When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9; read full passage here)
What does it mean to have faith?
For most of us it means to live a life both of confidence in God’s goodness and faithfulness, as well as perseverance in the midst of struggle and hardship. This, of course, is essential. However, if you take a careful look at the men and women whose faith is commended by Jesus throughout the gospels, you will discover that this is only a part of the picture we are given. True faith, as it is expressed in their lives, is not only manifested in their confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal or save them (or the ones they love), but also in how they approach him and respond to his power and authority.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the two stories that serve as bookends to the seventh chapter of Luke: the story of the centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant and that of the woman who anoints Jesus and washes his feet with her tears at the house of Simon, the Pharisee. As usual, Luke has masterfully organized this portion of his text in such a way that the two stories not only speak for themselves—revealing the faith of both individuals and Jesus’ faithfulness and mercy in response to their requests—but also illustrate the very truth which Luke makes explicit at the heart of the chapter in verse 29:
“When all the people heard [Jesus’ exhortation], and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves…”
The phrase “declared God just” means “to regard as righteous”—not in the sense of judging God as being righteous, but in the sense of recognizing his righteousness, that is, acknowledging that he is good and accepting his purpose or will for their lives. Luke is making clear that it is not those who, like Simon, approach Jesus in their self-content, but rather those who submit themselves to the will of God through humility and repentance that are the true men and women of faith—even if they are Gentiles or “sinful”.
It is this which makes the nature of the faith we see in both the centurion and the sinful woman so extraordinary, for they not only demonstrate confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal and save, but also profound humility before him in recognition of his greatness and authority. It is striking how both of them act in ways that are the very antithesis of Simon—the centurion declares himself to be unworthy for Jesus to enter under his roof, requesting simply that Jesus heal his servant from afar, but Simon invites him to dinner, presumably not because he was sincerely interested in his teaching (nearly all commentators agree that his responses to Jesus in vv. 40 and 43 suggest not deference, but resistance), but almost as if it were his right to do so; and the woman places herself at Jesus’ feet and performs with her own tears, hair and precious ointment the very acts of hospitality that Simon, as his host, had denied him. A starker contrast could not be drawn, nor could a more beautiful expression of the heart of their faith in Jesus: an acknowledgement both of their unworthiness and of their confidence his ability and willingness to save, because this was who he had shown himself to be.
However there is far more to their actions than simply humility and confidence; there is also an emotional response evident in both the centurion’s awe at Jesus’ authority and ability to heal from afar, and the adoration which compels the sinful woman to lavish on Jesus such care and devotion. The faith of these two engages not only their mind in confidence of Jesus’ goodness and power, but also their hearts in submission and devotion to this one who, despite their unworthiness, would hear the cries of their hearts and bring the healing and salvation they so desperately longed for.
There is a curious passage in Romans where Paul tells us that Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,” (4:20, ESV) implying a direct, even causal, connection between Abraham’s worship and the strength of his faith. It is the same dynamic we see here in the centurion and the sinful woman, whose faith is not only expressed in the strength of their confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal or save, but also in the humility, gratitude, awe and adoration with which they approach him.
Likewise for us, faith is not about being certain that God will act in certain ways, though it may sometimes entail this. Nor is it primarily about the determination to persevere in hope in the face of trials, though this is how we are called to express our faith. Rather, faith is fundamentally about surrendering the whole of our lives in humility and awe at who God is, and in gratitude and adoration for all that he has done to reveal to us his unfailing love—at the cross, but also specifically in our lives. True faith is not just a determination of the mind, but also an attitude of the heart that orients itself in worship of the One from whose love we can never be separated (Rom 8:38-39), who works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28) and who is, indeed, just.
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.