actually have to come to the house. Moreover, while the Jewish elders had proclaimed the centurion "worthy," his friends say that he considers himself "not worthy," which is said twice.
A Roman centurion was in charge of about 100 men. He had authority over those men, as well as authority over his slaves. He may tell them to do whatever he wants and they will do it. He says "frog," they jump. "I say 'do' and it's done," he says.
This gentile recognizes Jesus as having similar authority. His authority does not come from Rome, but from God, which makes it even more likely that Jesus word can be obeyed at a distance the same as his own word is obeyed at a distance by those under his authority.
Jesus "marveled" (thaumazo) at the centurion. Quite often, thaumazo is used to express the emotions of others as they witness the mighty deeds of Jesus. Here, however, it is Jesus who marveled and was amazed and was astonished.
Then Jesus "turned" (strapheis). Half a dozen times in Luke, Jesus "turns", and, each time, makes a special pronouncement. Here, he "turns" to "the ones following him," and, all of a sudden, we are aware that Jesus has an entire entourage with him--indeed, a "crowd" (7:9).
Presumably, the "ones following him" have faith in Jesus. Jesus tells them, however, that "not even in Israel have I found so great a faith." It's not that the people following him don't have faith, or the people in Israel either. In fact, that's precisely where one would expect to find faith. What is remarkable about the centurion is that he has faith precisely where one would not expect it, i.e. a gentile military man.
"When the ones who were sent returned into the house, they found the slave healthy." The centurion has sent two delegations, first the Jewish elders, then his own friends. Presumably, "the ones who were sent" refer to his friends. They had been at the house, and now they return, whereupon they see that Jesus' authority is affirmed in the healing of the slave.
This episode does not begin a full-fledged mission to the gentiles. Jesus dealings with the gentile world will be somewhat checkered in the gospel of Luke, but, in Acts, that mission is opened wide with Peter's vision in chapter 10 and his encounter with another noble gentile, Cornelius.