Imagine a version of the parable of the Good Samaritan where, instead of passing by the man beaten and left for dead, the priest and the Levite came over to him and said, “I feel really bad for you. I can't touch you because if you die it would make me ritually unclean to serve in the temple but I want you to know: my heart goes out to you. I really do hope you get better.” And then they walk away. Two question would arise. Would that do the beaten man any good? And would he believe a word of it?
Of course not. Words are easy. In a situation like that, only actions show your true feelings. Look at it this way: had the man been the son of either the priest or the Levite, they would have been administering first aid in a split second. We lie with our lips; the truth is in our lives.
Jesus knew that. In today's gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:23) we are told that “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.'” And if he were in a modern church, they would have said a prayer and left it at that. But Jesus isn't that kind of person. If he sees someone who needs help, he provides it. First off, he realizes that not everyone who needs to hear the gospel is in this crowd. There was no mass media then. How could Jesus increase the range of his message? Send out the disciples.
“Disciple” is just another word for “student.” And part of learning is being able to articulate what you've been taught. Admittedly the message is rather simple. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (In Matthew "the kingdom of heaven" is a euphemism for the kingdom of God, for those Jews who wanted to avoid using God's name in vain, even accidentally.) It's possible that Jesus is sending them out with a teaser message to make people curious. In the average Jew's mind, this message meant the end of the present evil age was near and the Messianic age is nigh. And that would make people wonder if the Messiah was already here. And who he was.
But why would anyone believe the disciples, especially with such a cryptic message? The healings, of course. Anybody can say the Messianic age is coming, but if the heralds of the Messiah can heal people, then that's all the proof most folks will need. And if the Twelve are doing it in Jesus' name, that answers the question of who the Messiah is.
But I don't want you to get the impression that Jesus was simply using healings to get the message out. Our passage says that he had compassion on the crowd. It's possible that Jesus pitied the people simply for not knowing the gospel but that's unlikely. The word used is the strongest possible Greek word for pity, according to William Barclay. Barclay also points out that, except in the parables, this word for compassion is only used about Jesus. He feels compassion for the sick (Matt 14:14), the blind (Matt 20:34), those with leprosy (Mark 1:41), the widow of Nain about to bury her only son (Luke 7:13), and the crowd of 5000 hungry people he will eventually feed (Matt 15:32). In this passage, the people Jesus has compassion for are described as harassed and helpless. The Greek literally says “flayed and scattered.” That's what moves Jesus.
That's another reason Jesus sends the disciples out not only to preach but to heal. There were no hospitals then. There was no medical science to speak of. This is 100 years before the birth of Galen, the Greek physician and surgeon, who would influence medicine for the next 1300 years. A large part of Jesus' ministry was healing those who had no other option for getting better. And to extend the range of his healing, he enlists the disciples.
Again part of the learning process is putting what you learn to work. In my nursing school we spent half the day in a classroom and the other half on a hospital floor, taking care of patients. Hospitals and nursing homes routinely hire newly graduated nurses and put them to work, under supervision, even before they pass their licensure exams. So what Jesus is doing is like having medical interns work in the clinic. He's taught the disciples what to do; now it's time for them to put it into practice.
And yet Jesus chooses some rather ordinary guys. They aren't wealthy; they aren't scholars; they aren't priests or Levites. 4 are fishermen, and 2 are enemies! Simon the Canaanite is called in Luke 6:16 "the Zealot," meaning he was part of a movement that called for the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. He should have been at the throat of Matthew, a tax collector for the Romans. We can only surmise that, as Matthew left his old life behind to follow Jesus, Simon did likewise with his old political position. So the guys might be ordinary but the fellowship is anything but.
And they are charged with an extraordinary mission: Proclaim the good news. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. And do so without taking payment. Jesus wants the disciples to rely on whoever is hospitable for their food and accommodations. He doesn't want them taking money. Rabbis in that day would not take payment to teach. Jesus doesn't want his disciples to be tempted to favor anyone or to become or even look corrupted. They are to operate on faith, trusting that God will see to their needs.
If all this seems incredibly naive on Jesus' part, he knows that. “See, I am sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16) Sheep and doves are prey; wolves and snakes are predators. And yet, though he is sending them into danger, Jesus' most visible concession is to send them out two by two, according to Mark 6:7. Still, since Jesus explicitly forbids his followers to use violence, that means they need to use their minds when faced with opposition. Just like Jesus. He is smart. He knows how the world works. He knows how people really act. But not only is he smart, he's wise. He knows what matters in the end. He knows what is truly valuable. And it's not having a lot of physical power and it's not winning as the world sees winning. It's serving God. It's serving those created in the image of God. It's becoming the person God created you to be: loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and generous and faithful and gentle and self-controlled. And wise.
