There are disputes about whether Jesus spoke Greek, which the centurion would probably speak along with Latin. I think he did because he grew up in Galilee, but I also think it a good bet that his circle of disciples did not necessarily speak it, or at least were not fluent in the language.
St. Luke’s detail might be just a case of stricter accuracy. What the centurion said he did so through others. But the variation also has a thematic function because it underscores the interior disposition of the Roman soldier. He was so humble, so convinced of his unworthiness, that he did not speak directly to Jesus but sent messengers.
His humility and his faith elicited the praise of the Son of God Himself. “I assure you I have not found such faith in Israel,” Jesus said (Matt. 8.10).
This statement represents an invitation by Jesus to his Jewish listeners to a humble trust in imitation of the pagan foreigner. It is the wisdom of the Church that we recall this anonymous centurion of Capernaum before we receive the Lord because we need his awareness of the surpassing greatness of Jesus Christ.
The Son of God comes to us and offers us intimacy, a personal communion with him. We need at least to recognize the disproportion of God’s mercy. His love is certainly not congruent to our unworthiness.
That is why there is a poetic justice to the humility of reciting the centurion’s prayer before partaking of the bread from heaven. We receive the Lord not into our homes but into our hearts in communion. We beg the healing not of a servant boy but of our very selves.
It is as a recognition of the tremendous gift of God’s love that we use the words from the Scripture. The ineffable generosity of God beggars our vocabulary. The metaphor of coming under our roof is inexact, in fact a terrific understatement, but it is right to clothe our thoughts with the prayer of another because otherwise we would be speechless.
The Lord himself used the metaphor of a house when he spoke of communion with his disciples. “Here I stand, knocking at the door. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).
This could have been said in other language, without the imagery of someone opening up a door for a guest, but the Lord chose to speak poetically. When we say “under my roof” we can recall these words of Jesus about coming into a house to dine and thus our words will have a double scriptural resonance.
Let us recall the quote from “Verbum Domini” with which I began this reflection: “A knowledge of biblical personages, events, and well-known sayings should thus be encouraged; this can also be promoted by the judicious memorization of some passages which are particularly expressive of the Christian mysteries.”
The short prayer of preparation to receive has all of these things: personages, events, well-known saying and a little memorization.
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