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]

Jesus was Born to Overthrow King Herod, but How?

The story of Herod and the three wise men is familiar to most who celebrate Christmas.  After the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the wise men came looking for Him, having seen a star they believed signaled His coming.  Arriving in Jerusalem, they asked “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.[1]  Word of this search made it to Herod, the then-current king of that region under Rome’s authority, and his first instinct was to eliminate what he saw as a threat to his own power.  In Herod’s eyes, only he was king of the Jews.

Herod came up with a simple plan: to use the wise men to help him find this threat.  “And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’”[2]  However, the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went home after visiting Jesus.  “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”[3]

Herod believed so strongly in the necessity of the power of Rome and of his place in it that he was willing to commit mass murder.  If he couldn’t find the one child he wanted, he’d just kill them all.  He feared Jesus (or His followers) would overthrow him as king, and he was right but in the wrong sense.  Jesus would overthrow Rome.  He was born to overthrow every earthly kingdom – that is inevitable.

Much of Rome is already in ruins. Photo by Giu Vicente on Unsplash

Isaiah 40:17 proclaims that “All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.”  The word “emptiness” here is the Hebrew “bohu,” part of the phrase “tohu va’bohu” translated as “without form and void” in Genesis 1:2.  This phrase represents empty things with no eternal value or purpose.  So, while Isaiah doesn’t use the whole phrase from Genesis, he uses “less than” for emphasis instead.  When compared to God’s eternal purposes, all that every nation has ever devised and achieved is less than useless.  God has nothing to learn from our political and economic visions – He transcends them all.  No nation can or will accomplish what God has accomplished and will accomplish.

Therefore, Jesus’ other mission was to overthrow Herod’s dominion over Herod.  But Herod was determined to resist.  His heart was so hard that he preferred to hang on to a government willing to commit mass murder to preserve its own self-centered ways.  He thought he could preserve the façade of “Pax Romana,” the idea that worldly government can solve all of our problems, even while he, as an agent of Rome, was killing innocent children.  Herod saw it as in his own best interest, and in the interest of Rome, but this is one of many examples of “a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”[4]

Jesus can overcome death only by overthrowing our views of our own “best interest” and what “seems right.”  He was not born and did not die and rise again just to overthrow Rome, but He came so we would have a way to overthrow ourselves and death itself.  Jesus will establish the only government that will matter in eternity: His Kingdom.  The soul of Herod, and of all of us, will outlive every society that ever existed, and ever will, on this earth.  The nations are all “accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.”  While Herod could find hope in Jesus if he wanted to, Rome itself never had any hope.

Therefore, the question Jesus asks all people is: Will we let Jesus overthrow us or will we, like Herod, go to great lengths to resist Jesus and try to preserve a world that is doomed to fail?

Isaiah 9:6, recently the focus of my Christmas series on 4 names describing Jesus, also says “and the government shall be upon his shoulder.”  His Kingdom will be the only government we need, and He alone is uniquely qualified to establish and rule it.

For to us a child is born,
            to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
            and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
            Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”


[1] Matthew 2:2
[2] Matthew 2:8
[3] Matthew 2:16
[4] Proverbs 14:12, 16:25

Politics Didn’t Keep King David Up at Night

In the United States, we just had midterm elections, those falling between the presidential elections that happen every 4 years.  The end result of government divided between Democrats and Republicans likely has many wishing their preferred side had more power.  This post is a slightly edited version of one from this April, when anxiety about these elections began to heat up.  While in Psalm 2, God declares “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill,” where He laughs at the kings and rulers of the world who stand against Him, that declaration may be harder to take when events don’t appear to go our way.  Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” follows, and I don’t think it’s an accident because it records God’s king at the time, David, lamenting about being chased from power by his own son.  The story may provide comfort when things don’t look to be going God’s way here on earth.

Absalom’s Rebellion
The story of King David in the Bible is a very condensed version of his life but does not shy away from David’s serious failures and flaws.  The story of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba is not swept under the rug, and eventually, Absalom’s rebellion against his father David was justified in his mind by those flaws.  Absalom harbored resentment for years after David’s lack of punishment for Absalom’s brother Amnon, who raped his sister Tamar.  One can imagine Absalom thinking about his father: “You’re the king of Israel, so why didn’t you protect Tamar, or at least punish Amnon?  If my sister and I don’t get justice, you don’t deserve to be king!”

