Of God's Ways and Man's Wisdom
At first glance, this text appears to be about shepherds and sheep, people and pastors, church and ministry, but there's more to it than this. Something off-putting. This text brings into sharp focus how God's way trouble our wisdom, and this is an issue in most areas of our life. Dealing with it in the realm of church and ministry, we can apply it to other areas too.
It's God's way to have shepherds for sheep. In our text Jesus looked out on the crowd and saw "they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." But "harassed and helpless" doesn't do justice to what the Greek says. The word "harassed" is literally "flayed", "lacerated." Picture a sheep cut up and bleeding from passing through a patch of thorns. And the sheep aren't merely "helpless"; they are "thrown down." They've been slam-dunked hard enough to knock the wind out of them so they can't get up. On top of this this, the Greek indicates this has been, this is, and this will be state of these shepherdless sheep.
God wills that sheep have pastors; the Greek word translated here as "shepherd' is translated "pastor" in Eph. 4:11. God wills to give His people pastors because of their sorry state without them and because of His compassion for pastor-less sheep. The sheep could be in a very sorry state, but unless the Lord has compassion on them nothing would change. There are 3 Greek words that can be translated compassion." The Holy Spirit uses the strongest one for Jesus' compassion here. It literally means "to have heart, liver, and lungs move." The KJV translates the noun for this verb as "bowels of compassion." Jesus has such intense compassion for shepherdless sheep that He feels it in His gut. You might have felt such physical compassion for an injured child or even animal.
So God's way is to give people pastors because of their sorry state without them, because of His compassion for them, and because the harvest doesn't bring itself in. Jesus calls sheep the harvest and says it's a good one. You realize since these are the eternal words of God Almighty they are true for all time. The harvest was, is, and always will be plentiful. But no matter how plentiful the harvest, it doesn't come out of the field by itself. Someone has to go and get it. Someone has to care enough about the harvest to be willing to go to work today. And who is that someone? Who really cares about the unharvested sheep? Why, the Lord of the harvest. So don't go looking for workers; don't go trying to make workers; don't wring your hands in worry over there not being enough workers. Go in prayer to the Lord of the harvest and beg' Him. The word is literally beg', not ask', but beg' Him to send out workers.
Since God wills that sheep have shepherds, He will send them, but look at the likes He sends? This is where man's wisdom is offended. Take the first shepherds the Lord of the harvest sent into His fields. Boastful, proud Peter. James and John who had such tempers that they wanted to call fire down from heaven to fry the Samaritans for not welcoming Jesus. Matthew who collected taxes for the oppressive Roman government, and Simon who belonged to the Zealot party which worked to get Palestine out from under Roman rule at all costs. Offended yet? Nope? Try this. Not only did the Lord of the harvest send out pastors no better, wiser, or holier than the sheep, He sent them a truly wicked shepherd. The Holy Spirit makes sure you don't miss this. Every single time Judas is mentioned his betrayal of Jesus is too. Scripture tells you he was also a thief. Jesus calls him a devil and Peter calls him a son of hell. Jesus says that He chose this man to be an apostle and Peter admits he actually had his share of the pastoral office. Who would do this? What a Call committee would read: betrayer, thief, and devil and say, "Let's call him to be our pastor"?
If this doesn't offend your wisdom, then you're not listening. The sheep are already skinned, slam-dunked, and lost. They need shepherds not fleecers, harvesters not hirelings, givers not takers. Our wisdom says that God should not send bad shepherds or at least remove them swiftly. But if you've spent anytime around the church at all, you've seen or heard of faithful pastors being removed and belly-serving, man-pleasing, hirelings remaining. Our wisdom is greatly offended by the way God works, and it's not just in the area of sheep and shepherds. The prosperity of the wicked, the corruption of politicians, the injustice of justice all offend us. How can God continue to shed His grace on a country that has been sacrificing babies in the womb to the god of choice for almost 50 years and now by law has corrupted marriage, sexuality, and family? Covid 19 and the civil unrest we've been experiencing, would be but mild judgments for these.
