By Linda Rex
June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.
A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.
This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.
My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.
The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.
Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.
Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.
As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.
Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.
And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.
In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.
We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.
Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG
“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB