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A Fresh Look at the Gospel of Jesus

June 18, 2017


June 18, 2017 (Second Sunday of Pentecost)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas


Matthew 9:35-10:23

35 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. 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 labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

10Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These 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; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.

16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

One reason that history is important is that history reminds us about our purpose.  We can become dis-connected with purpose over time.  Without a sense of history, people tend to lose focus on what was important when a group began.  As time passes, the original band of elders is replaced by new leaders.  Unless each new generation understands the history of a group, new generations lose the benefit of lessons that were learned by elders.  


The passage we ponder today outlines the condition and situation Jesus confronted when he selected twelve of his followers and made them apostles – meaning they were sent in his name – to liberate people oppressed by sickness.  The twelve apostles (perhaps representing the twelve tribes of ancient Israel) were instructed to focus their ministry efforts exclusively among Jewish communities.  At the end of Matthew, that healing and restoration mission was extended to all people everywhere and the work of teaching was added through what is known as “the Great Commission”  ( see Matthew 28:16-20). 


Jesus empowered the apostles to announce that the realm of heaven had arrived.  As agents of that realm, the apostles were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and cure lepers – in other words, deliver healing and restoration without cost to people oppressed by sickness.  The apostles were directed to travel light, live frugally, live among and accept hospitality from the people they served, and leave whenever they were not welcomed.  And the apostles were warned to expect opposition, harassment, and even persecution.   


The religion of Jesus did not begin as an effort to proselytize.  Jesus wasn’t trying to build a religious empire.  His ministry plainly began as an effort of compassion focused on delivering people from the oppression of social conditions that were not being addressed by the government or by the established religious and social agencies.  People were suffering from various debilitating illnesses.  Their needs far exceeded the available resources.  At Matthew 9:36, the social situation was documented by these memorable words:  When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.


Harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd are fitting words for many people today.  


  • Many veterans of US military adventures are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  They are “harassed and helpless” because of physical wounds and by residual effect of memories and emotions too painful for words.  
  • People in rural and urban communities are “harassed and helpless” because the air, soil, and water have been poisoned by industrial polluters.
  • Workers are “harassed and helpless” by business policies aimed at producing profits by holding down wages while demanding more production.  
  • People of all ages are “harassed and helpless” in the face of efforts by politicians to dismantle the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act known as “Obama-Care.”
  • People are oppressed by the sickness of addiction to various substances and situations.  


The religion of Jesus did not begin as – and should not be confused with – a “prosperity gospel.”  Jesus did not tell his apostles to charge a fee when they went about the ministry of healing intractable diseases and delivering people from oppressive psychological and mental conditions for a fee.  Jesus didn’t allow the apostles to charge a fee because he was motivated by compassion, not commerce.  


When folks today call on people to “sew a seed” in order to “reap a blessing,” that is a far cry from the ministry that Jesus conducted and instructed the apostles to deliver.  Instead of being set free from debilitating conditions, the “harassed and helpless” people of our time and place are often hustled – in the name of Jesus – to contribute money to religious enterprises that provide mansions, luxury automobiles, private jets, and private security contractors for a handful of religious opportunists.  The so-called “prosperity gospel” is the gospel of commerce, not the compassionate gospel of Jesus!


People used religion during the time of Jesus, as during our time, as a ploy to exploit others who are “harassed and helpless.”  Jesus recognized that he was sending the apostles to deliver ministry that was fundamentally different from what others were doing.  


How do we know this was the case?  Notice his remark at Matthew 10:16:  “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Jesus cautioned the apostles about trusting religious wolves.  He warned the apostles that religious wolves “will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:17-18).  


The gospel of Jesus began as an effort in compassion, not a religious enterprise focused on having the most members, the biggest budget, and the most buildings.  Attendance, buildings, and cash are signs of enterprise, not compassion.  When religious people emphasize the number of baptisms, the number of people who attend worship services and other religious meetings, and the financial impact these gatherings have on an economy, they are not talking about attending to “harassed and helpless” people who were the intentional focus of Jesus and the apostles.

The gospel of Jesus was never intended to become a religious empire.  It began, and should remain, focused on healing and restoring broken people to wholeness.  We are custodians of a healing and restoration ministry, not a business enterprise.  We are trustees of the compassionate and merciful will of God to help the helpless, give voice to the unheard and overlooked, protect the weak and defenseless, and welcome immigrants and strangers.   This ministry is not about amassing political power.  It is not about controlling access to resources and doling them out as rewards.  


