English service - July 16, 2023
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
People Jesus Praised: The Roman Commander
Hello again, everyone here at Open Door and online. Last week I was at a memorial ceremony for a friend who suddenly died in a bus crash. She was a Japanese lady who taught English at Café COEN, a shop near the Hokusei Gakuen University campus, where a group meets for worship each week. You may have heard about that accident in the news. The people who gathered to remember her received a simple gift of a quotation printed beautifully and in a plastic file. It is from one of my favorite writers, Dallas Willard. It reads: “The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it's who you become.” He adds, “That's what you will take into eternity.”
Out of all the things we learn in our lives, what really stays with us is our character. What is that? Dallas Willard says:
Character is the internal, overall structure of the self that is revealed by our long-run patterns of behavior. It is from our character that our actions more or less automatically arise. What God gets out of your life is the person you become. That’s also what you and others get.
With that in mind, I’ve been interested recently in looking at the people that Jesus praises in the stories about Him in the Bible. Like my friend, none of us knows when it will be time for our life in this world to end. The God of the Bible teaches us that when we begin living in a relationship with Him as our Father, we have a home. It’s with Him in heaven. So our great vision and the hope which helps us keep moving forward is the promise that one day we can hear God say to us what the master does in Jesus story in Matthew 25:21. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful . . . .” Then “Come and share your master’s happiness!” We want to be people of good character, ready to live in togetherness with our Father when He welcomes us home.
That is a hope worth living for. Making it our priority to become people of strong character makes sense if you accept Christ’s teaching. One thing that can help us do that is looking at the people He praises. Jesus sees certain things in them that He wants to point out to His followers. He wants us to grow into people like them in these particular ways. So I’d like to look at some of the New Testament stories of these people with you and see what we can learn that will help us in our never-ending quest of character formation.
The first one we meet is (v. 2) “a Roman commander.” Today’s story starts with “Jesus finished saying all those things to the people. Then he entered Capernaum.” The Roman commander is an example of what Jesus has just been teaching (Luke 6:43-44). That is, “A good tree doesn't bear bad fruit. And a bad tree doesn't bear good fruit. You can tell each tree by the kind of fruit it bears.”
People in Jesus’ country, not surprisingly, would tend to think that the Roman commander was a bad person. After all, his people had taken control of Palestine (today’s Israel) and were forcing its people to live under the rule of Rome. But Jesus tells them that there is more to the story. Even a person you think is bad may have some remarkable signs of God’s presence and work in his or her life. If the fruit is good, think again before you judge the tree as bad. If you will pay attention and remain open, you may find the Lord using that person to teach you some things you need to know. Through the Roman commander, Jesus points to a faith that would enrich and uplift the people of His nation (Palestine, Israel) if they would actually live by it, as this soldier does.
Likewise, Jesus has just finished saying the following (Luke 6:47-48).
Some people come to me and listen to me and do what I say. I will show you what they are like. They are like someone who builds a house. He digs down deep and sets it on solid rock. When a flood comes, the river rushes against the house. But the water can't shake it. The house is well built.
The Roman commander is like that person. A disaster is approaching his personal life in the sickness of his servant, but he knows where to go for help. With Christ, he knows he is on solid ground in dealing with trouble. He is an example of someone we could seek with great benefit to be like in this particular way.
Now you may have a problem with this story, as many do. What is a Roman commander doing in Palestine? As we’ve just seen, he is helping the Romans rule over the Jewish people. He is part of a system of oppressors vs. the oppressed. So in praising him, does Jesus mean that it is OK for one country to take the freedom of the people of another and rule over them?
No, not at all. In fact, I think you could truthfully say that if enough people became like this Roman commander, sooner or later powerful countries would stop oppressing weaker ones. True peace, not just the enforced peace of the Pax Romana, would become a reality. Freedom and justice would reign. These are clearly what the Bible’s God wants.
But we do not see Him teaching violent revolutions are the way to that kind of world. Jesus does not, for example, help the people of His country to kill the Roman commander and drive his military out of Palestine. Christ clearly is beginning a revolution, but it is one that begins in the heart. It undermines and eventually will replace the oppressive political systems which people put in place. But the God of peace and love does it in His way, His time.
We have read the Luke 7 version of this story today. In it the commander sends elders from the Jewish community to Jesus, and they speak for him. But there’s another account in Matthew 8:5-13. There, the commander goes and speaks directly to Jesus. (It’s possible both things happened over the course of the interaction between Jesus and these various people.) In any case, the details of the stories differ, but there is unity in the message they present.
Luke tells us (v. 2a) that “. . . the servant of a Roman commander was sick and about to die.” Jesus is praising a man who has a “servant”? The word used almost throughout this story is the same word as “slave.” Is our Lord holding up as a role model someone who owned slaves?
Of course, He very possibly is, but we should be careful not to misunderstand Him. This is a mistake that people often make in reading the Bible. Just because a character in a story there does something, it absolutely does not mean that God teaches it is right or good or His will. The whole story of the Bible is one of God coming to sinful, broken human beings where they are—in the middle of their troubles and with their weaknesses, selfishness, and everything else—and patiently working to bring them back to Himself. Even many of the most honored people of Bible stories like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon all make horrible decisions sometimes.
