Matthew 9: 35-38
Dr. Kenneth Bailey, a Biblical Scholar and an American who lived in the Middle East for three decades, tells us something startling about Christianity in its first three hundred years. When Constantine became emperor in 306 AD and formally converted to Christianity in 312 A.D., he finally ended the Roman Empire practice of crucifixions as a means of torturous death. Before that time, no church would have had a cross in its house churches, which to them was a repulsive symbol. So what was the central image the early Christians used? It was the Good Shepherd. If a lost sheep was not picked up in the wilderness (we might say “saved” and carried home) it would die. So the early church was busy identifying and saving ones whom they deemed as lost, lifting up Jesus’ role as the Good Shepherd. Perhaps during these days when churches are focused on saving people who are lost, usually spiritually, but also physically—giving them safety, food, or a place to rest—we might reclaim that we seek people who have gotten lost as well. The Bible has a number of passages that say human beings are like sheep. And sheep can get lost. But once more Dr. Bailey puts these helpful details in a series of teaching videos: saving a sheep takes no repentance on the sheep’s part; it is the impetus of the good shepherd alone to search for and find the lost. The rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that repentance was a work that human beings do, and if people repented with sufficient quality, God would be pleased and would reward us with forgiveness and salvation on the basis of the quality of our repentance. That work, even today, usually includes confession our sins, making compensation for them, then demonstrating sincerity about our repentance; then we’re allowed back into the fold. But Jesus taught, according to Bailey, “No, we get lost whether we keep the Law or whether we don’t, and God in Christ comes after us looking for the ones who are lost, and he carries us home. It’s a work which he does, and we accept being found. The Prodigal, in the story of the Prodigal Son, accepts being found.” [Good Shepherd, Video Series, Study 1, 2012] Images of God in the Old Testament, says Bailey, are three: a good shepherd, a good woman, and a good father, exactly the order of the parables Jesus offered in Luke 15. And in none of those stories is there repentance: by a sheep, a coin, or the son; they are just lost, and are found. Think about that for a minute. Sometimes when we do something wrong, we are taught to make it right in some way, a teaching that has been taught by parents, pastors, priests, and Pharisees for ages. But Jesus taught that there is no declared repentance by a sheep that was lost, by a coin that was lost, or even by the son who was lost if you read that passage carefully; the son was met by his Father who was rejoicing before the son got to say a word. Jesus’ wording for that story was very specific; occasionally we add meaning to that parable that is not intended in the original text. We human beings who get lost in many and sundry ways need a finder, a seeker, one who will never stop looking for us, and who, when we get found, rejoices! That is the image that Jesus wanted to give us about God.
Sometimes we project our own definition of “lost boys, lost girls, lost youth, or lost men or women,” making a decision about their moral confusion. But once the shepherd finds the one lost sheep, the others, by definition, need to be found next. Sheep don’t just stay put. Shepherds have an idea of where to look for them, but they are not found yet. So the shepherd returns, carrying one on his back, looking for the others. Do you remember Robert Fulgham’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?” In it he wrote this regarding the game of hide and seek:
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP. [Fulgham, New York: Villard Books, 1989, p. 56.]
Neither Jesus, nor God, plays the game of “hide-and-give-up.” They are always going to seek the one who is hiding or lost, until that one is found. How can Christians join them in finding lost people without putting repentance as a prerequisite? It’s a thought-provoking idea.
