Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we can’t do it. We don’t possess the resources to take care of every instance where people are harassed and helpless. Often we can’t take care of ourselves. If we hear one more story, see it with our own eyes, we may create a world in our minds where these events are fictions, make-believe. Remind us today of the Good News that Jesus sees us all and rather than just understand or weep with us, he took up a position for us with his very life. He became harassed and helpless for us in order that he might take into himself the wounded and the wound-er and in his death defeat the Powers that harass and leave us helpless. Tell it to us again that in the resurrection he gives us new life and called us into his unusual coalition of eyes, hands, and voices for all to know we have been liberated by Christ Jesus. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, our Rock, and our Refuge. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Once upon a time, in a small village in Kenya, there lived a young boy with his stepfamily. Due to the scarcity of water in the village, the young boy awoke early every morning, carried his pot, and headed for the stream with the aim of fetching water for himself and his stepfamily. Sadly for him, he alone had this task as a routine every morning and evening to fetch water from a distant stream while his step-siblings were given other lenient tasks or even none. Yet, the young boy bore no grudge against his stepfamily, loved them, and carried out his task, diligently.
On his way back from the stream, he met an old man resting under a tree who begged for water to quench his thirst and he gave the old man. He met an elderly woman who begged for water and he gave the woman. This happens almost every time as he comes back from the stream; meeting people who beg for thirst, yet he gave them despite his step mother’s torture on him for fetching half-filled pots that wouldn’t even be enough for the family.
Somewhere along the way Mary had a change of heart. But, the way Matthew tells us about Mary just two chapters later, she is still on the outside looking in and wondering what in the world has gotten in to her son. He does not come home much. The odd collection of fellows with whom he spends most of his time make her uneasy. There may have been legitimate concerns that Jesus was burning the candle at both ends. It is not that she tortured Jesus for spending countless hours expressing deep compassion for those he saw. But, she does gather her family and goes looking for Jesus. Since his long sermon given after learning that John the Baptizer had been put in prison, Jesus took up the same message. Maybe that was it. Mary knew what happened to John, would happen to her son too.
Mary has seen the crowds. There are just too many people for just one Jesus; too many needs represented in all those people.
Would this compassion thing kill her son? How can he keep it up?
It all started six chapters ago. After the Tempter came and Jesus turned away his every offer, Jesus learned that John the Baptizer had been put in prison. He had run afoul of Herod who had represented the Powers that harass and keep people helpless. Absent a good news caroler, Jesus took up the role preaching about the kingdom and call for repentance. Matthew summarizes what Jesus set out to do.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Sounds like what Kim read.
Jesus laid out the invitation into the kingdom for all, particularly the excluded: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. He mapped the way of the kingdom against the realities of the old. Matthew again summarizes what Jesus had been up to since that long sermon. It is what began as he was descending the mountain after the message.
Then 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.
Who does that?
When we hear that Jesus cured every disease, every sickness we think the Gospel writers to be using hyperbole to point out that Jesus was doing what no one else was. If we are too afraid to suggest that the Gospel writers are embellishing the story we spiritualize the words disease and sickness. We give them meanings that diminish human suffering.
It is as hard for us as it was for Mary.
There are too many people. But, Matthew insists that Jesus was not deterred by the number of people or the kind of suffering. Instead, Matthew tells us that Jesus had guts.
When we receive a sympathy card we think the sender really has a heart. When a friend sits with us and cries with us we are encouraged by them sharing in the wounds of our hearts. But, when someone steps up to do something about the cause of our suffering we think, “They have guts.”
Matthew connects Jesus preaching and healing to what was internal to Jesus, namely the mercy of God. He had seen them harassed and helpless.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
They were skullo. The Greek word translated harassed carries the image of flaying or skinning, violence and plunder. The people were pipto. The Greek word translated helpless carries the image of throwing down, or laying down, often in violence: abandoned, suffering imperial violence, war and death, and sometimes judgement on unfaithfulness.
