When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. “But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour.
Such great faith indeed, for the centurion to recognize (a) that Jesus is a divine figure about whom no one is truly worthy to have under his roof, and (b) that the word of Jesus carries the same authority as Jesus Himself. Put another way, it is the faith of the Church. Like the Church, this sort of faith is not confined to Israel, God’s chosen people of old.
It is entirely possible for God to take the “sons of the kingdom” and cast them into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This in fact is part of the work of Christ, as promised by John the Baptist, who of Christ said, “God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
We’re seeing here Jesus’ work of baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. His Word, saturated as it is with the authority of God, is fiery, and does fiery things, like set aside a gentile’s faith as emblematic, and propose to the other Jews present that either they should believe as the centurion does, or be cast into outer darkness. Fiery indeed.
Meanwhile, God is raising up children from the stones, from outside Israel. New people from the north, south, east, and west will take the place of the children, being “grafted into the tree,” to use St. Paul’s language regarding the gentiles.
Jesus marvels at the faith of the centurion, who again, had Church faith. Does Jesus marvel at Church faith? Does Jesus marvel when people acknowledge Him as a divine figure deserving of proper fear and respect, who believe His word carries the same authority as if He were there in the regular sense? If the precedence here serves as any guide to an answer, yes He does. He marvels at our faith.
This is the faith of those whom God raises up from stones. If God is raising up children from stones, how is it He marvels at their faith? When all the work is ours, why would we marvel at the subjective involvement of that upon which we work? It almost doesn’t make sense.
But that is the mystery of faith, and for that matter, the source of eternal debates in the Church about the relationship between grace and free will. We are not robots, but are given the ability to act as free agents. Yet, our status as children of God is completely due to our Father’s “raising” us up.
How did the centurion come to his point of faith? He likely was baptized by John the Baptist, heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, and he probably heard rumors about the Father’s declaration at His baptism. All that is the Lord’s doing, with the centurion as a passive witness to such awesome events. That’s the Lord “raising up” children, through baptism, through catechesis, through Jesus literally sharing His status as “child” with everyone at the Sermon on the Mount by continually referring to, for them, “your Father.”
But then the connections going on in his mind are all quite subjective. Recognizing that Jesus is divine and that he is unworthy of him bespeaks a piety which takes “Jesus as Jewish prophet” to a new level, which is true, but not fully realized yet in the Gospel. And making the connections about the word carrying the authority of the person, and the real life example from the life of a centurion, is really a sacred logical syllogism going on in the centurion’s mind.
What other sorts of synapses were connecting those days following the Sermon on the Mount? Do we take Jesus’ words about “finding such faith even in Israel” literally, that He was actually looking for such faith like that of the centurion, just to find one person who reacted properly to the events preceding?
Let’s take it literally and see where it goes. Jesus could well have preached to hundreds, maybe thousands of people. All the information is laid out. And like, well, a sower casting out seed, only some will bear growth. He goes out and seeks that one faith which He wanted to make emblematic for the Church. When He finds it, He marvels at it, praises it, and sets it up as the standard for Church faith.
Is that the centurion’s work, or Jesus’ work? It’s the Sower marveling at the one seed that grows into a hundredfold. Is that the Sower, the sun, the water, and the seed, or the soil?
Of course it’s the former. Soil and stones are not life-bearing. They can only be passively acted upon. Yet, even as the Lord declares after each day that it is good – He delights in the abundance of life! – so He delights in the centurion’s, and our, faith.
What a mystery, to create something which is completely your own work, but which has the capacity to act on its own in such a way that you can marvel at it. But isn’t that how all life works? With the seeds, with our children?