Two aspects of Cornelius’ faithful walk before God are shown in these verses – twice over: his generous gifts to the poor and his prayer. Now I can’t prove it, but given the fact of Cornelius’ evident concern for those with needs, the final verse in this section of scripture makes me think he was praying for the poor as well as giving to the poor. If that’s the case, I’m sure that the poor were not all Cornelius prayed about, but in any case, the story of this centurion reminds us that prayer and giving are both important in helping others and in learning the spirit of true giving ourselves. Just as we can give without concerned prayer, we can pray without actual giving, and in either case our concern is limited as well as our effectiveness.
This is a point the apostle James makes so clearly in his Epistle: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15). It’s a vital combination: we should not speak without doing. James doesn’t suggest that our words of comfort are not important, just that they should not be alone. This applies as much in terms of our words spoken in prayers, of course, as it does in our direct relations with others.
The Book of Acts shows us that Cornelius understood the importance of both speaking and doing. He reminds us of that other centurion who told Jesus “… just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:8-9). Both centurions understood the relationship between speaking and doing, both understood that speaking of itself is not enough. But while the one story stresses what God does as a result of our requests, the other story stresses what we should do as a result of our requests. Words and deeds are always interrelated, in prayer as in other areas of Christian life, and the more we remember that, the more we can accomplish.