On the Scope of Ministry
June 18, 2023
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. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Scope of Ministry.
For all the many stories we have of Jesus, there are very few instances in the scriptures where his emotions are described. He weeps when he goes to the tomb of Lazarus, he is angry when he turns over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, and he is irritated with the disciples here and there, but in our reading for today, we hear “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Compassion is the closest word we have in English to describe such an intense emotion. In my large dictionary, there are 13 pages of words that begin with the prefix “com” which means “with” or “together.” Consider that along with compassion we have community, commonality, comfort, communication, communion, complete, complex and companion. But the original word, from the Greek “splagchnizomai” (splangkh-nid’-zom-ahee), is a much stronger word; it implies pain of love.
I imagine we have all experienced this visceral reaction, very much like our heart is breaking open. We use phrases like “a slap in the face” or “heartbroken” or “crushed” to give a physical characteristic to our emotional reactions. Psychologist George MacDonald found that “this linguistic pattern is not peculiar to English; cultures around the world rely exclusively on physical pain terms to convey emotional distress.”* Those of you who speak other languages may remember such phrases. This commonality across language barriers exists because no matter what language we speak, our brains react to physical pain and social pain in the same way.
So when the scriptures say that “Jesus had compassion for the multitudes” we must read this with the original Greek in mind and put the full weight of the meaning. A more accurate translation would be “Jesus felt a love for the multitudes that caused him pain.” And why? The scriptures say, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” These were his people, harassed and helpless. By the time Jesus began his ministry, at the age of 33, the Jewish people had been under Roman rule for 97 years already. They were under a tremendous tax burden to support the flourishing city of Rome, they had no rights, and just enough freedom to keep them from revolting. The scriptures use the words “harassed and helpless” to describe the Jewish people. Jesus begins his ministry in this time of great social tension.
Perhaps this social tension was what pulled Jesus into active ministry. And who does he choose to accompany him? Who does he empower to “cast out unclean spirits, to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease”? An eclectic band of people from various backgrounds including a tax collector, a rebel against the Romans and a few fishermen. The important thing is that they were willing. Had they been recognized for their scholarship and in high standing in Jewish society they would not have made very good students. In choosing these twelve, Jesus extended his ministry to the people with the very people that those “harassed and helpless” individuals could relate to…people just like them. Jesus was not trying to start a new religion, he was trying to affect deep social and economic changes that would liberate the people he cared most for in the world, his community, the Jewish community.
In last Sunday’s sermon, I was encouraging us to free ourselves up a bit and use our imaginations to consider just who and what God is because, after all, no one knows for sure. But the case with Jesus of Nazareth is a different matter altogether. We have a plethora of stories that preserve Jesus’s teaching and it can be easy to overlook the ones that portray Jesus in a way we may find difficult to understand. All too often, we lift Jesus out of the circumstances of his times where he can be molded and shaped into the kind of teacher we can relate to, someone who will lead us along a path that we can follow without having to give up too much of who we think we are or what we think we want and need.
Friends, if following the teachings of Jesus is something we find easy and even attainable, we are only skimming the surface of what he has to offer us. We have the four gospels, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that tell the stories of Jesus’s ministry from different perspectives and all four show us the exact same pattern. Jesus centers his ministry on wherever there is suffering. Wherever there is poverty, wherever there is oppression, wherever there is illness of body or mind, Jesus is there, and if we call ourselves his students, his followers, then we must in some large or small way be working to resolve suffering.
In our reading today, Jesus gives us the place to start. It is the same place where he insists that his disciples start their service and I have to tell you that this was new information for me. In my shaping and molding of Jesus into the teacher I want him to be, I have seized verses that support my ideal of a teacher who wants the good news of God’s love spread far and wide, available to everyone, beyond all boundaries, no limits, and certainly no prerequisites, verses like the very last one in the book of Matthew where the risen Christ says “Go and make disciples of all nations… baptizing them… and teaching them.” This is the kind of teacher I want, a teacher who is willing to extend themselves beyond their own community, a teacher who is willing to include all people, even me. Jesus would grow to be that kind of teacher, but he is not that kind of teacher at the beginning of his ministry. At the beginning, the scope of his ministry was very narrow. Right there in the scriptures we heard today, it says Jesus “commanded them, saying, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, keep within our own community. Minister to our own people, help them, heal them, serve them that they may know they are valued, that they may know someone cares for them.
We are not unlike those ancient Hebrew people. We, too, are in crisis on multiple fronts. Our world is warming at an alarming rate. The growing extremes in weather make it undeniable. Social programs for the poorest among us are on the chopping block. The middle class is straining under the heaviest tax burden while corporations and the wealthiest Americans reap the benefits of lower tax rates. Consider these figures from the Center for American Progress: “Americans with less than five-figure incomes pay an effective payroll tax rate of 14.1 percent, while those making seven-figure incomes or more pay just 1.9 percent.”
Like the multitudes that Jesus looked upon with so much compassion, with a love so deep it was painful, we are struggling to find our way forward as a diverse nation. Jesus directed his disciples to take up the work in their own communities. He directed them to heal the broken, and to cast out the evil to make room for the light of God’s love. We are answering that call today, with support for 100 Nights in Keene, End 68 Hours of Hunger, and our church’s Care Fund. We are answering that call by offering a warm welcome to anyone and everyone who comes through the doors, asking their name, assuring they are seen. We answer Jesus’s call by praying for one another and checking in on one another. In doing so, we all take up the role as ministers; this was Jesus’s vision, that the scope of ministry be extended to include all people.
In closing, I pray for the courage to meet Jesus where he centered his ministry, with those who are suffering the most. I pray for the modern prophets among us that have visions of how we can create a better world for all people; I pray that their voices can be heard rising up among the cries for tax equality, for justice, for change. So be it. Amen.
Lord of all things, we find ourselves in tumultuous times. Your presence is often difficult to sense among the news headlines and stories from around the world of disasters large and small, and yet Your Presence is in us and among us in ways we can not comprehend. We pray for a heightened awareness of how we may be instruments of your goodness and your peace. Help us to still our bodies and minds so that we may respond to your guidance, Lord. Spark our memories, that we may be reminded of the power of prayer, as we pray for ourselves, and as we pray for our sisters and brothers around the world. I pray for Fathers especially today. May they be guided by the highest form of love as they care for those around them. This I pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Thessalonians, chapter 5: “May the God of Peace sanctify you completely, and may your spirit and soul and body be sound.” Amen.