Jesus gave his disciples examples as he trained them. As I mentioned last week, there are some great examples of people today not just “telling the good news” but also being good news. Jesus did that. In Matthew 9:35 he started by going into cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues (telling about the good news) and then he started curing people of their diseases. From the earliest days, Christians in monasteries, convents, and churches have had people who fervently and regularly prayed for people to heal; and those same groups have also founded hospitals and clinics whose sole purpose is to save people from illness or injury. In our own community, people with lower incomes are blessed by a Christian ministry of doctors and nurses who treat them in a facility called The Jesus Clinic, helping people lost in illness and debt. Jesus healed others in Matthew chapter nine and elsewhere. In our day, medical experts at The Jesus Clinic offer to not only pray for healing, they offer their professional training to heal others who are struggling. So first, Jesus healed; we pray for, and offer healing as we are able. Even something as simple and powerful as the laying on of hands can bring healing- helping a person lost in pain or infection find peace. Next, as you might expect, crowds gathered around Jesus. In Jesus’ day they gathered, likely because the word got out that there was a man who was healing. Sometimes crowds gather because there is food. In several instances when I have been part of a feeding ministry, word got out that we had extra food on certain days, and the crowds swelled. Hungry people get motivated when they hear where they can find food. D. T. Niles even defined sharing the gospel as “One beggar telling another where to find bread.” So, crowds gather when they want to praise together, or pray together, or grieve together, or even to protest together as we have seen across our nation over the past two weeks. Here’s what Matthew said about Jesus when he saw crowds: “He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” [9:36] Harassed and helpless. That describes some people I have seen on TV and on my computer lately. And I’ve been taught that the church is the body of Christ in our day; therefore, we are his eyes and ears, his hands and feet and heart. Who have you seen who might be lost? Have you heard the cries of those who might be lost? And if you have, what has been done to save the lost? Sometimes in the name of Jesus, but other times in the name of kindness or civility, people have given help. Our first lesson today from Genesis 18: 1-8 is of Abraham welcoming strangers into his home and feeding them. A week ago, I learned of a man whose townhouse is on Logan Circle by the White House. He opened his home to protestors who were being hit with pepper spray and flash bangs a number of days ago. “Quick!” he called out. “You can come inside!” And more than seventy people poured in. They were choking from the smoke, and their ears ringing. He ordered pizzas and most found a place on the floor to close their eyes during the curfew. They left at dawn’s early light grateful for the hospitality of a stranger, now a friend. Inviting people in for safety and sustenance sounds like a Jesus thing to do. Remember Jesus in Matthew 9:26, also noticed crowds that were harassed and helpless, were like sheep without a shepherd. He turned to his disciples and said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.” Let’s pause at that last sentence. According to one scholar, in Matthew’s gospel the harvest is a frequent symbol of the last days, including the final judgment. One commentator put it this way: “The disciples’ mission …[involves] human workers rather than the angels as God’s agents. Thus, the disciples are instructed to pray for the Lord of the harvest (God) [and] to send out laborers into the harvest. The response to this prayer is the mission of the disciples/apostles, who in this context are represented as an expression of the divine compassion for the needy people of God. [ Dr. Eugene Boring, Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. VIII, Abingdon Press, 1995. P. 252.]
Today, in Jesus’ name, Christians will continue to seek those seeming to be like sheep without a shepherd. They may be alone, or in crowds; they may have their head down or their face in their cellphone; they may be angry or they may be weeping. Remember how Jesus saw crowds: people who were hurting or angry or lost, and he invited his disciples to go and gather them in, so they could be in the flock of a good shepherd when the harvest time comes. Jesus seeks lost people and gathers them in; and out of gratitude for being found, many people repent. Sometimes it is worth taking a new look at centuries of teachings. Listen finally to this theology being offered in the hymn we are about to sing, It is not called, “God the Great Judge, have We Truly Repented?” It is called “God of Compassion, in Mercy Befriend Us.” Here are the key words:
Though we are lost, you have sought us and found us, stilled our rude hearts with your word of consoling. Wrap now your peace, like a mantle, around us, guarding our thoughts and our passions controlling.
How shall we stray with your hand to direct us, you who the stars in their courses are guiding? What shall we fear, with your power to protect us, we who walk forth in your greatness confiding?
Let us pray: O Savior, like a shepherd not only lead us, but find us too, for we certainly have gotten lost and will do so again. Help us imagine you finding us with compassion more than impatience. And we will dwell in your flock forever.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 14, 2020