David, on the other hand, was quite aware of the limits of being king.  In Psalm 131:1, David wrote:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
            my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
            too great and too marvelous for me.

Even while writing as divinely selected king of Israel, David knew many things were “too great and too marvelous” even for him.  Instead, David focused his heart on the God-given task before him, which did not include achieving perfection in this world.  That task belonged elsewhere.  Later, Psalm 131 was included in the Psalms (or Songs) of Ascent[1], which served as a liturgy for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the three annual festivals.  In those Psalms are reminders of God’s provision for things the world can’t provide, including salvation for our souls and a way to perfect righteousness.  The pilgrims did not go to Jerusalem to worship the earthly king, but to encounter God, and including Psalm 131 in that liturgy would always be a reminder that our worldly aims should always be rooted in humility.

When Absalom raised several hundred supporters and entered Jerusalem to violently overthrow his father David, “a messenger came to David, saying, ‘The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.’ Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, ‘Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.’”  (2 Samuel 15:13-14)

David’s Response
After surrendering the throne and fleeing, David wrote Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” which says in full:

“O LORD, how many are my foes!
            Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
            “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
            my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
            and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
            I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
            who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O LORD!
            Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
            you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the LORD;
            your blessing be on your people! Selah”

Knowing the background of this Psalm and its placement after Psalm 2 make it far more interesting.  David had suffered a massive political defeat, being humiliated and tossed out of Jerusalem by his own son.  Instead of despairing, he turned to God for his salvation because he knew even the king of Israel could not save the people.  He was only a temporary and provincial authority.  Even though God had promised David the throne, God was able to save David, and Israel, without David on the throne.  With the murderous and vengeful Absalom on the throne, was God defeated?  No, instead we have this Psalm as a reminder of God’s presence and provision of salvation in spite of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

David, having cultivated over years an awareness of his own limitations as king of Israel, and the limitless power of God, “lay down and slept,” then “woke again, for the LORD sustained me.”  Surrounded by foes and removed from his throne, David slept soundly!  In contrast, Absalom broods upon every imperfection, plotting ways to force justice as he sees it on others, even if he must dishonor God.  You could say he is driven by a belief in a government that can solve all of our problems and shouldn’t rest until it does.

Conclusion
Jesus was not our midterm ballots, but flawed candidates of many types were.  Some more like David, and some more like Absalom.  A lesson from Psalm 3 is that we should be able to sleep at night in good conscience because no matter what the world looks like, God says “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6) even when king David was on the run for his life.

The success of God’s plan does not rely on our political success. “Salvation belongs to the LORD” and He deserves our vote every time.


[1] I’m currently writing about those Psalms in a series, which began here.

The Brief Joy of Falling Back

English writer Samuel Johnson wrote sometime in the 1700’s:

“How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consigned,
Our own felicity we make or find.
With secret course, which no loud storms annoy,
Glides the smooth current of domestic joy.”

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

By setting the clock back this week we get a bit of joy from an extra hour of sleep, an idea originally suggested by Ben Franklin to preserve candles. But the benefit will last only a few days. Similarly, our kings and other rulers may insist they can offer us lasting rest and joy, but their impact on our lives is much smaller than they (and often we) imagine.  But…

Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 11:28-30 – “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

May Jesus refresh us for the week and work ahead.  Only He can provide the rest and joy we truly desire and need.

He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs (Part 2)

Hulk trying to Smash!

As someone who collected comics years ago, I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.  The decades of characters and stories created in the comics combine with modern special effects to create the ultimate “popcorn” events.  Thor: Ragnarok, released in 2017, was one I really looked forward to since I had read the original Ragnarok story line that culminated in The Mighty Thor issue #353 in March 1985.

(Caution: Mild movie spoilers follow!!!)  The movie’s conclusion is significantly different than the comic version, with a twist that the heroes decide victory lies in not fighting the “Big Bad” of Surtur, a massive fire demon.  However, after realizing this, they must convince the Hulk to follow the plan, resulting in one of the funniest exchanges in any of the MCU movies:

Thor: Hulk, no! Just for once in your life, don’t smash!
Hulk (in sullen voice): But big monster!

