This was one of those weeks when our Scripture passage had something new to say to me. Maybe it’s because we’re reading this story of Jesus sending the disciples out on their first mission right after reading last week’s passage about Jesus commissioning the disciples after the resurrection. We tend to mash the two assignments Jesus gave his disciples together into one mission. But when we read the two stories together, we find there is a significant difference. And the difference is important for how we understand our role as Jesus’ disciples today.
In this week’s passage, Jesus is on the road, with his disciples trailing along after him, soaking up his words and deeds. He’s engaged in his ministry of healing and teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Matthew talks about the “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven,” or just “the kingdom” a lot. Usually, when we think of God’s kingdom, we think of it in terms of geography. We talk about building or expanding or growing God’s kingdom, as though it’s a matter of conquering enemy territory or expanding God’s real estate holdings.
But, Matthew’s readers would have understood it a little differently. It’s likely that they understood the kingdom of God in its Jewish sense, since it seems that Matthew was writing for an audience familiar with the Jewish tradition. And, in that tradition, when you refer to the kingdom, you’re not talking about a place so much as an event. “The kingdom” is God exercising God’s ruling power and making God’s sovereignty known. “The kingdom” is more verb than noun.
For Matthew’s readers, “the kingdom” was shorthand for the entire story of the world: that God is Creator and Sovereign over all; that the world is a rebellious place, where real evil exists and conditions don’t conform to God’s will; that God chose a community that would accept the “yoke of the kingdom”—that would love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and might, and enact God’s kingship in the world. Finally, it was understood that, even though there was a small community of people trying to live according to God’s will, the world’s creatures were mostly a disobedient bunch. So, even though God is Sovereign over all now, the time when God’s sovereignty will everywhere be made manifest is still to come.
This is what Jesus’ audience and Matthew’s readers would have understood when Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom—that God is sovereign and that the time when God’s sovereignty would be fully revealed in all hearts, souls, and actions is near. Jesus’ healing of the crowds was part and parcel of this good news. It affirmed that God’s will for the world is healing and wholeness, not just in mind and body, but in spirit and community.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus’ reaction on seeing the crowds is compassion. We don’t invest that word “compassion” with the depth of feeling we should when we read it in Scripture. Biblical compassion isn’t just the vague sympathy we feel when we hear a sad story. When we heard of the family here in Whitehouse who lost their home in a fire last week, we felt badly for them, enough that the Mission Committee elected to make a donation to help them in their recovery. We might say we have compassion for them.
But the word that “compassion” comes from a Latin word that means “to suffer with.” It means to share the pain someone else is feeling as though it were our own. Matthew’s Greek word literally meant to have a gut reaction. It was believed that the bowels were the source of love and pity, and so Matthew says that Jesus was moved in his very bowels. That’s how deeply Jesus was moved by the people before him.
Why was he filled with this gut-deep love and pity for the crowd? Matthew says it was because they were harassed and helpless. They were distressed—feeling as vulnerable as though their skin had been flayed, their souls and bodies mangled. They were dispirited—as though they had been carelessly thrown down, hastily discarded. We can guess at why they felt this way by remembering the people Jesus had already healed and what he had healed them from: lepers, whose disease ate away at their bodies as their exclusion from society ate away at their souls. Those possessed by demons—powers which they were unable to control and drove them into isolation. Those with diseases and conditions that prevented them from living full and satisfying lives.
Feeling the suffering of the crowd as though it were his own, Jesus says to the disciples: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.”
Usually we don’t stop to think about what kind of harvest Jesus is referring to. We assume that he’s talking about potential believers, and what he needs are people who will carry out the commission he gives to the eleven in Chapter 28: to make disciples of all nations—to bring in a harvest of believers.
But here’s the difference between the commission at the end Matthew’s Gospel and the one we hear today. In today’s passage, Jesus doesn’t send disciples out to make believers. He sends them out into a harvest of wholeness, and inclusion, and justice—a harvest that is plentiful and possible. Jesus sends his followers into the harvest, but this isn’t a harvest of people. It’s a harvest for people.
He sends the apostles out to proclaim that God’s power is breaking into the lives of the hurting and the broken—into their pain, into their experiences, into their lives. He sends them out to cure the sick and cleanse the lepers—not just of their physical illness but of the exclusion and isolation that come with being unwanted and unwelcome because of their bodies. He sends them to raise the dead—those who are dead to joy, dead to hope, those who are treated as though they are dead by others. He sends them to cast out demons—to offer freedom from the things that rule people’s lives and over which they feel powerless. He sends the apostles out to create the world that makes God’s sovereignty visible. Jesus sends his followers into the harvest, but this isn’t a harvest of people. It’s a harvest for people.
