Compassion for the Harassed and Helpless

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.” – Matthew 9:35-36

Jesus lived under the greatest empire the world had yet seen, and in a deeply religious Jewish culture developed over centuries.  The people had powerful leaders, both political and religious.  Why then were the people seemingly without a shepherd to lead them?

The Roman Empire touted widespread peace and prosperity due to the Caesars and their government.  But the people still had many unsolved problems and no hope.  “Throughout all the cities and villages” were diseased, afflicted and helpless people, and Jesus could help them all in ways the Romans could not or would not.

The Jewish Pharisees, jealous of Jesus’ ability to solve problems they could not, claimed “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”  They rightly described His power as supernatural, but they called it evil.  Even as He was performing life-saving miracles, they could not tolerate Him as a rival, and so rejected the people’s only hope.

So, the people remained “harassed and helpless,” not knowing who to trust.

Is your culture also faithless?  Your workplace?  Your community or household?  Jesus encouraged His disciples to see rampant lack of faith as an opportunity to show the crowds the compassion of Jesus: “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 9:37-38

Today, pray for workers to bring in the harvest.  Also, know that God might make you and I those workers.  As in Jesus’ day, it is up to individual disciples to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom – through compassionate action and often in spite of what those in charge of other kingdoms might prefer.  Harassed and helpless sheep can be frustrated and difficult, but only humble disciples know the problems on the streets of their cities and villages best.

Pray for the compassion of our Great Shepherd who can work miracles. Is there a need He can meet through you today?

Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

[This Rewind Wednesday was originally posted in April 2022]

The God Who Sees You – Sunday Share from Pastor David Garrison

The holidays may be a joyous time of gathering with family and friends for many people, but for others it can be a lonely time, even if there are people around.  This Sunday Share, telling the story of God proactively comforting an unlikely person in their loneliness, is from David Garrison, pastor of Northminster Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Madison Heights, Virginia.  David also happens to be an old friend of mine, and I’m delighted to share this post on Genesis 16 – “The God Who Sees You” – from his Pastor’s Corner blog.  If you’re ever in that part of Virginia, drop into his church!

Help! There’s a Log in My Eye! (Part 2)

Dear fellow travelers,

Yesterday’s post started to discuss Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3-5 – “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Jesus was telling His followers that they should help each other move closer to God, but only to remove specks from others’ eyes after dealing with their own logs.  The first lesson, covered yesterday, was to make sure our motive is right.  The second (today’s topic) is to learn from our own experience fighting the logs in our own eyes.  When I think about these logs, and really try to remove them, I realize it’s a lot harder than I might assume about specks in other people’s eyes.

First, being told I have a log in my eye might be counterproductive.  The hardest logs to get rid of are the ones we already know are wrong, and possibly because we know they are wrong.  Paul gives an example in Romans 7:7b-8a, saying “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’  But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”  Being told my log is a sin isn’t necessarily going to get it out of my eye.  It might make things worse.

Second, the most stubborn logs might be there because I’ve decided, at least subconsciously, that I am better off with the log than I am without it.  Until we are perfected in heaven, part of us wants to listen to “the woman Folly,” who cries out that “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” in Proverbs 9:17.  Even though Wisdom offered a feast of meat and wine in Proverbs 9:2, our flesh is drawn to the bread and water because they are “stolen” in “secret.”  Whatever “bad” the log does to me, I sometimes prefer it to the “good” represented by the alternative.    Being told my log is bad for me might not overcome that.

Third, I know that Jesus said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye,” and I’m tempted to think the log in other people’s eyes give them no right to be judgmental.  As noted yesterday, for some, the lesson of Jesus’ words is about how to identify a hypocrite.  For others, the lesson may be that people should mind their own business.  Of course, once I think that, I’m trying to remove a speck from their eye, judging them and saying their behavior should be changed.  Maybe in writing this, I’m being judgmental myself.  Avoiding being judgmental is perhaps the hardest thing for a person to do, while graciously accepting the imperfect love of a brother can sometimes be harder.

