When was the last time you were in a crowd of people? At a concert or parade, or some protest perhaps? A recent graduation? Caught in bumper-to bumper- traffic on the Southern State or Meadowbrook, as people flee the City for the week ends out East – or on their way home? Some people love the thrill and energy of crowds. I don’t – I’m too claustrophobic. But there’s another crowd we are called to be aware of today. The people we pass by every day. The people we wait with on grocery lines. The people we stand next to like sardines within elevators. Little crowds. Big crowds. Nameless, anonymous people who swirl around us. Crowds of people – each person with a story to tell – each carrying pains and problems like our own.
In our gospel lesson, we encounter the crowds that flocked to Jesus. Matthew tells us very distinct things about these crowds. They were hapless and helpless. The original Greek makes it sound even more vivid: it was like rapacious, unfeeling people plundered them or laid them prostrate. These are people who have been knocked down by life. The countless, nameless, forgotten—those who have been ground down by heel of the oppressor. People who have been so beaten down that they are filled with shame, swallowed up by despair, void of hope, They came from all over. It reminds me of the moving words of Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” These are the masses, the crowds that flocked to Jesus.
Now Matthew is very clear what made these crowds appear: Jesus went about all the cities and villages, healing every disease and sickness among the people. Jesus’ ministry was thorough and widespread. Jesus reached into every nook and cranny –healing with abandon people in body mind and spirit. Suddenly these teeming masses experience a flicker of hope. Someone cares for them. Someone recognizes them. They matter. They come out of the woodwork. It’s like what the prophet Isaiah foretold (9:2): The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. Jesus sees the wretchedness and misery, people lost and hopeless, like sheep without a shepherd we are told. Jesus doesn’t judge them. He doesn’t give them constructive criticism or tell them what they’re doing wrong. Jesus’ reaction is basic. He has compassion on them. And his compassion leads him to action.
Compassion isn’t pity. It isn’t feeling sorry for others. It isn’t hoping things get better. Compassion is a body response – a kick in the gut – like a sucker-punch – only it’s a visceral reaction of care for the needs of someone else. Compassion is an innate response to suffering that is hard-wired into us to do something to alleviate the pain or problems of others. Compassion is a holy response, a Godly reaction – it’s a gutsy heart response we experience just before the head gets in the way to talk us out of responding, before fear makes us judge, or we make excuses for nonaction. Compassion, Jesus teaches us – leads to action.
Compassion is stirred in Jesus as he tells the crowds about the Good News: he describes a God who cares for them, who loves them, who forgives them, who showers them with kindness and mercy. A God who rejoices in their presence who has a plan for their lives, who gives them purpose and meaning. No wonder the multitudes responded with such desperation and devotion. They were people spiritually famished to the brink of death, thirsty with parched throats. Jesus fills them up and satisfies their hungry hearts and quenches their thirst. Jesus sees the crowds desperate for a new life and he doesn’t send them away. Jesus tells his disciples what he sees: not people who are an inconvenience. Not a bunch of nobodies. Jesus sees a rich harvest of souls: a plentiful harvest – but unfortunately the laborers are few. The needs are great. Pray for more laborers! Not for more priests. Not for more gifted preachers. Not for rich people, professionals. Just for ordinary laborers. And then Jesus does something remarkable. He turns his prayer into action. He turns to his disciples and appoints the 12 to be the laborers that the harvest needs. Jesus chooses ordinary people to continue the work. Not people with fancy degrees or titles. Simple folk. Because the only prerequisite to working in God’s vineyard is compassion.
Think of the initial people Jesus called. Not one of them was a synagogue leader, or a distinguished elder. They were ordinary, fallible people. Laborers. Peter who denied Jesus three times. Andrew, Peter’s brother (4:18) also a fisherman. (John 1:40-41). James and John are the sons of Zebedee (4:21), fishermen and are also known as the Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17), perhaps because of their fiery temperament. Philip (John 1:43). Probably a fisherman. Thomas is famous for doubting Jesus (John 20:24-29). Simon the Cananaean is identified elsewhere in Luke 6:15 as Simon the Zealot. It is often thought that he was a revolutionary, committed to driving the Romans out of Israel, Judas, of course, is the one who will betray Jesus (26:47-50). We know nothing of the others Philip, Bartholomew, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus. They were all ordinary people. People like us, right? People of no worldly importance. But that doesn’t matter. Because they have the raw material needed to make a difference. That raw material is compassion.
Jesus awakens compassion in them. He gives them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every sickness” (v. 1b). Compassion responds first to basic fundamental needs: the aches and pains people are carrying.
Jesus tells his disciples how to act from compassion. Disciples of Jesus need to be on the go – not resting on their laurels at home. We are called to meet and greet new people. We are called to go outside our comfort zone – meeting people different from ourselves – because that’s what compassion does. Jesus is clear: don’t take purse or a bag. Jesus wants us to be humble, unhindered by worldly objects. Because that’s what compassion does. We shouldn’t even wear sandals – since the poor of Jesus’ day didn’t have them -- and that would set us apart-make us seem greater than them. We need to come to their level. Because that’s what compassion does. We’re not to engage in lengthy salutations and conversations as were custom of the preachers of the day. Once in the village they were to offer peace. To eat as others eat. Live where others live. We are to work to cure the ills around them. We meet the needs of the people. Then, and only then are we are to speak – the kingdom of God is at hand. Because that’s what compassion does. The physical needs are just as important as the spiritual. That’s what compassion says.
Jesus goes to such great lengths to teach us how to act, how to respond because it is easy to allow compassion to get disconnected. Our head takes over. We make excuses about why we can’t help. The need is too great. Our gifts are miniscule. The harvest is vast and we workers are few.
Jesus wants to reconnect us to compassion. So he sends us out of the church -- out of the building, out into the world around us -- to engage the crowds, to go meet the immigrants, the poor, the needy. Eat with them. Spend time with them. Alleviate their ills. And tell them, God loves them. The God that Jesus reveals is a God who of fundamental, unadulterated compassion – who desires justice and mercy, and love for our neighbor. Who declares there’s a place at the table for all. It is a message of grace. It invites belonging and connection. And it is rooted in compassion – compassion that lives right here in our hearts, right here in our guts.
Matthew’s passage today is a little handbook of compassionate discipleship for us that is still relevant to us. For the harvest continues to be great – and the true laborers few. Jesus isn’t calling people with fancy degrees and intensive training. God calls each of us – by name. Only one thing is required. That we have compassion. That we open our hearts to all who are suffering: illness, poverty, affliction of all sorts, lonely lost needy. We are called to go in the midst of those around us. We are to let compassion guide us – like it guided Jesus.
Compassion has many faces. Maybe compassion is providing a meal for a hungry person. Maybe compassion is sitting at a bedside holding a hand not saying a word. Maybe compassion is forgiving someone a faux pas. Maybe compassion is supporting with our monies disaster relief or helping a family in crisis. Compassion is creative and endless. What does compassion look like to you? How is compassion guiding us as a church family?
Every day we ask ourselves: Where is the holy spirit stirring up compassion in me? What can I do about it? Because we can all do something. Together we are better – we can do more. So today we receive our marching orders. To go forth. So let compassion to action be stirred in us by the wants and needs of the crowds the people around us. May the good news of the kingdom of God – the tender love and mercy of God, be made visible through our the deeds and touch of our hands, the encouragement of our words and the dedication of our hearts to be laborers of Jesus – laborers of the rich and vast harvest that is there in our midst.