9:35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”
10:1 He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. 2 Here are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; 3 Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus;4 Simon the Cananaean; and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.
5 Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. 7 As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons. You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment. 9 Workers deserve to be fed, so don’t gather gold or silver or copper coins for your money belts to take on your trips. 10 Don’t take a backpack for the road or two shirts or sandals or a walking stick. 11 Whatever city or village you go into, find somebody in it who is worthy and stay there until you go on your way. 12 When you go into a house, say, ‘Peace!’ 13 If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if the house isn’t worthy, take back your blessing. 14 If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. 15 I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.
16 “Look, I’m sending you as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as snakes and innocent as doves. 17 Watch out for people– because they will hand you over to councils and they will beat you in their synagogues. 18 They will haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me so that you may give your testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19 Whenever they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you will say, because what you can say will be given to you at that moment. 20 You aren’t doing the talking, but the Spirit of my Father is doing the talking through you. 21 Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. 22 Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. 23 Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Human One comes. (CEB)
Are we a community or are we the crowds? That’s the question that comes to my mind when I read today’s text from Matthew’s Gospel. The impetus for the sending of the twelve apostles is Jesus’ compassion on the crowds who were “troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 CEB). As much as I appreciate the Common English Bible and the New Revised Standard Version translations, I think they both miss the mark with how they’ve rendered the text into English. The Greek in this verse suggests oppression or, at the least, neglect by those in power. The crowds were dejected and thrown aside (my translation). The crowds have been written off and not had their needs provided for by the leadership who were supposed to be their protectors and ensure their well-being.
The prophet Ezekiel spoke about the same thing: “The LORD’s word came to me: Human one, prophesy against Israel’s shepherds. Prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims to the shepherds: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice” (Ezekiel 34:1-4 CEB).
God intends for rulers and those in leadership positions to care for their people. The failure of the shepherds—political and religious leaders—in Ezekiel’s day caused God to say, “The LORD God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out” (Ezekiel 34:11 CEB), and “I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the LORD God says. I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice” (Ezek. 34:15-16 CEB). This is the ministry of Jesus, the ministry he sent the apostles to do, and the ministry to which we are called.
The reality of our world—from ancient times to the present—is that those in positions of power and authority tend to step on the heads of the powerless and crush the livelihoods of the poor. The crowds, which are mentioned so many times in Matthew’s Gospel, are people who come seeking Jesus’s help, they amass as a crowd, but they don’t come together as a community. The crowds are made up of individuals who are driven to Jesus by their own needs. They’re in search of food and healing from all kinds of ailments.
By contrast, the disciples—which number many more than the twelve apostles and include a lot of women—had come together as a community. They took care of each other. In fact, some of those who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion were women who travelled with Jesus in order to take care of him (c.f. Matthew 27:55). Because the community of disciples came together in this way and took care of each other, they weren’t like the crowds who were often desperate and needy. The disciples were enabled to move beyond their own needs and be in ministry to others. That’s what Jesus was doing by sending out the twelve apostles. Their mission was to bring people into community by doing the same things Jesus had been doing: healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing those with skin diseases, and throwing out demons.
The apostles were to draw the people who often made up the needy crowds and build them into a community of compassion. That’s the vision God had for Israel. It’s what Israel was supposed to be: an example of right-living and a blessing to the rest of the world. Instead of jubilee, there was oppression. “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!” (Isa. 5:7 CEB).
The message the apostles were sent to deliver was simple: The kingdom of heaven has come near. It’s the same message preached by John the Baptist. It’s the same message preached by Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. You see, one of the many things our faith tradition tells us is that we are living in a time-between-times. God has broken into our world with the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He taught that God’s kingdom is coming, and is already here, working in subtle ways. Jesus will come again to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven in all its fullness and begin a new age in which God reigns and we participate in the life of God as God intended.
