There was once a group of tourists in Israel who had been informed by their Israeli tour guide, after observing a flock and their shepherd, that shepherds always lead their flocks from the front. He told his attentive listeners they never “drive” the sheep from behind.
A short time later they drove past a flock along the road where the shepherd was walking behind them. The tourists quickly called this to their guide’s attention and he stopped the bus to step out and have a word with the “shepherd.”
As he boarded the bus he had a sheepish grin on his face and announced to his eager listeners, “that wasn’t the shepherd, that was the butcher!”
In light of Father’s Day, I thought I’d start out with a “Dad Joke.” In all seriousness, however, throughout scripture, there are numerous instances when God’s people are compared to herds of sheep with God as the shepherd. There is of course the 23rd Psalm where God is presented as the good shepherd who keeps God’s people together and safe. The analogy of herds of sheep is also used to describe how lost God’s people are when we don’t have God as our shepherd. For example:
17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and scattered they became food for all the wild animals.
While the crowd that Jesus is referring to isn’t literally attacked by animal predators, they are a conquered people who suffer at the hands of all those who hold the power. Most of them are Jewish, and are therefore treated as second-class citizens. They can’t actually become legal citizens according to Roman rule, yet, they are as Pastor Troy pointed out last week, forced to pay exorbitant taxes to the Roman Empire leaving little else to provide for themselves and their families. Israel was caught up in an unjust economic system. Because they are poor they don’t have a voice as they have been silenced by not just the Roman elite, but the religious elite. Not all of Israel’s voices, however, were silenced. The Jewish religious elite benefitted from the Roman economic system. Therefore the majority of them chose power over standing up and speaking for their own people. This is why Jesus compares them to “sheep without a shepherd,” as there is no one willing to speak on their behalf. To speak up for those who had no power meant you would likely lose your own power, which is why the Pharisees and other religious elites said nothing.
Even when the Israelites were “harassed,” those who should have spoken up for them, ie the religious elite, remained silent. It’s no surprise that those in the crowd felt betrayed by their own people.
Yet Jesus saw them and he spoke up for them. Matthew tells us that Jesus was filled with compassion. Unlike the Roman officials and the religious elite, Jesus did not choose power over helping those in need. Even though he could have, as Jesus is after all God. Instead, he does something interesting. He, first of all, asks the disciples to pray.
If we are being honest, to pray first before acting is counterintuitive for most of us. We’re more apt to jump into action. I’m not saying that we stop actively serving those in need, but I am saying it would do us well to follow Jesus’ encouragement to pray. There’s been a lot of pushback against prayer in Christian circles and the larger public. Many are sick of the phrase “Sending thoughts and prayers” especially in light of mass shootings and racial injustice. As a mom and as a person of color, I have a lot empathy for that sentiment. Given the fact that I am those things in addition to being a Christian, we need both prayer and action. As my wise friend Amy Peeler, who teaches at Wheaton College, said: “Prayer is not all we should do, but it is where we begin.”
What should our prayer be? I think the first thing we pray for is for God to give us wisdom. What does it look like to be a laborer for Christ among those who are lost and in need? More often than not this passage has been interpreted as a call to convert people for Jesus. While we do want people to know Jesus, it’s difficult to know Jesus when you’re hungry.
Kyle Meynard-Schaap, who is a Christian author and West Michigan native, tells the story of how when he was in high school he went with his youth group to do a city dive in Grand Rapids. Students were sent out in pairs (much like the disciples) to start up conversations with homeless folks in hopes that they would accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And many of them did. But Meynard-Schaap later shares that while there was a lot of rejoicing over those who were “saved,” he was bothered by the fact that those same people were still hungry and still did not have a safe and warm place to sleep that night. He couldn’t help but wonder: “Were we really all that helpful to those in need?”
When it comes to sharing the good news we tend to do one of two things: Sharing the truth that sin is a problem and only in Jesus do we find forgiveness or we show the love of Jesus by feeding the hungry while not mentioning Jesus at all. We really should be doing both. It’s not an “either-or” but a “both-and.” When Jesus proclaimed the good news of Salvation, he wasn’t just referring to the forgiveness of sins although it included that. The Good News of Jesus Christ addresses the problem of sin not just as it concerns what happens to us when we die, but also how sin keeps people from receiving the basic necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing. How does sin corrupt systems that were originally meant to help the vulnerable and turning them into systems that do the opposite? I read a quote the other day that said: “We are quick to help one person in need, but we are unwilling to speak out against systems that caused many to be in need in the first place.”
Jesus was concerned with what people were dealing with in the here and now. He is concerned about the well-being of the entire person, their spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health. Jesus fed those who were hungry. He made space for those at the table who were otherwise ostracised. He healed those who were rejected because of their physical ailments and illnesses. It grieved Jesus that those with the power to help those in need chose not to because it meant they could lose their power. So the religious elite chose power over their own people. For if you were willing to help and speak up for the poor and oppressed it came at a cost – and this is still true today. To speak up for the oppressed means ruffling the feathers of those in power even if some of those feathers belong to us.
How many times have we heard “If only those people would get a job.” “People are in these bad situations because they didn’t have a healthy family structure at home.” While there may be some truth to those statements in particular situations, it is not the truth in every case, and even when it is, it is rarely the whole truth. There are a multitude of reasons why people find themselves in difficult situations. I think God is stirring up something new within churches across the nation and the world as there are more prayerful discussions about what contributes to circumstances that lead to or keep people in poverty and how can the church be a part of addressing this problem.
My friend, Courtney, who serves a PC(USA) church in southern CA shared with me recently that “half a decade ago, a faith leader asked our church, ‘What would happen in your community if your church shut down tomorrow? Would anything change for them?’ She goes on to say: ‘We didn’t have a good answer. We’ve been pondering the question ever since. It’s transforming almost everything for us.’”
Our Session of Elders is just beginning to explore that same question. Please keep our Session and our staff in your prayers as we continue to discern how God is calling us to share the good news of Jesus Christ with both words and actions.
While the church itself can’t solve the issues of poverty and hunger, what Jesus does tell us is that we as the church are to be a part of the solution. This will look different for each church as each church is uniquely gifted to serve, and we are no different. However, Jesus wants every church to be a part of what he is already doing for the poor and oppressed. It’s why he sends out the disciples to “gather the lost sheep” by doing all of the same things Jesus did.
While they are sent out, they aren’t sent out alone. Jesus empowers them to serve others. Whenever God calls us to something, God equips us to carry out that call. We are never alone in serving others for it’s God serving through us. God doesn’t call the equipped but rather equips the called. And we are all called.
I’m grateful that it is in our DNA as a church to serve others both locally and abroad. I think we always need to ask the question of what are some new and/or improved ways Jesus is calling us, First Presbyterian Church of Grand Haven, to serve out in the community with both words and deeds? Going back to my friend Courtney’s question: “What would be missing from the Tri-Cities community if First Pres had to close our doors tomorrow?” A daunting, but necessary question to ask. With a lot of prayer and prayerful discussion, the Holy Spirit will continue to guide us in answering this question.