You can watch the 1 1/2 minute scene here:

Hulk logic is simple.  Big monster is here.  Hulk must smash big monster.  That’s the plan.

In Part 1, Jesus was pictured in Psalm 2:4 as being enthroned in heaven, laughing in derision at the rulers of the world who sought to break free from His “bonds” and “cords”.  This description of Jesus is a reassuring reminder to us that no worldly kingdom is a threat to Him, and we can trust in His protection.  The post ended with a question of whether we also laugh as Jesus does?  Do we hold our (and His) enemies in derision?

Peter Smash!
Here we began with a Marvel movie scene, because in a way, Thor convincing Hulk that fighting fire with fire wasn’t the answer is like Jesus’ rebuking of Peter for fighting back against the mob that arrested Jesus, and soon delivered Him to be crucified.  In John 18:1-11, Judas leads a “band of soldiers and some officers” to arrest Jesus, and Peter (possibly thinking “Big Monster!”) drew his sword and cut off the right ear of one of the high priest’s servants, named Malchus.  Jesus says “Peter, no!  For once in your life, don’t smash”, or as more accurately rendered in the ESV: “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Matthew’s account (26:52-54) adds: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?’”

Jesus knows that He can beat any “Big Bad” the world has to offer at any time with an “appeal to my Father”.  In Psalm 2:5-9, right after He laughs, the Psalmist writes:

“Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
            and terrify them in his fury, saying,
‘As for me, I have set my King
            on Zion, my holy hill.’
I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
            today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
            and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
            and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

But rescuing His people must come first, and until then final judgment is delayed.  Jesus knew when Psalm 2 was written that He would eventually judge all the nations, but He also knew what sort of death He would die to accomplish salvation for His people.  Jesus does not laugh because His enemies can be taken lightly – He is fully aware of the evil of the world.  His enemies cause real pain and suffering on earth, and He takes each offense personally.  But if He decided to spend all of history laughing in heaven, we would all be without hope.  Fortunately, He lived among us, and suffered terribly as a servant, knowing “that he had come from God and was going back to God”[1]

At the time of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus had told His disciples multiple times, citing Old Testament prophecy, that His plan required being rejected, suffering, and dying, then rising again[2], but when the mob came for Jesus, Peter didn’t make the connection.  He did not understand the plan, but later he would.  We are not alone when we don’t understand God’s will for us.  The twelve disciples were constantly out of step with Jesus.  When asked to do something against our natural impulse we sometimes drop our shoulders, and our voice becomes sullen like Hulk’s.

But we have hope.  Years later, Peter would write about his progress from his early impulsive days in 1 Peter 1:13-15:

“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”

The “passions of Peter’s former ignorance”, may include the time Peter cried “big monster!” and cut off someone’s ear.  None of us are immune from the same Hulk logic when threatened.  But it might also be said that Jesus looked at Peter in derision when he did this[3].  But for the grace of God, there go I.

Peter writes of the implications of understanding Christ’s mission on the cross, that Christ’s followers are part of the plan, as active participants in the mission.  He calls the church to be holy, set apart for God’s purposes, to pursue the mission of the church, most succinctly spelled out at the end of Matthew’s gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (28:19-20).  In this kingdom, the two most important commandments are: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[4]

To answer to the question at the end of Part 1, the prescriptive truth that is like Proverbs 14:21[5] is love.  Love defines how subjects in the kingdom of the One who laughs should behave.  A love more thoroughly defined in 1 Corinthians 13 as patient and kind, and not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude[6].  Or, as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:1: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.”  Paul adds in Rom 12:14 – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Jesus laughing in heaven is only a comfort to us if He is our King, and if He is our King, we seek to follow the laws of His kingdom.  The laughter of Jesus is not a model for us, but is a source of comfort and strength if we are His.  In contrast, the nations, kings and rulers of this world refuse the “bonds” and “cords” of the Lord, which are these laws of love.  They make up their own system of “righteousness” by laws, and therefore “the Lord holds them in derision.”  Their earthly rules and systems cannot measure up to His righteousness and are at best narratives and at worst tyrannies.

Love When Bad Things Happen
Jesus’ laughing is precisely what enables us not to hold people in derision, and to not mock and laugh at them.  It is a key to achieving the “Us for Them” ethic described in an earlier post.  Jesus laughing tells us that there is no monster scary enough to make His plan to love the wrong answer.  Whatever your circumstance, “Love God”, “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemies” apply to it.

