The Reverend Kathleen Killian
June 18th 2023
Agent(s) of Transformation
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
When I began to study our scriptures for today and first read the gospel, this particular verse grabbed my attention. I knew I wanted to focus my sermon around it. But I also wondered: Why are the crowds in such distress? And why does Jesus feel for the people as he does?
When Jesus looked upon the crowds he saw the people of Israel, God’s people, his own. As a faithful Jew himself living under Roman occupation and the rule of merciless taxation, perhaps this is why Jesus had compassion for the crowds—he was similarly oppressed and could sympathize. Or perhaps the crowds were simply struggling with the hardships of daily life, of making ends meet, and meeting the religious requirements of their faith.
But when Matthew added the phrase—they were like sheep without a shepherd—he points to a specific suffering, that of being spiritually lost; of being a lost sheep without a shepherd. Matthew pointedly evokes the prophets (Jeremiah 50:6, Micah 3), particularly Ezekiel (34), and their prophetic critique of the spiritual leaders of Israel—the shepherds—who do not offer guidance, care, and protection of their flock—the people of Israel. Ezekiel goes on to prophesy of an eschatological shepherd-king who will rule Israel in peace and prosperity (Ezekiel 34:25-31). In no uncertain words, Matthew is telling his audience that the compassion Jesus feels is the same compassionate yearning of the Messiah who has come to shepherd God’s people (Micah 5:4).
In the Bible (Exodus 34) the first word that God uses to describe God’s own character is compassionate. God is compassionate; rakhum or rakhamim is closely related to the Hebrew word for womb (rekhem) and conveys the sense of deep maternal care and feeling. In the Greek, as in our gospel, compassion is literally translated as a stirring of the bowels, or to have the bowels yearn (splagchnizomai). And then from the Latin, and as we commonly use the word today, compassion means to suffer with.
When Jesus saw the harassed and helpless crowds and had compassion for them, his response was intensely visceral—compassion straight from the deep—from the stirring of his gut. He suffered with them, and yearned to shepherd his lost sheep. What Jesus also saw was their fundamental dignity, and that they were deeply beloved by his Father, their God.
God’s compassionate love, and that God calls his people to be in relationship with that love is the basis of all human dignity. Every single person has received this call, though they may not know it or answer to it. And with Israel, God’s call was to a whole people as we read in our Old Testament passage from Exodus.
The Israelites are three months delivered from Egypt, Moses guiding their way through the Red Sea to Mount Sinai where they have now arrived (though we know their forty year journey to the promised land is just beginning). Moses goes up the mountain to see God and returns with a collective call to Israel: will you be in relationship with me? will you keep covenant with me? will you obey my voice? The people answered as one: Yes, we will. God will nurture Israel with steadfast mercy and love that they become a holy nation and priestly kingdom—but they are to guard their relationship with the Lord above all else.
This first calling—to be in relationship with the Holy One, to keep covenant, and to listen to God’s voice—is precedent to any other call to ministry or mission, as our relationship with the Holy One is the foundation of our own dignity and compassionate response to the dignity of all need. As Jesus tells his disciples, the harvest is great but the laborers are few. And so he sends the mixed-lot ordinary twelve—Simon, also know as Peter and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him—into the fields to proclaim to the lost sheep of Israel the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near; the good news that the shepherd of compassion is close; the good news that the suffering and lost, marginalized and outcast will be brought into the fullness of life.
Jesus issues a strong call to discipleship and mission today, and casts a vision of a life abundant in hope and transformation; one that is possible when we devote ourselves to the relationships we share with God and each other. But it requires faithful self-examination in order to discern what in our lives, and the ways in which we live, either help or hinder our spiritual growth, personally and as a church. We must be not be complacent in our discipleship but we must be compassionate.
When Jesus sends his disciples into ministry and on a mission—be it by going out to feed the hungry, visit the sick or imprisoned, or to proclaim the word—or by staying in and responding to need by writing a note, making a phone call, or holding up the suffering in prayer—it is not only for the other but for ourselves, that we learn where we fall short in our own compassion and generous response; for generous compassion begets understanding; and understanding leads to forgiveness; and forgiveness engenders a deep reverence and respect for all life.
St. Paul uses a similar formula in our Epistle, that suffering produces patience; patience endurance; endurance, character; and character, hope; hope that does not disappoint. And yet in light of our gospel, it doesn’t quite add up; in that when Jesus sees the crowd’s suffering, it is not producing patience, endurance, character, and hope but rather powerlessness and poverty of spirit. I hear often from others, including my own self, of the impatience in suffering; impatience producing intolerance, ennui, hopelessness, and disappointment.
I’ve struggled all week to understand exactly what St. Paul is getting at. I think it must come back to compassion, and God’s own first love into which we are called, and has been poured into our very depths by the power of the Holy Spirit. This hidden compassion, if you will, is God’s agent of transformation, God’s suffering with, that rises up and draws us in close. The shame of our suffering helplessness is transformed into the dignity of our divine humanity in all of her guises—young or old; fit or infirm; able or unable; in prayer and praise, lament and thanksgiving—by the cross Christ raised us into glory—the light of God’s life—in which we have a share as relations of love.
When Jesus see his people and sheep of his pasture he has compassion for us; love that heals and holds, love that leads to new life. As beloveds of God, and as the church, let us cultivate and practice compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. Let us practice and cultivate patience and endurance, character and hope, that with God’s steadfast faith and assurance of love, and by grace, we too may go about all of the cities and villages, our neighborhoods and households, and the household of the Church, to minister God’s justice with compassion (see collect for the day).