“Harassed and helpless (Matt 9:36). What a great descriptor, don’t you think? If there is a phrase that seems to sum up the world around us, it is “harassed and helpless.” In fact, that would probably make a great sermon title, wouldn’t it? “Harassed and Helpless: Film at 11.” As catchy as that phrase is, you should probably avoid starting there. That is an assessment, an interpretation. There might be space for that in the sermon, but it isn’t the best starting place.
On the other hand, there is another famous phrase in this text, one that seems like a starting place. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). That is another truth we can’t help but latch on to. This idea, this statement, has launched all sorts of mission and ministry in the church—and rightly so. It is the reality that faces the church all the time; there is too much to do and not enough doers. There is too much need in the world around us and not enough resources to meet those needs.
Except, maybe it isn’t about resources. Maybe it is about something else that is lacking. Maybe this phrase, too, isn’t the best place to start. “Ask the Lord of the harvest” is something that needs to find a place in the proclamation. But another starting place seems to be lurking in this text.
Not really lurking; it’s right there at the front, where it belongs. “He saw the crowds” (9:36). That’s our starting point. It is his starting point; therefore, it should be ours—our starting point as preachers and our starting point as a congregation wanting to engage the community around us; wanting to live as Pentecost people. He saw the crowd. Which means he was within seeing distance, not removed, not behind walls and doors. It means that he was approachable and accessible. He was where the people were. It means that he wasn’t just passing through on the way to his next engagement, next meeting, next speaking opportunity. It means he was engaged in the world around him.
We know he was engaged because of the next phrase in the verse. Not only did he see the crowd, but in seeing it, he had compassion. His compassion wasn’t disembodied, caring in the abstract, seeing problems needing solutions. No, he had compassion because he saw the people around him.
What does it mean to see the people? To really see them? Not to prejudge or categorize, but simply to see. To see them as people worthy of compassion and care? We might see that the people around us are indeed harassed and helpless, suffering from the lack of a savior. But we won’t know that is what we will see until we look. Oh, sure we can assume, but what do we see?
Perhaps it would be helpful to stand in the place of the other for a moment. To consider what it means, what it feels like to be seen, as opposed to the times when we felt overlooked or ignored and pigeonholed. To know that someone has seen the real self, hidden underneath and still manages to love and accept us. What a profound difference that makes in our lives, in our hearts, in our self-image. Can we do less when we seek to engage the community around us?
Because he sees and has compassion, because he knows that it is God’s will that all be gathered into the loving arms of grace, Jesus calls the twelve. Pause a moment here, something significant is going on. According to Matthew anyway, Jesus calls the twelve in order for them to be those laborers that are so few. The community isn’t called together for their own sake. The twelve aren’t called in order to tend to their own souls, to make sure they are right with God. No, they are called to go out, to be the church that sees the crowds.
As we work through the rest of the text, we can’t help but wonder how that might apply to us today. Sure, we can name missionaries of history and today who still go out like this, not expecting payment, not relying on an abundance of resources, but relying on the hospitality of strangers. If we read on to the parenthetical suggested verses, we see the austerity of this call, the danger, but also the radical call of the gospel. The laborers in the fields come to upset the status quo, and that is never an easy task.
But how do we rely on something other than our resources, our comforts, when we seek to see the people? It must be exactly that, that we see first. We don’t approach the other with answers already tied up in a package. We don’t come to our neighbors because we want to fix them, or threaten them, or chastise them. We come to see them. We don’t rely on our theology, on our preferences for worship and our language for prayer. We come truly empty-handed so that we can see our neighbor without the filters.
Is this easy? Is it just a matter of saying that’s what I’m going to do? Is it just flipping a switch to turn off our prejudice? Of course not. But we try again and again to see those who surround us. Maybe we’ll see them as harassed and helpless, but harassed by whom and helpless in front of what? And maybe we’ll see them as resources of strength and grace that cause us to be amazed and to give the God they may not know thanks for the blessing of seeing them. What is most likely is that if we look long enough we’ll see ourselves in them. We are like them, and they are like us in the ways that really matter. And that, too, can be an occasion of praise.