There is a curious story in the Gospel books about the faith of a Roman soldier that Jesus claims is greater any he has found among all Israel (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). When Jesus healed his servant and praised his faith he didn’t say a word about his leadership role in the violent and unjustly oppressive Roman-governed army. Some readers interpret this to mean that Jesus endorses being in the military. While this isn’t explicit, it does seem that Jesus is not condemning military service. How can we faithfully interpret what is going on in this story?
When Jesus returned to Capernaum, a Roman officer came and pleaded with him, “Lord, my young servant lies in bed, paralyzed and in terrible pain.” Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”
What happens next in the story is at first glance confusing.
But the officer said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come into my home. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.”
It is noteworthy that the Roman soldier says that he is not worthy to have Jesus come into his house. This could be in reference to the fact that he is a gentile, or it could be due to the fact that being a Roman soldier, he was technically Jesus’ enemy. This soldier would be very well aware that he was part of a system that controlled, oppressed, and killed people.
Then the soldier claims that he has authority over others, that when he gives orders he knows that they will be carried out. He is trying to communicate that he understands what Jesus has. He trusts that Jesus has an authoritative word over evil, and even if spoken at a distance, it will achieve its intended results. This Roman soldier has been paying attention to Jesus and his ministry.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!”
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t face the soldier when he proclaims this great faith, he turns and looks at the crowd of people that were following him. He seems to be trying to make a point.
Love Your Enemies
What point is Jesus trying to make by claiming that he hasn’t seen this kind of faith in all Israel? Matthew’s account doesn’t leave us guessing.
“I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! And I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus is claiming that many of “God’s people” will not be in the Kingdom while many who “God’s people” thought would never enter—will. This isn’t the only time we’ve seen Jesus make this claim. In a similar declaration, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). In both of these examples, those who are normally viewed with contempt are set forth here by Jesus as examples of faithfulness, turning the tables on the prejudices of his religious audience.
Tax collectors, prostitutes, and military soldiers are elevated by Jesus. These people are considered the be the scum of society, yet Jesus is showing love to them. This is enemy love in action.
Love Without Endorsement
Using this story of the Roman centurion to argue for the validity of Christians serving in the military would be an argument from silence. One could use this line of reasoning to argue that Jesus and the authors of the New Testament were not opposed to a good many things we know they were in fact opposed to. For example, Jesus didn’t rebuke the Samaritan women who had been divorced five times and was presently living with a man who was not her husband (John 4:16-8). Does this mean that Jesus condoned divorce, remarriage, and co-habitation outside of marriage? Nor did Jesus rebuke the tax collectors and prostitutes he regularly hung out with (Luke 5:29-30; 15:1). Does this imply that the religious authorities were correct in surmising that Jesus had no objection to these occupational choices (Luke 7:34)? The weakness of the argument from silence becomes even clearer when we notice that, with the exception of the Jewish leaders of his day, Jesus basically never denounced the sin of the people with whom he interacted.
No one would read Matthew 21:31 as an endorsement of prostitution. Likewise, we cannot read Luke 7:9 as an endorsement of being a soldier. We know that Jesus wouldn’t endorse the occupation of a prostitute because of his ethics of sexuality. We know that Jesus wouldn’t endorse the occupation of a soldier because of his ethics of nonviolence. Instead, in both cases, Jesus is elevating the sinner to showcase enemy love. What both of these examples do is illustrate that Jesus does not turn anyone away.
Even though Jesus doesn’t endorse the occupation of being a soldier, and actually puts it in the category of being a sinner, he goes out of his way to illustrate that his love even reaches the least of these. This pairing of condemnation and elevation is echoed throughout the early Church and can be found in all their writings. Jesus loves his enemies, even soldiers who kill people (Luke 23:34), while making it quite clear that his followers shouldn’t participate.