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"Compassion"

For two thousand years Christians have been reading this story about the twelve being sent out with Jesus’ authority to preach and heal with a mixture of envy and curiosity and sheer terror! What would we do with that kind of opportunity?

[1] Image source: https://www.epaumc.org/conference-calendar/church-and-society-conference-building-connections-for-social-justice/
[1] Image source: https://www.epaumc.org/conference-calendar/church-and-society-conference-building-connections-for-social-justice/

Matthew 9:35-10:14

June 18, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


As you just heard, Matthew begins this section of his gospel by saying, “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.”


He is repeating nearly the exact same words found at the end of chapter 4.[2]


At that point Jesus had just begun his ministry, proclaiming that he had come to bring light to a people sitting in darkness, in the shadow of death! He followed up by calling his first disciples and beginning to preach and heal!


Now Matthew has brought us full circle … but something has changed.


This time we are told that when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them!


It is a strange comment.


I had assumed that Jesus always felt compassion for the crowds.


They come to him beaten down and broken-hearted, defeated and demon-possessed, sickened and silenced by imperial policies, weakened and wearied by an economy that crushes those at the bottom. Of course he feels compassion for them!


They are harassed. They are helpless. But the alliteration stops there. They are not hopeless.


The crowds maintain a flicker of hope like a candle in a windstorm.


How is this possible?


Maybe it is because they believe that God loves them with a love that never dies.


Maybe it is because they cling to stories that show that God has never abandoned them –

not in bondage in Egypt, not in the wilderness; not in exile;

not wrestling with life’s challenges; not facing death’s sting.


Or maybe it is because they are a stubborn and stiff-neck people who refuse to give up.


Whatever the reason, the crowds come to Jesus, and he feels compassion for them.


And this time, having already gathered and taught a group of disciples, he sends them out to minister to the crowds... and beyond!

 

It is a strange group that he sends!


Twelve names are listed – Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; James and John, the sons of Zebedee; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean and Judas Iscariot.


Strange because, as Colin Yuckman points out, “The “first” apostle, Peter, will deny the Lord three times and the last apostle, Judas, will betray him, while two apostles in between held opposite positions on the Roman occupation (tax collector Matthew worked for them, while Simon the Cananaean or “zealot” worked against them).”[3]


And these are the people Jesus picks to preach and heal, to discern and do?


Strange because nothing has prepared them for this work. Dave Ewart notices that Jesus has to instruct them on “how to live as itinerants, what to expect, and how to handle difficulties. These teachings were important because his followers would only have known village life – relying on family and kin for sustenance – and would be totally unfamiliar with the social realities of being an ‘outsider.’"[4]


Of course, the people God calls seldom feel prepared for the work they do – just ask Moses or Gideon, Ruth or Mary, to name a few.


Strange too because, as Beverly Gaventa grumbles, “Despite the slight variations between [the lists of disciples in Matthew , Mark, and Luke], they share one glaring feature: not one

woman’s name appears.”[5]


This despite the fact that we know women followed and supported Jesus throughout his ministry. And they were the only ones at the cross and the first at the empty tomb.

 

Still, it is this group of twelve who are sent out to proclaim the good news, cure the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. In short, to do the ministry that they have seen Jesus do!


It is a high calling, and they are working without a net!


How is it possible?


I am able to proclaim the good news – it’s one of my favorite parts of being a minister – but it took me a while to find my footing!


I’ve known people – doctors and nurses, therapists and 12 step counselors – who are able to heal the sick and deal with people’s demons!


But I’ve never known anyone who could raise the dead, except in the most metaphorical way!


So how did the twelve do it? How did they do all of it?


Matthew says Jesus gave them authority, as if that is all the explanation we need.


Catherine Grieb observes, “His authority funds their authority; his compassion defines their compassion.”[6]


They do not have any authority on their own. Their words about the Kingdom of God come near; their second-hand parables; their descriptions of God’s love and whispers about God’s faithfulness in the darkest valley are all just a repetition of what they have heard from his lips. Any power they have over sickness and demons and death is all derived from his power, like they have been loaned his credit card and invited to indulge in a Jubilee-sized spending spree!

 

Make no mistake. It will not be easy. Even with Christ’s authority.


He tells them where they can go – to people who will probably accept them – to people who will share their origin stories and nod enthusiastically when they ask if they remember YHWH’s promises, rather than to their religious rivals. There will be enough arguing as it is!


He tells them what they cannot bring – so they will learn how to rely on God and on the hospitality of strangers.


And he tells them they will not always be welcome – and what to do about it: shake it off!


Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, expands on Jesus’ terse advice:


“[It will not be clear why] your efforts are met with indifference. Shake the dust off your feet.


Don’t assume this is all about you -- it’s not a personal vote against you, and it’s not a challenge for you to turn into an inspired, charismatic genius. Shake the dust off your feet.


This isn’t failure; it’s rejection. They’re not the same thing. Shake the dust off your feet.


Don’t carry that dust everywhere you go, embittering relationships, souring friendships, sapping energy, leaking hope. Shake the dust off your feet.


Don’t take out your anger on people when you have no idea what’s making them be so bafflingly indifferent. Shake the dust off your feet.


Don’t judge them -- that’s God’s job, not yours, and only God knows why they’re so distracted or so passive or so frustrating or so silent. Shake the dust off your feet.


Don’t go on a self-righteous rant that assumes you’re a perfect embodiment of the gospel and anyone who doesn’t repent and be baptized this instant must be stupid. Shake the dust off your feet. Shake, shake, shake.”[7]

 

For two thousand years Christians have been reading this story about the twelve being sent out with Jesus’ authority to preach and heal with a mixture of envy and curiosity and sheer terror! What would we do with that kind of opportunity?


The truth is: we have just such an opportunity waiting at our door like a love-starved dog!


The crowds are still harassed and hurting … and stubbornly hopeful.


And we are heirs to Jesus’ compassion – his heart beats in our chests!


That’s what drives all our efforts to share the good news and bring healing!


Compassion for the crowds will not guarantee institutional success or power or growth, but it will mean that we will always have a north star to orient on, and a clear sense of why God has called us together and sent us out! Amen

[2] See Matthew 4:23-25
[3] From his reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 6/14/20
[4] From his reflections on the text for holytextures.com, 6/18/23
[5] From “The unqualified Twelve” in the Christian Century, May 19-26, 1993
[6] From “The apostles’ new identity” in the Christian Century, 6/3/08
[7] From “Shaking the dust” 7/29/13
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