“Crouching Figure of Atlas” Balsassare Tommaso Peruzzi (1481-1535). Public Domain.
“Something Left Undone” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Labor with what zeal we will, Something still remains undone, Something uncompleted still Waits the rising of the sun.
By the bedside, on the stair, At the threshold, near the gates, With its menace or its prayer, Like a mendicant it waits;
Waits, and will not go away; Waits, and will not be gainsaid; By the cares of yesterday Each to-day is heavier made;
Till at length the burden seems Greater than our strength can bear, Heavy as the weight of dreams, Pressing on us everywhere.
And we stand from day to day, Like the dwarfs of times gone by, Who, as Northern legends say, On their shoulders held the sky.
We’re at the beginning of the season after Pentecost – a time in the Christian year that focuses on the growth for the church and our personal growth as disciples of Jesus Christ. The gospel passages that have been selected for the next 20 something weeks will focus on what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Occasionally we will run into a passage like we have today, one where many things are happening within the larger story, and we have to choose to focus our attention on only part of the passage; otherwise, this would be an exceptionally long episode.
Immediately after giving the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been active in Matthew’s gospel. He performs several healings, calms a storm, and heals two troubled men across the Sea of Galilee. He calls a tax collector named Matthew to join the cause, the person we traditionally attribute the writing of this gospel. We also get a possible resurrection story, which for this gospel is interesting. With all this action, it’s clear that Jesus was more than a traveling sage to Matthew, someone that traversed the countryside, expounding a philosophy by words only. Jesus’ words and actions were aligned.
We can imagine that his followers must have been pretty pumped about all of this. Jesus' public ministry was running on the high hard ground, a time when the early movement was moving swiftly and efficiently. Outcomes could be measured in the folks that were healed and people who were joining the cause. Everything at this point in the story is clicking.
We’ve all experienced times like these. We might call it being in the zone or the groove. These are the times in our lives when our work seemed effortless because it was exciting. Teachers have years that stand out when their classes were exceptional. Businesses have times when work seems essential and lively. Nurses and doctors are part of teams that gel and work seamlessly. The cows are milking well, and the weather conditions are perfect for crops. All the work seems worth it.
The disciples were on the ride of their lives. Verse 35 sums it up: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in the local houses of worship and proclaiming the good news of God’s New Way. And he went about curing every disease and every sickness.” I imagine this as a movie montage, a set of clips set to some inspiring and uplifting music.
But in verse 36, the mood changes. “And when he (Jesus) looked upon the crowds, his heart was filled with compassion, because these people were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” It’s an interesting statement on several levels. Most scholars contend that the crowds Jesus often gathered were people on the margins of society. In Jesus’ day, there was no budding middle class. There was a tiny ruling class which consisted of political families and the families of religious authorities, and everyone else, so there were a lot of people on the margins in Jesus’s day. This class was made out of the people in previous chapters – lepers and servants, the families of fishermen, and people living among the tombs, paralytics, and the disabled. These people had no political power, and many of those folks were considered ritually unclean, thus alienating them from their very faith tradition. Who is helping these people?
The statement that the crowds were like sheep without a shepherd had been, at the time of Jesus, a common political statement. We remember that kings, prophets, and judges in Israel’s history were often referred to as shepherds. To say that they were without a shepherd meant that no one in power had their interests in mind.
We also know, from our Scriptures, that Jesus considered himself the good shepherd of these people. But Jesus’ statement about sheep without a shepherd makes me wonder if Jesus is getting a little fatigued at this point in his ministry. He’s been going non-stop, perhaps riding the adrenaline of good results. The compassion that he feels in verse 36 seems certain to be tinged with a bit of weariness and the realization that even he wasn’t going to be able to help everyone. Longfellow's poem in the previous section describes this feeling well.
And it’s at this moment in our story that Jesus concludes that some of this work must be delegated if it is to continue. So, Jesus summons his 12 closest followers, and he gives them instructions to preach the good news and help the sick. He also provides some demanding qualifications for the work. His disciples are not to ask for money for their work, and they should not take donations. They should also pack light, relying on goods in kind for their continued survival.
He also adds a word of caution. His disciples will meet resistance. Some will even experience violence and be taken to court. Jesus reminds them to stick to the cause and remember that the Spirit of God will be with them through any difficulties.
At least this was Jesus’ pitch. I can imagine Jesus talking with his disciples about this and there being a collective gulp. The original Greek text even allows us to imagine Jesus making this pitch to a big crowd, but only twelve offered to give it a go. Again, these disciples were on the rides of their lives, hanging out with this healer and sage and wondering if he was the one that would free the people from Roman occupation. Now, a portion of this enormous and ambitious endeavor was given to them.
For some folks that I’ve talked to recently, this extended time at home has been a valuable time for completing home projects. Others have taken up a new thing, like watercolors or sewing, or have restarted physical training or mediation.
I moved into a new home last fall, and time in the Hamilton household during the pandemic has been filled with many homesteading projects like cutting wood, digging gardens, and repairing a deck. I’ve noticed a sense of dread creep in recently, though. It seems that even as work gets done, the list of projects gets longer and more expensive. It’s so much easier to dwell on those things that are left undone at the end of each day than to check off those items that were completed. The walls still need to be scrubbed, the zipline still hasn’t been installed, the fence needs moved, again, the trail to the brook hasn’t been created, wood hasn’t been moved, and on and on. That feeling, the sense of being overwhelmed is real, and we all experience it in our lives.
We are all experiencing a different kind of overwhelm as well. The pandemic continues, and our usual support systems are upended. The nation continues to confront the realities of our racist history. We struggle to find effective ways to be allies in this confrontation and work to examine our own white privilege and place in systems that hurt people of color. We know that lasting change will require more than placing a Black Lives Matter sign in our yards or sharing a Facebook post, but we just don’t know how to go about it.
Today’s gospel lesson might help those of us that feel this way. For Jesus, the ever-busy savior, compassion was the guide. Maybe he thought he could bulldoze the problems of this world with a few extra hours here and there, another healing, or one more speech. Until he realized he couldn’t. Struggling people outnumbered the hours in the day. Problems continued to come. Systemic oppression could not be lanced with a single voice. Realizing his limitations (perhaps having some compassion on himself), he called on others to help. By doing so, he realized that others have a role to play in lasting change.
If you are feeling a little overwhelmed these days, have some compassion for yourself. When Jesus was confronted with the reality of hurting people, he complained about his society’s leaders, felt terrible, and tried to do too much. And then, he went about it a different way. He reevaluated his resources, his followers that until now had been along for the ride, would become disciples and thus extensions of his hands and feet. He continued to work hard, but he made this work all the more impactful by stopping to think.
There is a lot of good we could be doing these days if we didn’t allow ourselves to get overwhelmed. Perhaps we need to reevaluate our resources, include others or be willing to step out of the spotlight.
May you do good work this week and remember that you are part of God’s plan to make this world a better place.