Who do you trust with your eyes? Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

So, what’s the solution?  There may not be a magic formula, but in examining our own logs, we learn to approach others in loving service, not judgment, understanding what Paul said at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 10:13, that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”    Fighting sin is hard.  For all of us.  It requires overcoming our natural response to rules, requires trust that His way is better than ours (proof isn’t always possible), and requires relationships that nurture meaningful involvement – even around the parts of our lives that, like our eyes, we fiercely protect.  We won’t often let anyone near the speck in our eye who hasn’t proven their love by tangible acts.  People can tell when (or imagine that) our motivation is our own anxiety, envy, or anger.

Me First (Redux)
Immediately after the version of the speck and log story in Luke’s gospel, Luke records Jesus saying: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.[1]

I believe Luke puts this here because removing our own logs makes us more like a good tree that can produce good fruit.  Only by knowing and relying on God can we approach the specks in our brother’s eyes inspired by grace not legalism, concern not unwelcome intrusiveness, and love not judgment.

God, the only righteous judge, forgave us our sins by taking the judgment we deserved upon Himself on the cross.  Instead of fretting over evildoers, He sought to save them.  Knowing our Lord and how He approaches us in our sin as our Savior helps us see more clearly to help our brothers remove the specks from their eyes.  Only He can heal us, but sometimes He wants us to participate in His work.

“…first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.


[1] Luke 6:43-45

Being a Master at Washing Feet

English author Samuel Johnson said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”  I recently read The Residence, a book of real stories about White House staff over the years.  In a chapter on how staff often go unnoticed comes this humiliating negative example:

President [Lyndon] Johnson often undressed in front of staffers and was famous for rattling off orders while he was sitting on the toilet.  Once, reporter Frank Cormier was shocked to see Air Force One Steward Sergeant and Valet Paul Glynn kneel before the president while they were in midair and wash his feet – all the more so because Johnson never once acknowledged Glynn.

“Talking all the while, Johnson paid no heed except to cross his legs in the opposite direction when it was time for Glynn to attend to the other foot,” Cormier observed.[1]

When looking for an example of a servant being humiliated, author Kate Andersen Brower chose the washing of feet.  Worse than having someone undressing in front of you and worse than being bossed around from a toilet.

Photo by Felicia Montenegro on Unsplash

Jesus, looking for an example of how his disciples should serve and love each other, chose the same act, but from a different perspective and with a different attitude:

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” – John 13:3-5

Jesus does not need anything from us, we cannot provide anything He cannot provide for Himself, but He showed us how much He cares by washing His disciples’ feet.  He was willing to experience humiliation for His people, and He asks us to care in the same way:

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” – John 13:15-16

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

Ask Him to give us compassion for those with dirty feet, and to give us the strength to serve as He did.  Because He has washed our dirty feet again and again.


[1] Brower, Kate Andersen.  The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.  (2015).  P. 88.

The First Orphans: Silent in the Trees

Have you ever wondered what life was like for Adam and Eve during Genesis 3:7?  This verse, which happens between the moment they fell to temptation and the moment they next meet God, says “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”  Since they were able to figure out how to make clothes for the first time, we can guess that the time frame within Genesis 3:7 was more than a few minutes.

The song “Trees” by the band twenty øne piløts may be a contemplation of that time, and if it is, the song imagines that Adam and Eve had some time to think about it.  Songwriter Tyler Joseph crafts lyrics that allow for religious and secular meanings, but also that sometimes also apply to multiple audiences.  In the song’s lyrics, “You” is sometimes capitalized, and sometimes not, and therefore I think the song has two intended audiences, God and the band’s fans.

Reading between the lines a bit, I’ll explain below what I get from this song, in each audience perspective.

You = the Father
The lyrics are relatively compact, with the repeated verse of:

I know where You stand, silent in the trees
And that’s where I am, silent in the trees
Why won’t You speak where I happen to be?
Silent in the trees, standing cowardly

Our first ancestors had lived a perfect life in fellowship with God in the garden of Eden, but the fall into temptation changed that relationship, and the verse imagines how.