To illustrate this, consider Jesus’ prophetic speech in Mark 13:5-23 from the framework of descriptive vs. prescriptive truth.  I paraphrase and categorize some of the points below:

DescriptivePrescriptive
Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’See that no one leads you astray
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, and nation will rise against nationDo not be alarmed
Earthquakes and famines in various locationsBe on your guard
You will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sakeBear witness before them and do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say
Brother will deliver brother over to death and you will be hated by allEndure
False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wondersBe on guard

To Jesus, none of the things in the descriptive column are new information.  All were included in the plan.  The actions He recommends are not new information either.  The “Prescriptive” column means keep doing what you were doing before these bad things happened – Love God, love your neighbor.  Even if your neighbor is “bad”.

False christs and prophets will cry “But big monster!” and offer to save us.  But the true Christ calmly says “be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand”. (Mark 13:23). The false prophet takes the descriptive of evil in the world and creates their own false prescriptive.  They recommend an incomplete and inaccurate narrative as an ultimate solution.  Their own Babel which God must “come down” from heaven to even see (Genesis 11:5).  The true Christ comes down from heaven and demonstrates how to create a true ladder all the way back to heaven, offering forgiveness to all, even those who refuse to accept it or practice love.  He will be thoroughly and eternally glorified by manifesting His kingdom as the only eternal kingdom, ruled by love.

God doesn’t turn our Muerte into Morty by having us laugh at him and beat him up with a stroller (although that might be fun).  He doesn’t tell us to Smash!  Every time we try to follow the plans of the world to fight the battles of God’s kingdom, we are testifying that the world’s kingdoms are greater than His.  Our rage will be futile and our plotting will be in vain.

Witness to the Cross
Note that the presence of false prophets, national rivalry, and natural disaster provide an opportune backdrop for proclaiming the superior kingdom of God in Christ, where none of these things will occur!  We testify to the imagined utopias of the world – which are all at best narratives and at worst tyrannies – that the real utopia is one where people love so much that they are willing to die for specific others, not one where the “Pax Romana” is illusory and pointing that out is a crime.    Jesus even died for the tax collector Zacchaeus, described by his Jewish peers as a traitor and cheat, a representative of a secular enemy power.  Everyone He died for was once His enemy, and His sacrifice enables a paradigm shift from “Us vs Them” to “Us for Them”.

In our ability to do this, we all lie somewhere between the impulsive Hulk, the Peter of Matthew 26, the Peter of his New Testament letters, and Jesus’ obedience on the cross.  We each are a narrative of our own “intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic.”  We all cry “But big monster!” at different things, at different times, and for different reasons, but Jesus guarantees our destination is holiness when we follow Him.  Jesus cares about His people more than he cares about all the kingdoms of the world, and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:10.

But His blessing is not granted under all types of persecution.  Persecution is not evidence of righteousness, but a result of it.  Christians are not blessed when persecuted for unrighteousness, which sadly they often are.  They are blessed when persecution comes from testifying to, and striving to live, a righteousness that is unachievable by any earthly kingdom.  Jesus did this on the cross, and we do it by bearing the cross He assigns us.  When we do this, His kingdom comes, because his will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.[7]  Logically, earthly kingdoms do not like this.

Therefore, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Don’t accept the cross anyone other than Christ assigns to you – it may crush you.  The specific work God assigns for you is enough and comes with His power.  Our cross will not kill our soul; it will enable us to truly live.

For the last enemy to be defeated is Muerte.  Which means death[8].

Next post: a “minor’ prophet finds peace

Post Script
To close out the discussion of Psalm 2, the last verses (10-12) describe the Psalmist pleading with the kings and rulers:

“Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
            be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
            and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
            lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
            for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

Finally, as Paul urges us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we should pray for our rulers to God, who is sovereign over the nations: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”


[1] See John 13:3, and a previous post about this idea.
[2] Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22 and elsewhere
[3] As in Matthew 16:23, where Jesus refers to Peter as Satan for saying suffering was not necessary for our Lord.
[4] From Matthew 22:37 and 39
[5] “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor”
[6] 1 Corinthians 13:4-5
[7] Adapted from Matthew 6:10
[8] 1 Corinthians 15:26