Few words from the Bible have more resonance today than these, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.” Imagine Jesus in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Washington DC, or any of a hundred other cities today. Imagine Jesus walking with the protestors. What sign would he be carrying? I think I know.
“Blessed are You…”
Remember the Beatitudes that Jesus spoke? How he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “blessed are the poor,” and “blessed are you…” Yes, you. When you hunger and thirst for justice, blessed are you. When they persecute you, blessed are you. When they put their knee upon your neck and wear riot gear as they come out to meet you, blessed are you. When you are sick and they deny you healthcare, blessed are you. When society gives some people special privileges but dooms others to failure, blessed are you who suffer.
You might be wondering what translation of the Bible I am reading from. That’s the problem, when we read how Jesus had compassion on the crowds, we often fail to consider which crowds he was dealing with. The world in his time was as troubled as our own. Do you think that Jesus managed to not be political? We read further down how Jesus is teaching his disciples to go into the world and the crowds and bring them his message. In Matthew 9:18, he warns his disciples that this will put them in conflict with those in power. He says, “you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.” When you go out into the downtrodden crowds and bless them because they are being persecuted, you will be persecuted.
When the law and order police state headed by Pontius Pilate put Jesus on the cross, his disciples knew that they would share his fate if they took up his sign and said, “Blessed are you.” Because, in a system of systemic racism and inequity, those in high places have an investment in keeping the system just the way it is. If you tell them that the system is unjust, they will crucify you. What the system does is it crucifies those who speak about what’s wrong – take Martin Luther King. Then the system names a holiday after the man so that we can forget what Martin Luther King was saying was wrong with America.
We got two holidays, Christmas and Easter, so we can forget how political the words of Jesus were, when he spoke out against a system that kept some people poor by disenfranchising them from their land, and kept other people meek by despising their Samaritan ancestry, and which put soldiers in their streets (remember how Jesus taught his protestors to carry the packs of their oppressors?), and which made the whole nation hunger and thirst for justice.
Now, let’s go back to the Bible and note what Jesus is doing in the ninth chapter of Matthew. He is going among the crowds and healing the people. Who would have thought that healthcare could be so difficult? Isn’t it a basic human right? I think Jesus believes this. He teaches his disciples to be healers. He sends them out to the remote villages, saying, “Don’t charge for your services.” In this time of COVID-19, we are mindful of how people of color are dying at a much higher rate. Why? The way our current healthcare system is set up underserves their communities. The preexisting conditions that make COVID-19 fatal, have long been ignored in black neighborhoods. Those who are in prison, or nursing homes, or working shoulder to shoulder in factory jobs, are also being decimated by this disease. When Jesus gives his great parable about the final judgment on every nation in Matthew 25, he calls us to remember those in prison, as well as those afflicted in other ways, and says, “as you have done it unto these people, you have done it to me.”
So, the good news for our time is this: Jesus still walks with the crowds. Back when we had to do Easter in our homes because of the coronavirus, I noted in this blog that the disciples spent that day in isolation. Jesus found them in a locked room. Then I mused, perhaps we will celebrate Pentecost (the holiday 50 days later) in a crowd, the way those disciples did. The good news is that the church now has a crowd to walk with and the Holy Spirit to work for justice and healing.