We, the church, are to be like the disciples who were formed into a new community: a community which exemplifies the kingdom when we exhibit love and care for each other. Are we the crowds or are we a community? Do we look upon the crowds with the same compassion as Jesus, especially when we see that those who should be helping the people aren’t doing it? Jesus described the people in those crowds as dejected and thrown aside, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering around aimlessly, not knowing where they’re going, where to find nourishment, powerless to change their lot because those in power stacked the deck against them and got away with it. One thing is certain, this world needs apostles to bring good news, to announce that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
Whenever there’s a problem in the world, I’ve heard people ask the question, why doesn’t God do something about that? C.S. Lewis had one of his protagonists, Elwin Ransom, wrestle with the same question in his book, Perelandra. The Eve-like figure of the planet, Perelandra, was being worn down by the evil one’s representative, and the protagonist knew that if something didn’t change soon, she might sin and the world would fall into ruin.
He wrote, “For the third time, more strongly than ever before, it came into his head, ‘This can’t go on.’ The enemy was using Third Degree methods. It seemed to Ransom that, but for a miracle, the Lady’s resistance was bound to be worn away in the end. Why did no miracle come? Or rather, why no miracle on the right side? For the presence of the Enemy was in itself a kind of Miracle. Had Hell a prerogative to work wonders? Why did Heaven work none? Not for the first time he found himself questioning Divine Justice. He could not understand why Maleldil [God] should remain absent when the Enemy was there in person” (Lewis, 119). It was then that Ransom realized that he was the miracle. He was the one sent to do something about it.
So are we.
We often think of the apostles as twelve men who had specific authority, and the church has put stock in the authority of the twelve apostles and how that authority has been handed down. Yet, there isn’t anything particularly fancy or special about the word apostle. It’s a compound of the Greek words apo and stolos. Apo means from and stolos essentially means equipment, especially for war purposes. In fact, in ancient Greek a stolos is usually a fleet. Herodotus described the Greek expedition against Troy as “στόλος χιλιοναύτης” (stolos chilionautes), a fleet of a thousand ships.
In later Greek, the word apostle came to mean something akin to ambassador, in that the apostle was equipped and sent from someone in authority. By the general definition of the term, we are all apostles. We are told to go and make disciples of all the nations. We are sent to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
That’s our task, and we do it by identifying with the crowds of needy people, which is really all people, indeed, every person. The apostles were initially sent out to the lost sheep of Israel, but that mission was expanded to all nations following Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the Gospel.
We’re told that the harvest is upon us, but the labor force is scarce. That’s why we are sent. We are the ones who fill out the labor shortage. Even as the need around us appears overwhelming and beyond our abilities to fix, we are still told to go because the harvest is ripe. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. This is no time to sit around and shake our heads, wondering at the world’s problems. Jesus sends us out to get busy loving the crowds one person or family at a time.
I know, we’re United Methodists. We do lots of stuff by committee and sometimes the church works at a snail’s pace. But here’s the thing. We don’t need permission to serve Jesus and work for the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s not to say our committees are irrelevant, because they aren’t. They do a lot of important work, and those who serve on those committees are doing ministry and working for Jesus Christ.
But if you want to start a Bible study for older adults, then start one. f you want to be a big brother or big sister to an at-risk kid, go for it! If you want to volunteer at a soup kitchen or other area ministry, sign up and go. If you’re worried about doing something alone, take someone else with you. Even the apostles were sent out in pairs. If you want to start an afterschool program for the students in our community, then talk to my wife, Joy, because she’s working on it right now. We don’t have to do everything, but we ought to do something. When we do, we affect other people and make new disciples who also go out to serve. This congregation has sent a lot of people into ministry over the past decade. That doesn’t just happen. People were involved in those lives.
Are we the crowds or are we a community? When we love and care for one another, and sending workers out into the harvest to serve, when we’re as outward-focuses as we are inward-focused, that’s when we’re being formed into a community. We’re preparing for a kingdom. We’re praying for the Lord to send out workers. The problem with prayer is that it works, which means the next worker God sends into the fields might just be you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!