A thousand why' questions pop into our heads. The funny thing is that when a child does that to us, asks one why question after another proud that they can ask questions we can't or won't answer, we smile at their cute ignorance. But when we do this to our heavenly Father, we think we're being wise. God only smiles at our child-like ignorance of things too wonderful for us to understand and of His ways that are unsearchable to us. The only way out of our wisdom being offended by God's way is to bow in humility not understanding before them. Go before the Lord of the harvest admitting that it is His harvest, His sheep, His world, His babes in the womb, and His institution of marriage. Do you knock on the farmer's door and tell him it's time to bring in his harvest? Do you even tell your neighbor what to do when for his garden? Let us give God at least the same respect we give and get from our fellow man. We recognize each is responsible for their own harvest, fields, garden, and home.
So God knows best when He wraps His gifts in weakness, in ordinary things, in ways that offend human reason and wisdom. He takes the sinless life Jesus led in behalf of sinners and the guilty death He died in their place and applies the forgiveness these won by means of His invisible Word attached to visible water, not gold dust. He gives us the very same Body and Blood Jesus gave and shed on the cross to strengthen and preserve us in the true faith in ordinary Bread and Wine not gourmet foods. And He shepherds harassed and thrown down sheep not with holy angels but with sinful men. Don't let the wrappings make you miss the gifts.
Ever done that? Thrown out a gift, maybe jewelry, with the wrapping? Don't let your fallen wisdom give up on the ways that God has chosen to work in your life. As His forgiveness, life, and salvation are wrapped in Water, Words, Bread, and Wine, so His ministry is wrapped in a sinful man, and His working good in your life may be wrapped in sickness, hardship, sadness, and in every single prayer of yours answered or not. You get what I mean if I say: even if you were baptized with dirty water, you'd still be baptized into the Triune God. Even if we celebrated Communion with stale bread and sour wine, we'd still eat and drink the holy Body and Blood of Jesus. Even if a sinful, wicked Judas preached to you God's Word, it would still be God's Word. When Judas the thief baptized a person, that person was still born again by Water and the Spirit. When Judas the devil forgave a person's sins, he was really forgiven.
Likewise, God can wrap His good gifts and Spirit even in the ugly, hard, evil things of life. God tells Paul that his thorn in the flesh, which Paul calls a messenger of Satan, was really His grace to Paul. God tells Joseph that the evil his brothers did to him, was really meant by God for good. From the adultery and murder that lead to the marriage of David and Bathsheba, God brings Solomon. Don't misunderstand. David's adultery and murder were really damning sin. Joseph's brothers really committed evil worthy of hell. And Paul's thorn in the flesh actually hurt. But God wraps His gifts in these ugly even evil things "So that our faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God." That's what 1 Cor. 2:5 tells us.
Our wisdom is constantly offended both by what God does and the way He does it. But true faith clings only to what God says not to sight, not to reason, not to wisdom. In fact, God aims to wean us off sight, off reason, off wisdom, so instead of stumbling over the ways of God we may be comforted by them. For example, many are troubled by sins that have long ago been drowned in their Baptism, forgiven in absolution, and covered by the blood of Christ. But since you don't look forgiven; because it doesn't make sense that God could forgive such great sin so completely, as the Psalmists says, your soul refuses to be comforted (Ps. 77:2). Clinging to the ways God works, would give you comfort, but you get tangled up in your wisdom and the way things look to you.
God works to wean you from your wisdom dependent as it is on sight and reason, not only for life but especially for death. At death what your eyes tell you and your wisdom assures you are not only useless but downright harmful. When we're dying, when every earthly prop gives way, when eyes fail us, when our mind flickers like a candle, when human wisdom is confounded by the abyss of death, all that is left are the ways of God. The only comfort is in the very ways of God that offend human wisdom: I know I'm saved because God has declared baptism saves me. I know I'm forgiven because God has promised that by Jesus' blood He faithfully and justly forgives all confessed sins, and I know that blood has been applied to me by the pastor's absolution. I know that my flesh and blood will be in heaven even though I don't see that, feel that, or even reason that. But joined to the Body and Blood of Christ, I go where He goes. Heaven's gates must open to Him and to everyone in Him.
Satan rages in death, and in the painful, stressful times of life, like now. Let him. While he can tear to shreds my wisdom and reason, he must submit to the ways and works of God. These beat him down while lifting us up. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (20200628); Matthew 9:35-1):8