“The Call of Compassion”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” (NRSV)
When I picked up my preaching commentary last Monday morning, I quickly discovered that the articles on today’s text had almost nothing to do with how the text and I were already reading each other. My heart and mind were—and are—swirling with images of and prayers for our nation and world in light of an ongoing pandemic and its social, political, and economic fallout, and a fresh, inevitable, and once-again-unsettling raising of awareness of racial inequality. And those things are layered on top of all the normal concerns we all have for people we love and for ourselves.
Everyone feels something in the midst of these days of uncertainty and unrest. On the positive side, some may feel new clarity of purpose, new inspiration to help neighbors in need, for some even a flutter of new hope. On the negative side, some may feel anger, fear, exasperation (which often manifest as denial of circumstances or impatience with people who interpret and respond to our situations differently than we do). And all this stress creates storms of anxiety in our communities, our families, and in our own hearts.
While reading that commentary, which was published in 2011, I was reminded how contextual biblical interpretation is. Ancient scripture has an uncanny ability to shed light on contemporary realities. And since, as Jesus says, the kingdom of God is at hand, scripture never fails to call us into the world at hand to proclaim and embody the kingdom’s prophetic challenge and renewal. I had to lay aside that commentary because nine-year-old interpretations just didn’t speak to our changed and changing context. To the commentators’ credit, I’m sure that they would say very different things if they were writing for a commentary to be published in 2021.
The point of belaboring that point is to say that scripture truly is a living Word. It not only continues to speak from a place of eternal holiness and liveliness, it continues to speak into the lives we live right now and to draw out the holiness within us. It calls us into the world as bearers of Jesus’ love and as agents of his justice. We can hold all the worship services we want. We can play and sing inspiring music. We can perform sacraments, fill coffee pots and buffet tables. We can hold committee meetings and Sunday school classes. We can maintain hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old buildings. And yet, if our focus on those in-house activities leaves only crumbs to commit to acts of compassion on behalf of those who are “harassed and helpless,” then we have to ask ourselves if we’ve forgotten who we are and whom we follow.
“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching…proclaiming the good news…curing every disease and…sickness [all the ‘churchy’ things!]. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Harassed. Helpless. In Greek, those words also mean oppressed and thrown down. Matthew paints a picture of people who are not just bemused and unhappy, but people who are being intentionally dominated and tormented by powers beyond their control. And because they suffer, Jesus suffers—but with a different kind of suffering. Compassion, which literally means to suffer with, is an invigorating form of suffering. Jesus’ compassion doesn’t paralyze him; it mobilizes him. The plight of those whom the political and religious authorities ignore, and even revile, moves Jesus to bring their suffering into the consciousness of those who are gifted to tend to and befriend people who suffer, and those who are gifted to speak the courageous, transforming truth that people in power must hear.
Looking out at all that suffering humanity, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” and he sets in motion the first major, all-volunteer mission effort of Jesus-Followers.
Here’s where suffering gets layered and complicated, at least for me. When imagining Jesus moved to compassion by those who are harassed and helpless, in our contemporary context, I, personally, cannot separate that image from images of people who are oppressed and thrown down because their black or brown bodies have marked them for the kind of repulsed, fear-driven aggression often deployed against coyotes, snakes, and spiders. The compassion one feels for these brothers and sisters is the compassion—the invigorating suffering—of the resurrected Christ within us. Compassion is Jesus’ voice calling us to help bear the burdens of the physical, mental, and spiritual pain of discrimination and the difficult work of bringing about the changes necessary to ensure “indivisible” unity in our communities and nation, and true “liberty and justice for all.”
Clearly, such work has socio-political implications, but at the heart of it all, for us as Christians, such work is fundamentally and thoroughly theological. It arises from our acknowledgment of the eternal holiness within the imperfect humanity of every individual. It arises from our commitment to love as we are loved by God.
It’s hardly an irresistible call because it can be terrifying to follow where Jesus leads. I’m still resisting his call. All I’ve actually done is to write some words and post them on a blog (with exactly 29 subscribers), and speak a few words in few sermons that a few more people hear, but which, like some infomercial ointment, may or may not treat the rash. I’ve not made myself personally available for the anxiety-inducing but transforming experiences of responding to what I recognize as compassion’s call to action.
I mentioned layers of suffering. As a pastor to people isolated by pandemic, I also hear the harassed and helpless cries of church members who feel that they’re losing touch with the people they love, the sacraments that strengthen them, the music that makes their spirits sing. It’s for very good reason we’re not meeting in person, but it’s still traumatic.
When Jesus says to go first “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he acknowledges that it’s crucial for members of the faith community to care for one other in the midst of suffering. We must continue to talk to and encourage each other, to laugh and cry with each other, even if only by phone. We all need to give and receive that transforming compassion.
At the very end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ commandment to the post-resurrection community—which includes us—is to reach beyond the house of Israel and “make disciples of all nations.” And disciples are not made by imposing doctrines and ecclesiastical structures, but by the compassionate labors of those who, having heeded Jesus’ example, trust that what is necessary for the most harassed and helpless among us is necessary for all of us. Such disciples will love their neighbors as they love themselves. They’ll pray for friend and enemy alike, and care for “the least of these.” And they will, courageously and compassionately, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with…God.”
As disciples of Jesus, may we, together, labor within and beyond the bounds of the church directory.
And may we, together, plant love and compassion, so that we may participate in the Holy Spirit’s harvest of peace, justice, and hope for ourselves and for ALLwhom God has created and loves.