For example, polygamy is common throughout big parts of the Bible story, and when men there marry multiple women, it often leads to great grief into their family relationships. But God does not force them to stop it before He will talk with them or anything like that. He does not tell them it is OK, either, but it seems He has other priorities. God comes to us where we are, including in our brokenness and foolishness, and works to lead us to a better place. He does that in the lives of the people in the story of the Roman commander and in ours, as well. That truth can give us hope and guidance as we try to deal with the deep-rooted injustices that continue to be part of our own lives and cultures.
Matthew’s version of the story gives us a little clearer picture of the problem this servant, or slave, is having. It describes him as lying at home, unable to move. “He is suffering terribly” (8:6). The verb in the original that we translate as “suffering” sometimes has the meaning of testing. It is used, for example, to talk about testing metal using a touchstone. When you rub gold against that type of black rock, it leaves a certain type of mark. If it is not true gold, even if it kind of looks like it is, it will not leave that mark. Likewise, the times we suffer can really tell a lot about what is really on the inside of us, can’t they. This same word is used at times to talk about struggling, for instance sailors who are trying to move forward but face a strong head wind. In Revelation 12:2, it is used to describe a woman in the pain of childbirth. Some of you know what that feels like, don’t you. When you think of times of trouble in your life, you can understand something of the feeling that the servant in Jesus’ story has, can’t you. God does—fully and completely and always. That’s part of Jesus’ message. He does not just sit up in heaven and forget about us when those times come. In Christ, He comes to help us. We can count on Him.
Luke continues in v. 6, “So Jesus went with them.” “. . . Jesus came near the house. . . .” This part of the story speaks to me. Christ is not too busy to deal with a situation that comes up in the course of His day. He does not say for the commander to meet him at a more convenient time. He is willing to be interrupted. He sees that this is a “teachable moment” and uses it masterfully.
One comment I heard a seminary professor make about his students stays in my memory for some reason. He said, “I watch these students walking across campus. They look so serious, so intent on accomplishing the next task before them, charging off to do good. I think they could miss what God is saying to them.” If you are trying to serve God but are too busy to listen to Him, you have a problem, don’t you. That’s one of my constant struggles, trying to live in modern Japanese culture. There always seems to be more work waiting to be done. But God can speak. Even when there’s a lot in the schedule, if you open your heart, He can give you enough time and ability to listen and understand how to take the next step of faith. Thank you, Lord, for modeling faithful management of time for us in today’s story.
When Jesus hears the way the commander makes his request, he responds (Luke 7:9b), “I tell you, even in Israel I have not found anyone whose faith is so strong.” You have to remember, Jesus is speaking to His own nation’s people. They are God’s chosen people, He deeply believes. In fact, in Matthew 15:24b, we read Him saying, “I was sent only to the people of Israel.” Again here, Jesus seems focused on the specific tasks God has given Him. He has His priorities as to what to do with the limited time He has in this world. He is to focus on the Jewish people.
But it would be a great mistake to think that this was to be the case forever. In Matthew’s version of the story (8:11), Jesus says that, “. . . many will come from the east and the west. They will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of heaven. They will sit with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
This is essentially the same vision that John describes in Revelation 5:9-10a. It is part of a “new song” that is sung to God at the end of time. “. . . With your blood you bought people for God. They come from every tribe, language, people and nation. You have made them members of a royal family.”
That is the good news, the great news, that the gospel of Jesus Christ presents to us. But it is only really good to us as we receive it and let it shape and empower our lives. Matthew 8:12 continues with a warning, “But those who think they belong to the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness. There they will sob and grind their teeth.” The gift of salvation in Christ is available to all people equally, but if we decide we don’t really need it and go another direction, we will miss out on it. So there is a responsibility along with the opportunity to respond to God’s offer of life.
To sum up the story of Jesus and the Roman commander, we learn here that Christ wants us to make it a priority to develop a character that includes a strong faith. His words to this man in Matthew 8:13 are ones that we can take as His message to us today, as well. “It will be done just as you believed it would.”
So let’s ask God now to help us approach Him with our particular needs, in the spirit of simple trust and expectation that the commander did in Jesus’ time.
Lord, like the Roman man, we come to you now, ready and willing to place our needs in your hands in simple faith. We know that we are far from perfect and live in a broken, sinful world. But your love is greater than all our faults and limitations. Your word is the word of authority. In you is the power to heal and restore all that is damaged and needs to be returned to wholeness in our bodies, minds, and spirits. In our own lives, but also in so many more all around us, there is suffering and grief. Bring your salvation. Bring your healing. Bring your life and fill us with it in all the ways that you choose in your grace and mercy. In the mighty name of Christ, we ask it. Amen.
Willard, D. Gaultiere, (2022). W. Soulshepherding. Dallas Willard’s Definitions and Quotes. Retrieved July 9, 2023 from https://www.soulshepherding.org/dallas-willards-definitions/
Willard, D. (n.d.). Dallas Willard Quotes. Retrieved July 9, 2023 from https://www. azquotes.com/author/15666-Dallas_Willard