We have examples of this. Paul was shrewd enough to invoke his Roman citizenship when he faced injustice. (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11) It allowed him to proclaim the gospel to high officials. He also tailored his presentation of the gospel to his audience (Acts 17:22-23) and even to confound his enemies (Acts 23:6-8).
Jesus himself was able to disarm his opponents when they tried to set theological and moral traps for him. He used the design of a coin to parry a question about taxes while simultaneously asserting that our lives belong to God. When they questioned his authority, he turned the question back on them by asking about John the Baptist's authority. When they planted a man with a withered hand in the front row of a synagogue, Jesus asked if doing good was permitted on the Sabbath and then told the man to stretch out his hand. (Mark 3:1-6) Jesus flipped the script. Instead of doing what they expected, instead of following their script, he reframed the problem and changed the question. He never forgot the real issues at stake: loving God and loving people.
A lot of the problems we have in this world are about priorities. We put everything else ahead of God and other people. When you look at the ethical decisions people make, it is obvious that we put personal success ahead of God and other people. We put the attainment of power and the maintenance of privilege ahead of God and other people. We put personal pleasure ahead of God and other people. We put our own comfort and convenience ahead of God and other people. We put money ahead of God and people. Budgets are moral documents, revealing our priorities, and yet some who call themselves Christians balk when they feel too much money is spent on things that help people and not enough on things that kill them. That's even true when we are talking about our own warriors. We have the largest military budget in the world. And yet for every dollar we spend on our military, we spend less than 24 cents caring for our veterans. Not only does the country ask them to die for us, it evidently prefers that they do. If they live, they cost more. We have made the bottom line our top priority. As someone pointed out, we are supposed to love people and use things; instead we love things and use people.
When you look at the world the way Jesus did, putting God and other people first, you are bound to run into opposition. I can't think of anyone persecuted for maintaining the status quo. Nobody is oppressed for saying things are fine the way they are. But if you say that things are bad the way they are, if you point out society's problems, if you say we need change, that gets you persecuted.
Change scares because change hurts. Change scares because change either alters or eliminates the familiar. Because change scares, changing things takes courage. And make no mistake, the gospel is not about preserving the status quo. Jesus charges us to change the world.
Jesus charges us to “cure the sick.” Sicknesses are called disorders. We have a disordered society. As we said, our priorities are out of order. We love the wrong things or we love them in the wrong order, putting things like popularity and power and partisanship above God and other people. We need to cure that. Which means we must first accept the diagnosis. Humanity fights this by generating a lot of denial. We are going to have to admit we are sick and then let the Spirit of the God who is love heal us.
Jesus charges us to “raise the dead.” A large number of people in this world are spiritually dead. They don't respond to things of the Spirit. They can't see beyond the things of this passing world to glimpse the things that are eternal. "What you see is what you get," they say. Blind to what is behind this world, what undergirds it, what binds it together, they blunder into the dead end of distraction and dissolution. We need to raise the dead. We need to lift them up so that they can see what is above and around them and breathe in the Spirit of the God who gives all things meaning.
Jesus charges us to “cleanse the lepers.” There are a lot of people who are treated as pariahs in society, people who are blamed for not being like everyone else, people who hurting but whose cries for love and empathy and inclusion are ignored. We want them to shut up and stay away lest their troubling differences infect us. (Luke 18:39) But at the risk of becoming unclean, Jesus reached out and healed lepers. (Mark 1:40-42) We need to do likewise, reaching out to the hurting and the excluded and heal the breaches in our communities.
Jesus charges us to “cast out demons.” A lot of people are fighting their demons, the adverse experiences and personal issues that bedevil them and cause them to act out and harm themselves and others. Instead of punishing them, we need to help them face the legion of problems that make their life hell, to cast away the things that drag them down and to put them in touch with the Spirit of the God of peace.
How do we do it? Through the power of the Spirit. Jesus sent the disciples out 2 by 2. Wherever 2 are 3 are gathered in his name, the Spirit of Jesus is there. (Matt 18:20) He is with us. He will never leave us or forsake us.
Now as then Jesus calls ordinary people. He teaches and empowers us and then sends us out into a disordered the world to proclaim the good news of healing and resurrection, of inclusion and triumph over darkness and to proclaim it not only with our words but with acts of love. And every time we do it, the Kingdom of God comes that much nearer.