Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
The text for our sermon meditation is the Gospel account of St Matthew, the 9th Chapter.
“35Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 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 pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.””
So far the reading.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The imagery which Matthew places before us today applies equally well in every generation. Within this passage of Matthew’s Gospel account Jesus makes two observations regarding those who He comes to save. Firstly, Jesus looks out over the crowds and sees sheep in need of compassion. Secondly, Jesus sees a harvest that needs to be gathered. We will consider for a few moments Jesus compassion for the sheep.
We who no longer live the life of a farmer or shepherd have little understanding of these allusions which God places before us. We must turn to those who have the experience of raising sheep in order to gain some understanding of the truth which we must see. One such sheep herder, Phillip Keller, writes:
“Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. If left to themselves they will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. … No other class of livestock requires more careful handling, more direction, than do sheep.” p.61-62, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm.
Keller goes on to elaborate that sheep have no concept of the effect their habits have on their surroundings. Left to their own devices both the land and their health wastes away and is rendered useless. Head down and grazing they will eventually eat the very roots of the grass that grows. Following the same paths day in and day out. They create ruts which aid in eroding the land and washing away nutrients. Remaining on the same land their waste accumulates and parasites and diseases which afflict them individually soon spreads to the whole flock.
So this description of what Jesus sees when he looks out over the crowds is quite appropriate for our life on earth. Wandering sheep soon find trouble in life. They are afflicted by others and even bring trouble on themselves. Isaiah rightly says, “we all like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way …” [Is. 53:6]
To be fair though, we first consider the people whom Matthew says are “harassed and helpless.” There is no one to show them compassion. Compassion means to feel deeply what these people are feeling. The one who shows compassion knows exactly what these people are suffering, how deep that suffering goes and how long the people have suffered.
In this description we are given a glimpse to what life would be like without compassion. The two words, harassed and helpless are apt descriptions. The basic meaning of harassed is to flay the skin off an animal. The implication of this word applied to those upon whom Jesus looks is that they were set upon by those who had authority over them. Their lives were made difficult by those who were to relieve their suffering. They were given little hope or comfort for the trial under which they lived.
Matthew has in mind the spiritual guidance and peace which their priests and teachers of the Law were to give them. They were harassed by a righteousness that was far different than the righteousness ordained by their God. Pharisees and teachers of the Law increased the burden of perfection, rather than mitigated the burden of perfection. The people were flayed by the unrighteous demand of their spiritual leaders who controlled the most minute areas of life. Law upon law was added to coerce righteousness. Certainly this was a form of righteousness, but there was no compassion.
So what is life like without compassion? I thought about this question as I listened to the Chief of Police in Minneapolis during his press conference this past week. I came to this conclusion. Lack of compassion breeds lack of compassion and in turn lack of restraint. When restraint and compassion disappear there is a vacuum to be filled. That vacuum sucks in all manner of dirt and debris. It is what we have witnessed in major cities in the past few weeks.
Once peaceful areas have become war zones filled with demonstrators. Some legitimate who have suffered from being shown lack of compassion. Some illegitimate brought in from other places to upset, overturn and destabilize otherwise peaceful protests.
Without compassion there is only unbridled passion. The voices of the crowd are raised in retribution and their hands are raised in rebellion. There is violence, destruction of property and businesses, looting, lawlessness. Communities once thriving are turned into wastelands, monuments to our sinful nature run amok. Those who once lived there no longer know security and peace. Businesses that once supplied the needs of the community are boarded up, some never to reopen.
Like the people in the time of Jesus, those who are suffering the onslaught of unbridled passion are harassed, even helpless. The implication of helpless is even more disturbing. The word used by Matthew indicates the people were laid prostrate by a mortal wound. Their security is in question. They have nowhere to turn. There is no one to give aid. There is no relief or restoration on the horizon.
Such is the human condition, of which we are participants. We may not be causing disturbances, or walking in rebellion against seemingly unfeeling authorities, but there are sins which are just as serious of which we need to repent. It matters little what those sins are. For God does not differentiate between sins or those who break His Law. Consider this truth written for us in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
“12Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned …” [Romans 5:12]
We may look upon others and decry what evil they commit, rightly so. Yet, we must also confess to our God the very evil we ourselves commit. God’s judgment is equally upon all people as Paul says – “death spread to all men because all sinned.” We are like sheep who have gone astray. We have created our own vacuum of unrighteousness and filled it with all manner of evil. We flay ourselves and flay each other. We strike our own lives with a mortal wound and strike others in the same way. We don’t need to use bricks, Molotov cocktails, sticks or flames. We have thoughts, words and deeds of our own making and imagination of which we need to repent.
While we might live without compassion, we are blessed to have One who looks with compassion upon all people. Jesus looks out over the crowds which still gather today. He sees each individual sinner who needs to be shown compassion. He desires each sinner to know the healing power of His word and the restoring touch of His hands. He wants us to know that He comes not only to address the sin but also the effects of sin.
Jesus ministry is twofold. He reveals that salvation is not only according the spiritual needs of sinners. Salvation is also with regard to the needs of the body. This is for what we pray in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray “Give us today our daily bread” we are speaking of the physical needs and wants of the body. Dr Luther’s explanation to this petition provides a whole list of those physical needs of the body. Among them are good government and peaceful homes, peaceful neighbors and pious families.
Jesus addresses these needs richly and fully with the compassion and grace of God. We see first that Jesus goes to those who are so afflicted. This is not the first time Jesus comes to those who are suffering. Jesus first descended from the very throne of the Creator not to see what evil has been done, but address such evil and to heal such evil. Consider the words which Matthew writes. “Jesus went into every village and town and healed all manner of illness and disease and cast out demons from the demon-possessed.
The greatest healing would be given when Jesus entered the city of God, Jerusalem. There in that city Jesus would confront the self-righteous sinners in their place of authority. In that confrontation Jesus would bear their false accusations, deceitful justice and unjust condemnation for evils He did not commit. Jesus would suffer the final torment of His Father’s righteous justice in His crucifixion and death upon the cross.
Jesus continues to come to us today as He did in the time of Matthew. He sent workers into His harvest field. Jesus gave authority to His apostles to preach and act as He proclaimed and healed. They carried with them the message of the reign of God who comes to heal and save those who are lost in the dark maze of unbelief and rebellion. He comes to turn their hearts to seek the salvation of heaven rather than the fleeting substance of this earth.
The work continues in the gifts which Jesus perpetually gives to His Church. There may not be miraculous healing nor ecstatic speaking, but there is cleansing from sin and sinners rejoicing. Such cleansing comes to us in the water of Holy Baptism. Hearts are sprinkled clean from the stain of sin. Minds are healed from the searing power of sin. Lives are transformed to live in God’s righteousness that is by faith, but not by works. The body of Christ is set upon the firm foundation of the apostles and the prophets with Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone.
This is God’s compassion for sinners. In Christ, God both feels our destitute way of life and restores that life to the fullness of life in the Gospel. Such compassion is also shown us and given to us in the Holy Meal shared from the altar of God. From that altar we eat the very bread of heaven broken for us upon the cross. from that altar we drink the cup of salvation which was poured out for our sins and the sins of the whole world.
This meal is a holy meal with the very healing power of God given through it. This meal supplies what is needed to restore, refresh and redeem what was lost and damaged by the things that prostrate us and distress us in this world. Rightly we proclaim this meal to be a foretaste of the Feast to come. For we who are healed by Jesus in body and soul will be gathered in God’s presence in the kingdom which is yet to come.
May our Lord and Shepherd Jesus Christ heal and supply you for the days to come and bring you into his Kingdom on the Last Day.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen!