I always smile to myself when I read this passage from St. Matthew: But the centurion said, "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 marveled and said to those who were following, "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. (8:8-10)
The Lord's response to the centurion has to be one of the most astonishing statements in the New Testament. Israel had the sacred history, liturgy, prayers, and sacrifices. To them belonged the covenants and the promises. To them God gave the distinction, "My Chosen One."
Yet, it was a non-Jew who had the greater faith.
Perhaps after 1500 years of form and rituals, Israel had confused religious practice with spiritual relationship. And that is why the Lord's praise for the centurion carries a great lesson for me.
As a member of the Church, I also enjoy a rich sacred history. Like Israel, I have the prayers, the liturgy, the rituals -- and especially the Sacraments. But I worry I might somehow get it backwards, that I might confuse religious practice with God-centered faith -- faith in His love, forgiveness, and His sacrifice on Calvary that freed me -- us -- from sin and eternal death.
The centurion demonstrated two characteristics which can help anyone avoid getting it backwards. First, he was desperate. Sometimes the best prayers are not long-winded, but three-worded: "Lord, help me."
And, he was humble. The centurion -- a leader of a hundred soldiers -- could have ordered Jesus to heal his servant, "or else . . . " But instead, he bowed his heart to Christ: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof."
Prayers, rituals and forms can nurture a rich relationship with Christ, or they can become a hollow substitute. The difference can be deceptively subtle.