Matthew 9 : 36
‘When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,
because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’
Would you say you are a compassionate and caring person? Would you like to be?
There are two basic ways of caring for other people …
- You can give to please the one who receives, so that they will later return the favour; … or
- You can graciously give to relieve someone’s economic or physical distress, without ever expecting anything in return!
It has been noted that the classical philosophers of Jesus’ time despised the emotions of mercy and pity. They even considered them to be a defect in character. A defect that any rational human being ought to avoid. They suggested any call to help the ‘undeserving’ should go unanswered.
Today, it is an assumed value in our culture that we should care for others.
But there is a great deal of discussion around who should pay for the care, how much the government should provide in care, and how the care might best be delivered. Very few people would say there should be no care and no mercy to those in need.
This was certainly not the case in Jesus’ time. For then care for the desperate and destitute was NOT an assumed cultural practice.
The early church leaders transformed their culture to care for those in need!
The radical nature of care in the early church, is that this care was offered, not just to fellow Christians, but to all people in need. So the world at that time really took notice of how Christians were serving all the poor people around them. Their care was unconditionally offered to all people.
So why did Christians serve the poor?
Where did this idea come from?
Well, Jesus made serving the very lowest of the low central to his life and work.
Very early in Jesus’ ministry, we are told of his being at the synagogue in Nazareth. He is participating in the weekly Jewish worship. He reads from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Words that point to a coming Messiah! Then he makes his point, by taking on these words. Look at me he says! I am the One whom God has promised. For you will truly see these words coming to life in my ministry!
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me’, he says, ‘because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to
the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind.’
(Luke 4:18 quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: Isaiah 61:1)
Just take a look at the ministry of Jesus.
His focus is on those who are: ‘poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.’ (Luke 4:18)
He has an intentional bias on caring for the needs of these people. There are so many references in the gospels that speak of Jesus reaching out to the poor, the blind, and the sick. He forgives them and welcomes them into his kingdom. He gives them his full attention and the care they desire.
Now consider the framework for the church setting up care for the poor and the needy.
It is based on a parable recorded in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus tells about judgement and the end of time.
We must be careful to read and understand this parable with all of the New Testament teaching. For if we take it on face value, it sounds like Jesus is saying that we can earn our way into heaven! By now, we ought to know that this is certainly not the case. For we are saved by grace, not by any good works we may do!
The apostle Paul states this clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9 …
‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not your own doing,
it is the free gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork,
created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’
In the parable Jesus pictures all the people of the world stretched out before God.
He is separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep are acceptable for his kingdom, but the goats are not. The sheep are on his right and the goats are on his left. Key to the passage is what the King says and why he has put these people on his right …
He says: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36)
Their response is one of utter surprise, as they ask: ‘when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison … and care for you in these needs?’ (v. 37-39)
Then Jesus speaks the words that will go on to change the world and keep changing it …
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least
of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me!’
‘You did it … for me,’ says the King!
These words of Jesus are so well known, that we can easily miss their significance. In a world where caring for people was motivated by ‘what you will later receive in return’, rather than by ‘grace and mercy’, this is an enormous shift!
This was never more evident than during two plagues that swept through the Roman Empire, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It is thought that in AD 165 and AD 251 between twenty to thirty percent of the population died. When the plaques struck in cities and people were falling sick and dying, everyone who could, ran for the hills, literally! The leaders and the wealthy fled, and pagan priests left. The sick were rolled into the street to die because of community fear.
So who cared for the sick and the dying? Only those who followed a teacher who said: ‘Whatever you did for one of these humble brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Only the Christians stayed … to serve the sick and dying !
This is the game changing significance of the life and teaching of Jesus!
The culture of the Greco Roman world was incredibly cruel and heartless. One commentator wrote this: “It was not the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value.” It is in Jesus that every human life, whether strong or weak, healthy or sick, in a position of power or a commoner, is equally precious and valuable.
The words of Jesus have motivated Christians across the centuries to open up hospitals to care for the poor. This was the significant contribution of the Lutheran mission movement in the developing world.
Elly and I saw this happening in Papua New Guinea. Hospitals, Aid Posts, Schools and bridges were built to better care for the needs of God’s people.
I thank God for the people here who serve the lowly, knowing they are serving Jesus!
I thank God for those who volunteer at the Sunnyside Lutheran Retirement Village. I thank God for those who offer their services at the Holy Trinity Lutheran College. I thank God for those who serve food and drinks after funerals. I thank God for those who volunteer at Jacob’s Well and the Christian Emergency Food Centre. I thank God for those who contribute to the Shed Night and U-nique ministries.
But above all, I thank God for the many silent, anonymous servants who every day, are quietly serving the lowly around them who are in need. Serving others without pay, but with love and joy!
May Jesus continue to change human hearts, leading them to serve with joy and love.
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you …’
For: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters
of mine, you did for me!’ Now, only a God who truly loves could say that!
Pastor Gus Schutz