  • First, the sense of togetherness was gone.  They were still in the garden, but the sense that God was also there was gone.
  • Second, although “the eyes of both were opened,” the voice of God guiding their activities had gone silent.  They had chosen to determine their own way but had not considered the consequences.  Wherever they were, He used to guide them, but now they were confused.
  • Third, instead of being comfortable in God’s presence, they were terribly afraid of Him.

And a repeated chorus of:

I can feel Your breath
I can feel my death
I want to know You, I want to see
I want to say
Hello, hello
Hello, oh, hello

In the original Hebrew Genesis was written in, the words for “breath” and “spirit” are sometimes the same word.  Therefore, the first two lines of this chorus mean that our ancestors could still feel God’s presence (His breath/spirit), but instead of it being a comfort, they now felt something they never felt before – their mortality.  This is a foreshadowing of their being cast away from access to the tree of life.

Also, instead of the constant conversation with God they had known their whole lives, now they wanted to speak with God and know Him again, but He was not responding.  In the context of the song, maybe it was then that “they knew that they were naked.”  They knew they had done wrong, were exposed, and thought judgement was what they should expect.  Adam and Eve went from perfectly hearing their Father’s and Master’s voice, to feeling like orphans and castaways from His family.

What came next?  Genesis 3:8 says, “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”

You = The Fans
The “you” in the song is also the band’s fans – and Tyler sings out to them, in the trees.  Tyler says the song is also about a personal experience he had, which he doesn’t publicly explain, but He does publicly display tattoos of both the cross of Christ and of bands around his wrist, which likely represent rubber bands people wear to manage and prevent self-harm.  These tattoos are like permanent memorials – or Ebenezers – from his life, and his ongoing recovery from mental illness.  Many of the band’s fans are going through similar struggles and many feel left behind by the world.

Therefore, the “you” of the song is those who feel alone and silent in the trees, who feel ashamed before God, hiding themselves.  They expect God to show up in judgement, as Adam and Eve expected, and hid their nakedness.  Tyler could be calling out to them: God did not judge me, and neither will He judge you if you call out to Him.  God will speak to them, “where they happen to be.”  After all, Genesis 3:9 says: “But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  It was God who desired and initiated reconciliation with His people.

The outro of the song has Tyler screaming HELLO over and over again, before the song ends with 12 seconds of intentional silence before the track ends.

What will be the answer?

When you find someone alone and silent in the trees, remember James 1:27 – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

If you find yourself alone and silent in the trees, tell your Heavenly Father you want to say hello.  He wants to know you and He wants to see you.

Coda
For many years, “Trees” has been the last song played at every twenty øne piløts concert.  Why is this?  On the album “Vessel”, “Trees” was the next-to-last song and other parts of the album built to it.  The first song on “Vessel” describes demons and spiritual warfare, the second song is called “Holding On To You,” and the third song, “Migraine,” has the repeated line:

And I will say that we should take a moment and hold it
And keep it frozen and know that life has a hopeful undertone

It seems like from the beginning of the album, that moment to hold on to when you’re battling whatever demons you have was coming.  So, in each concert, the fans know that the moment to hold on to is coming.  The song is a moment you can remember when you’re down and know you’re not alone.  The song an Ebenezer in its own way, and a bold statement that the band is not going to ignore the problems of people left behind, the metaphorical widows and orphans of the world.  Also, if they pay close attention, those fans can find the message of Christ in the lyrics.  God doesn’t wait until our affliction is over and we make ourselves acceptable to come to us. He bridges the divide Himself.

Below is a video I took at last night’s concert in Philadelphia.  Apologies for the video quality, especially when they fired massive amounts of confetti into the air, which fans collect to remember the moment later.  My phone camera just couldn’t keep up, but I offer it as a 5-minute moment you can take and hold and know that life has a hopeful undertone.


And what’s all this about widows and orphans? This post continues a series on James 1:27, which began here. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.