Our greatest authority as followers of Jesus is not found in the size of our budgets, the grandeur of our religious buildings, and the number of people who flock to our services.  Our greatest authority as followers of Jesus comes from what we do on behalf of the people Jesus later in Matthew’s Gospel called “the least of these.”  Compassion arises because we have walked among suffering people, witnessed their struggles, heard their stories, and been moved to act in God’s name on their behalf.  Compassion comes from deep inside us, not from the Wall Street Journal.  Compassion is a response to suffering we put ourselves in position to see, and then address in the power of God!


Like the twelve apostles, we have no power in ourselves to meet the needs of suffering people.  We have no power in ourselves to confront and overcome the oppressive realities of our time and place.  Now, as in the time of Jesus, the harvest is more plentiful than the number of laborers.  


Now, as in the time of Jesus, religious wolves remain focused on making a comfortable – if not luxurious – living, not restoring sickened and wounded lives.  Now, as in the time of Jesus, religious wolves and self-serving political actors are acting in concert to build empires of power, domination, and privilege, not a world where all persons can live and thrive with God-given dignity, peace, and love.  


Let’s be clear.  The gospel of Jesus was fundamentally different from what was happening in the synagogues of Judea and Galilee when Jesus lived.  The gospel of Jesus was fundamentally focused on healing and restoring broken people.  The gospel of Jesus was fundamentally focused on showing that God’s love gets close to marginalized people.  God’s love doesn’t exploit.  God’s love heals and restores.  


The work of God’s love is done only when we, like the apostles Jesus sent out, show up as compassionate healers and restorers rather than enterprising religious capitalists.  Sacrificial service is the ministry model we are to follow.  God provides the resources we need.  God provides the people we need.  God provides opportunities for us to confront religious, political, and commercial agents of empire with the truth that peace and prosperity are always based on compassion, generosity, and community, not personal greed, private advantage, and profit motives.  


This notion of ministry is not popular now and it was not popular during the time of Jesus.  Judas was not the only follower of Jesus who abandoned this risky, humble, and subversive alternative to the worship of empire; he was merely the apostle we remember most clearly.  Now, as was true when Jesus sent the apostles out, followers of Jesus face what appear to be overwhelming odds.  We appear to be out-numbered because we are out-numbered.  We appear to be less-favored.  


Our strength comes from God!  Our resources are provided by God!  This truth runs throughout the Bible, and is presented in this passage about the sending forth of the apostles.  The apostles went about their healing and restoration ministry trusting that the power of God would work through them.  They were ordinary people doing extraordinary things because God worked through their compassion.  They focused on healing and restoration, without thought of financial compensation, because the gospel of Jesus is about healing and restoring, not enriching healers and restorers.  


That is good news to suffering people.  That is good news to broken people. That is good news to people who live every day with their backs to the wall.  That is good news to people ignored by politicians, chamber of commerce leaders, and religious enterprisers.  The good news is that the grace of God comes without charging a fee to or demanding payment from the people we are to serve.  


This is the controversial gospel of Jesus.  This gospel puts emphasis on people others consider outcasts.  This gospel turns privileged people into servants of the disfavored.  The gospel of Jesus is based on the compassion of God operating through us to not merely wring our hands about human suffering, but to get up, go out, and do something about it.  We are called to get up, go out, and do something without worrying about getting paid. We are called to get up, go out, and do something in God’s name, not to make a name for ourselves.  We are called to get up, sent out, and commanded to do something because broken, wounded, and otherwise vulnerable people are not “losers,” but are children of God.  They are members of God’s family.  


This is how the gospel of Jesus began.  This is what the gospel of Jesus must always be.  Let us resolve anew to live in its original and ongoing power and purpose.






God of the prophets and apostles,
God of compassion,
you have opened the way for us
and brought us to yourself.
Pour your love into our hearts,
that, overflowing with joy,
we may freely share the blessings of your realm
and faithfully proclaim the good news of Christ.

Send us into the world
to preach good news, as Jesus did,
heal the sick,
resist evil,
and bring the outcast home. Amen.

©Wendell Griffen, 2017