Suppose Jesus came to your house today and sat with you, watching TV, reading the paper, maybe looking over your shoulder at your cell phone or iPad. Imagine his face as he observes our world—distressed by the pandemic and all its effects, torn apart by our latest reckoning with pervasive racism, held captive by divisiveness and prejudice and fear. Imagine his compassion, as he sits with you, observing the crowds.
Then, imagine him turning to you and saying, “You. I want you to go. I give you the same authority and power I have to cast out unclean spirits and cure every disease and every sickness. Go and proclaim the good news of the kingdom—that God’s rule has come near, that it is breaking into this world in a new way, bringing healing of all kinds. Go and cure those who suffer from today’s sicknesses, including the ones that infect all of society. Go and raise the dead: give new life and hope to those who feel that they are without hope. Go and embrace those who are rejected. Go and announce God’s freedom—freedom from all that would enslave bodies, and minds, and spirits. Go.”
Is this where you say, “Yes, Lord, I’m ready! ‘Here I am Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.’ Just point me in the right direction! Open my eyes to the needs I haven’t seen, or can’t see, or have been unwilling to see, and I’m on it!”
Or is this where you say, “Whoa, Lord. Let’s just think about this for a moment. You know me, right? I don’t have any world-changing credentials. I’m not even sure I see a harvest that needs to be brought in. Sure, there’s lots of bad stuff going on in other places, to other people, but not here, and not to me. Wouldn’t it be better to send someone else—someone who’s better equipped, someone who has personal experience of these sicknesses and demons?”
This is where Jesus may remind you of who he sent the first time. A handful of fishermen, including Simon Peter, who more often than not had his foot in his mouth, and who would later deny he even knew Jesus. Thomas—often bold and fearless, but also plagued with questions. Two men on opposite ends of the political spectrum: Matthew, the tax collector who worked for the Romans, and Simon the Cananean, a zealous believer in the Torah who campaigned against the Romans. The rest are so ordinary, we know nothing about them at all, except of course for Judas—Judas, whose heart Jesus surely knew.
A dozen regular guys, with no unique talents in community organizing, no political influence, no specialized training or education. They probably didn’t even have any particular concern (and maybe even some disdain) for the people and issues Jesus cared so deeply about, if the way they treated some of the people who cried out to Jesus for help is any indication. Just regular people, who had thrown their lot in with Jesus. Just regular people, who were willing to learn, willing to trust, willing to go where Jesus sent them. Just ordinary people, like us, who, like us, are given extraordinary power and authority, and are sent as laborers into God’s harvest.
I wonder if, when Jesus told them to go, the apostles asked, “Why should I? What’s in it for me? Why do I have to go heal them if they don’t make any effort to come to me? I suffer sometimes, too.” We ask the same question when Jesus challenges us to go where we don’t want to go, to people we don’t want to go to. Why should we go? What’s in it for us?
On the one hand, there is something in it for us. When we do the healing work Jesus sends us to do, when our actions provide evidence of God’s sovereignty in the world, the world just becomes a better place for all of us. A just world is a more peaceful world. A whole world is a healthier and more prosperous world. A world where all people are free to reach their full human potential is a more perfect world. So, in one sense, there’s a lot in it for us if we undertake the work Jesus gives us the authority and power to do.
On the other hand, even if there’s nothing in it for us, it doesn’t matter. Because this is the work of grace. When Jesus says, “I’m sending you,” we go, not because it benefits us, but simply because he tells us to go. We offer our time, we share our resources, we give up our privileges, we pay attention as our grace-filled response to the grace we’ve so richly received.
Where would we be if Jesus had asked, “Why should I?” when he was sent by his Father to bring the kingdom near to us? Where would we be if Jesus had said, “Their problems aren’t my problems” as he made his way to the cross? Where would we be, if not for the pure, grace-filled gift of God’s love, given to us through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which brings us the healing and wholeness—the shalom—he now sends us to harvest for others?
When Jesus sends out his disciples, their work—our work—is the same as his. Way back in Chapter 4, Matthew says that Jesus went through Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” Matthew reminded us in the beginning of our passage today that Jesus went about all the cities and villages, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” Finally, Jesus sends his apostles, telling them to “proclaim the good news of the kingdom, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”
The religious scholar Colin Yuckman says, as Jesus’ followers, “We are expected to resemble him in word and deed. To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus.” This is our commission as much as it was for the twelve. We are sent to carry out the same work that Jesus did. We are to proclaim and make visible the kingdom of heaven by curing the diseases and sicknesses that plague our world and our brothers and sisters. A plentiful harvest of justice and compassion, of healing and wholeness, is waiting. And we are chosen and blessed to be sent into the harvest, as laborers for our Lord. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young