“And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 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 pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.'” (Matthew 9:35-38 ESV)
I was reading through Matthew today and I ran across this familiar passage. It has been used many times to try to mobilize people for evangelism initiatives. Look, the fields are white unto harvest! Let’s get out there and be a part of the harvest! This is true and I agree with it and I am always amazed at how God is preparing the hearts of people to hear and believe the gospel.
But, today as I was reading, I saw something else – something that I have seen before but it still hit me sideways and caused me to see things differently. It starts at the beginning, in verse 35. Jesus was in the cities and villages. He was out among the people where they lived and worked and where they struggled and rejoiced and ate, slept, and experienced life. He was among them. This is what the Incarnation is all about, after all, that The Word put on flesh and made His dwelling among us. Jesus walked in the midst of the people.
From this close proximity as he experienced life along with them, he proclaimed and demonstrated the gospel of the Kingdom (healed every disease and affliction). Jesus taught them what the Kingdom of God was like and heralded its coming in Himself, and then He demonstrated the Kingdom to the people by showing them what life was like in the Kingdom of God. There were no diseases or afflictions. There was no demonic oppression. Justice was prevalent. Mercy was shown. Jesus didn’t just do miracles to wow people. He did miracles to show them what was breaking in through His life and ministry. He was “putting the world to rights.” And, then I thought, “Isn’t this what the church is to do today since we are the Body of Christ? Aren’t we supposed to both proclaim and demonstrate the good news of the Kingdom?”
His observation of the people was that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. This is the part that affected me the most. How do I see the people in my community? Do I see them as they really are, harassed on all sides and helpless to overcome what has ensnared them? Jesus’ response was compassion. What is my response? It is often disdain. I get frustrated with people and want them to “do right” and shape up and get their act together. But, how can they do that on their own? How can a sheep fix itself or find it’s way home? It cannot. It needs a shepherd.
We often are a part of church because of what it does for us. It provides us with comfort and love and support and enable us to have a good life. Church is something that we “go to” and we want to make sure that it is right and sound and good enough. But, if “church” is the body of Christ and Jesus is our model, then the idea of simply “going to church” is not just wrong, but it demonstrates something other than the Kingdom of God that Jesus demonstrated through His work and ministry. It proclaims something other than what Jesus proclaimed to a broken world.
If Jesus is our model, then should we not be out among the people interacting and living life with them, observing their struggles and proclaiming and demonstrating the Kingdom of God? Are we to just run churches for us that have good activities and pass on religious information but that do not love sacrificially or extravagantly? Should we just throw banquets for ourselves or should we invite the poor, the lame, the blind, and those who cannot pay us back? Is our focus on God and where Jesus would be or is it on ourselves and our own comfort? I know that many in the Missional Movement have been making this observation for some time, as have I, but seeing this truth jump out of this passage today reminded me once again how core our involvement with God’s mission is to our faith and our following Jesus as Lord.
It is in the context of living among the people, seeing their plight, having compassion, and proclaiming and demonstrating the Kingdom of God that the church lives and functions together. This is where Jesus is. How can we claim to follow Him if we do not live this way?