Don’t miss verse 36!

Matthew 9:35–10:8 [9-23] (Exodus 19:2-8a, Psalm 100, Romans 5:1-8) 

In any other time, I would not have seen the importance of verse 36.  It simply would not have registered with me.  I likely would have preached on the image of the disciples heading out to the mission filed without sandals; or shaking the dust off of one’s feet if not welcomed; or the mention of Sodom and Gomorrah.  (I probably would not have dwelt upon serving as a minister of the gospel without seeking any payment, for fear of what might happen at the next Congregational Meeting.)  Regardless, I do not think that verse 36 would have leapt of the page and smacked upside the head, were it not for times in which we live.

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 (Matthew 9:35-38, vs. 36 underlined).

The phrase “harassed and helpless” literally means “oppressed and thrown to the ground.”  Jesus’ teaching, preaching and healing is therefore motivated by the suffering and injustice that he sees: the sheep need a shepherd.  Jesus’ ministry of care is itself a powerful manifestation of the Kingdom of God which he proclaims.  The problem of oppression is an opportunity for deliverance, as one scholar points out.  The disciples are to be Jesus’ representatives in care-focused deliverance.  Matthew 19:7-8 describes this ministry in action: “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.”  And this ministry of giving is in response to an experience of having first received: “You received without payment; give without payment” (10:9).

In Matthew’s Gospel there are descriptions of those who are oppressed and thrown to the ground:

The poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted because of righteousness; those persecuted and slandered because of their relationship with Jesus (The Beatitudes, 5:3-12). And,

The hungry; the thirsty, the stranger, the naked; the sick, the imprisoned (the Sheep & Goats, 25:31-46).

Add to that the Old Testament focus on the Quartet of the Vulnerable (orphans, widows, aliens, the cripples/infirm, and one has a fairly comprehensive list of the harassed and helpless, the oppressed and those thrown to the ground.

A contemporary list would have similarities and differences.  I’m sure that countless hours of “fun” could be had discussing varying opinions on this matter! However, what is of the essence is not only those who are vulnerable but why they are considered vulnerable.  Widows, orphans, aliens and the infirm, have no one to stand beside them and speak up for them.  They are voiceless and alone, in an ancient society in which homeland and family provided not only roots but life-sustaining support.    

So, who are the vulnerable of our time?  And here I do not mean those who in very particular contexts experience vulnerability from time to time (in other words, everybody).  No, I mean those who are excluded, disposable, pushed to the margins, overlooked, powerless.  Go make a list.  Pretty quickly you will discover a category of folks who are very unlike the majority.  Some you may never hear about or from.  Some may have found a voice only recently, and a number of folks may confuse “newly empowered” with “powerful” – but their voice is fragile: That which was recently given may be easily taken away.  And some may confuse those who when they make a noise make a loud noise; but who are ignored when that voice quietens (a cycle of speak up-shut up).  

The Church is called to serve the powerless, the voiceless, the oppressed, the despised, the overlooked.  The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few (vs. 37).  Will you stand with Jesus and the harassed and helpless, the oppressed and those thrown to the ground?  Do not expect fame and fortune to come from these acts of servanthood and solidarity.  Jesus warns his disciples:  

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you… and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. (10:16-22).

Yet there is a word of promise: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (vs. 22).