First Sunday after Trinity Gospel Matthew 9:35 – 10:8 [9-23]
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
The fifth-century ascetic Simeon Stylites was a bizarre character. He is remembered for spending nearly forty years living on top of pillars, the largest being over fifty feet high. Simeon took these extreme measures in order to avoid people, so he could devote himself to prayer without distraction.
In Jesus’ time, too, there were religious people whose dedication to holiness led them to avoid contact with others. The Pharisees would not socialise with anyone they considered sinners, including thieves, adulterers and prostitutes. It is thought that this may also have included anyone who disregarded their arduous religious laws on things like Sabbath-keeping and ritual washing. They set themselves apart for God and sought to protect their holiness. Christ, however, was different. He actively sought out and mixed with people who were far from God, enraging the religious leaders. So why did he do this? Today’s Gospel reading offers an answer.
Despite increasing opposition from the Pharisees, Christ headed out to present the good news to the cities and villages. He appears to have been driven to do this by heartfelt compassion. The actual word translated as “compassion” in our reading is the strongest word the Greek language has for this feeling, denoting the deepest of emotions. Unlike the Pharisees, whose attitude was one of judgement towards those they considered sinners, Christ was moved by love for people who were distant from God. And rather than condemning the ordinary folk for their lack of godliness, he held the religious leaders responsible for how they had drifted from their heavenly Father. He called the crowds “sheep without a shepherd” – an unprotected, unguided and abandoned flock. They were as helpless and vulnerable as sheep before wolves.
Jesus’ mission was to reach out to these lost people and bring them back to God. He believed vast numbers of them would be open to his message, proclaiming the harvest to be plentiful. However, he needed help, and so he prayed for more people to join in his work, before commissioning and sending out his twelve disciples to spread the good news. Indeed, Matthew emphasises that by doing this the disciples were actually continuing Christ’s work. He describes Jesus giving them authority to cast out spirits and cure every disease and sickness, just as he showed Jesus himself doing only a few verses earlier.
Jesus preached to so many people because he was driven by deep-seated pity and concern. He was heartbroken that the crowds were so far from God. Our passage shows us that he expected his disciples, both past and present, to share his compassion and continue his mission. Even Simeon Stylites understood this, and spent some time passing on the message of God’s love, even allowing people to come up and talk to him via a ladder.
If we are honest, keeping ourselves to ourselves can seem the safer option. Living in a world that is often hostile to the Christian faith, where temptations abound, we can perhaps understand why the Pharisees also felt such fear. Jesus, however, does not seem to have worried that his disciples might fall away as a result of mixing with people who lived at a distance from God. Even though they were only young in faith, he sent his small and inexperienced group of
disciples out into the unbelieving towns and villages around, confident that they would have more impact upon the world than the world would have upon them.
There would be opposition and even persecution, as the later part of our reading reflects. However, Jesus knew that there was a vast harvest out there and his disciples would powerfully affect, influence and change many of those they went to with the Gospel message. As Jesus teaches elsewhere, the kingdom of God is like yeast that is mixed into dough. Even a tiny measure of yeast spreads rapidly through all the dough and completely transforms it.
So when we are daunted by the task of continuing Christ’s mission and reaching out, let us be encouraged by Jesus’ optimistic belief in the transforming power of the Gospel and God’s ability to work through and protect us, as we reach out with the good news.