Hear me carefully. What is described is not something that was happening to all people. Though, we could easily illustrate that all people at some point experience skullo and pipto, harassment and helplessness. Here it was a group of people suffering under the oppressive powers and systems of their day.
Did you see the move Matthew made? He summarized Jesus ministry – preaching and healing. And, then when he points out Jesus’s guts he uses words to describe the people living under the weight of the secular and religious powers. You heard that correctly. Rome and the religious powerful protected their own way of life by keeping the people skullo and pipto – harassed and helpless. It had left the people like sheep without a shepherd, no one to care fo them.
If Jesus is used to keep things as they are, we are doing it wrong. Let me say it again another way. If we are using Jesus to keep our lives as they are, because we like them the way they are, we are doing it wrong. The Good News applied by the Spirit will always be rooting out our habits and patterns that directly or indirectly contribute to the suffering of others. It is the Spirit’s work to convict of sin and righteousness. If we are prepared to say that Jesus takes up in himself our wounds and the wound-er, that he takes up in himself our unjust humanity and redeems it, then we must also be ready when the Spirit takes up Jesus’ way in our own lives declaring an end to the reign of powers that keep things as they are for all people.
This is the harvest. That is, there are plenty of people suffering the wreckage of Rome and the religious powerful – then and now. And, we, if we benefit from the harassment and helplessness of the Powers, it is often hard to see how we ourselves may be recipients of a different harvest.
Generally in the Scriptures, harvest is a picture of judgment. Here relates an image of liberation. However, our participation in the Powers that keep people harassed and helpless reveals we have yet to embrace God’s mercy. We have not guts.
The people who have been skullo and pipto – harassed and helpless – are ripe to hear the Good News of God’s mercy. Where they had not received mercy under the hammer of Rome and the religious powerful, they would, through Jesus, hear the Good News of God’s victory over the Powers – the euangelion. These Powers are the forces at work propping up Rome and the religious powerful. These were the forces – Sin, Death, Grave – these are the Powers Jesus would defeat in his own life, death and resurrection.
Healing every disease and sickness was in service of the Good News. They were not ends in themselves. The reality of suffering and pain was cured by the words of Jesus and in his preaching the people heard of a new kingdom, one that would not leave them skullo and pipto – harassed and helpless.
Jesus had the guts to do for the people what a sympathy card could not do. He stepped up and did more than offer a good cry with a friend. Rather than leave things as they are, Jesus upends the Powers. He takes a position of resistance and more than that he moves into enemy territory and stakes a claim for those who have experienced violence at the hands of those given the role to provide order and care but have instead fed on the sheep than care for them.
Then, in an outlandish move, Jesus calls the Twelve and gives them his own authority to expand the mission, to broaden the effect. Just look at that group. It includes a representative of Rome in Matthew the tax collector, an insurrectionist and traitor in Judas Iscariot, and several virtual no names like Thadddaeus. Of course there are the usual suspects Peter, Andrew, James and John. Talk about an unlikely coalition. But who would have ever thought the religious powerful would join forces with Rome simply to keep their status?
Why not cobble together a bunch of no names, fishermen, and the like, those who had themselves suffered under the hammer of Rome and its ally the religious powerful? That is exactly what Jesus did. He then gave them authority to do what he did – and no more.
Take what you have and go – “Do What Jesus Did.” There were plenty of people who did not need a doctor, at least by their own self-examination. No need for repentance. No need for a Messiah. No need for a new kingdom. No need for a new way of life. Jesus went to those in need – who after self-examination, knew they needed someone with the guts to do something about the situation they could not do themselves.
We wonder how it is that Jesus sounds so exclusive when telling the disciples to only go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But, at the time, this would have been the group most harassed and helpless. These would have been they who were the sick who needed a doctor.
(I wrestled with the end of the sermon for the manuscript. Hand notes filled in for what was needed.)
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen or watch here.