You may know the old story about the two ministers of different denominations
who were arguing about whose tradition was closest to that of Jesus and the
Bible. After trading arguments about baptism, the sacraments, ordination and
other hot topics, one played the trump card:
‘You do it in your way, and I’ll do it in his.’
It can be a joke to suggest we are the ones who truly
minister like Jesus. Early on in my ministry, a church couple had twins and
asked me to baptise them. At the service, I preached on the story of Jesus’
baptism. I made a joke about John the Baptist and Jesus the Methodist, only to
discover over lunch afterwards that several relatives were – yes, you guessed –
Jesus’ ministry is so different from ours. We train
ministers for three years and expect them to minister for thirty; Jesus trained
for thirty years and ministered for three. We may move from one appointment to
another, but wherever we go there is a manse or a parsonage; the Son of Man had
nowhere to lay his head.
So it’s sobering to ask questions about Jesus’ ministry. We
need to test ourselves by it. One blog I follow is called Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, because
if we study Jesus, that study should shape our discipleship.
And thus to today’s Gospel reading. What do we see of Jesus’
ministry here that should shape our discipleship?
The first question that struck me was a ‘Who?’ question. Who are the people to
whom Jesus ministers? We kick off with Matthew, a tax collector. There are at
least two things wrong with Matthew in the eyes of good first century Jews.
Firstly, he was an agent of the hated Roman occupying forces, collecting money
for them. Secondly, he was almost certainly a greedy person who exploited
ordinary people, including the poor. He would have done this, because Rome
simply gave tax collectors a budget to collect in the year. They had to raise
their own living over and above that, and were left to levy taxes both to meet
their employer’s target and to fund whatever standard of living they desired
for themselves. It was easy to fall into temptation.
Should Jesus be having anything to do with Matthew? Not in
the eyes of his people. Matthew is a greedy traitor. The Sun would start up a
campaign against his type. There would be a lynch mob waiting, were it not for
the Roman soldiers protecting the cash flow. Yet Jesus says, Matthew, come
here, I want you to follow me. Not only that, he has dinner at Matthew’s home, as
the guest of honour. He associates with Matthew’s friends, who have little
concern for righteousness. Surely bad company corrupts character? No. Jesus
enjoys their company, without being tainted.
Then you have the little girl who dies. Children were of low
social rank in a society that valued elders. Girls were worth far less than boys
were. The boys might get an education of sorts, but not the girls. If the
synagogue ruler had died, one could understand the concern – but his daughter? Not
likely. Yet to Jesus, she is valuable and precious.
Worse than that, he enters her bedroom where her dead body
is lying. More contamination! A good Jew wasn’t supposed to have this kind of
contact with a dead body. It made for ritual uncleanness. Yet he takes her by
the hand. This cannot be a man of God: he doesn’t obey the rules! He touches
dead bodies! Stay away, before he contaminates you!
And we have the woman with the twelve-year history of
haemorrhages. She touches the fringe of Jesus’ garment. ‘Fringe’ makes it sound
like Jesus dresses in traditional Jewish manner, with tassels on the four
corners of his outer garment, as prescribed by Numbers and Deuteronomy. He has
all the appearance of a good Jewish man.
But how good a Jewish man is he if he does not go off to the
priest for cleansing the moment he realises that a woman who is passing blood
(and therefore is ritually unclean) has touched him? He should have recoiled at
the thought of her touching him, but his reaction is the opposite. Instead of
revulsion, we hear words of tenderness and compassion: ‘Take heart, daughter;
your faith has made you well’ (verse 22).
Jesus, then, embraces all the wrong people: all the people
that good, faithful religious types would tell us to avoid or despise for our
own good. Not Jesus. He is good news in the flesh. Where might we go to hang
out with the kind of people to whom Jesus ministered? An American church leader
Fitch recently made some
suggestions. If I paraphrase him into British English, here are some of his
1. Go to the hospital. The poor – and poor in spirit – are
always there. Maybe you could shadow a chaplain.
2. Look for where houses are being sold after a bank or
building society repossession. You will find hurting people there.
3. Where do the police spend a lot of their time? They know
the trouble spots. It may even be possible to ride with them.
4. Be a regular at the local pub. There may well be lonely
people there who are searching for something in life.
5. Go to playgroups and pre-schools. There will be one mum
who is left out, a struggling lone parent, somebody having difficulties with a
6. This is the one I really hate – go to McDonald’s! Whatever
your image of McDonald’s – slimy food eaten by noisy hoodies, perhaps – Fitch
suggests you hang out at one first thing in the morning. There is often a
breakfast club of men getting a bite to eat on their way to work.
7. This one could be peculiarly North American – the hockey
rink (although we do have the Chelmsford
Chieftains!). If a Christian joined a sports club and got involved in
coaching the youngsters, what example would it set if that were done without
rudeness or swearing, by treating the kids with dignity and by offering a
positive direction in life?
8. Residential homes and care centres for the elderly can be
a place to meet people who feel they are forgotten, or who have been dumped
there by their families. Of course, they haven’t all been treated like that,
but there may be low self-esteem as well as serious medical conditions.
9. Organisations that serve the homeless – and in Chelmsford
we have CHESS. What can we
offer to people whose lives have taken a turn for the worse following the
breakdown of relationships and addiction to alcohol or other drugs in order to
mask personal pain?
10. How easy or difficult is it to get to know our
neighbours? If it is difficult, Fitch suggests being subversive: why not sell
your lawnmower, so that you need to borrow one? Take time to be present in the
neighbourhood and build relationships.
So the ‘Who?’ question has become a ‘Where?’ question. To
meet the kind of people today that Jesus ministered to, we need to go to
certain places. They may not be typical Christian hangout venues, but they are
most likely the kind of locations Jesus would frequent today. Maybe he does
anyway, by his Spirit.
Do you ever imagine yourself as a particular character in a Bible story? It is
a great spiritual discipline to practise, for gaining insight into the
Scriptures. In this passage, I can imagine to some extent how the synagogue
ruler must have felt. He has come with a desperate plea about his dead or dying
daughter (depending on which Gospel account you read – Matthew seems to summarise
Mark and take out detail). If I wanted Jesus to come quickly and save my
daughter, how would I feel when Jesus is delayed by the woman with the
haemorrhages? My anxiety and fear levels would shoot up through the roof! ‘Come
on Jesus, time is of the essence! Can’t you come back and heal her later?’
Or look at the same point another way. Look at it from
Jesus’ perspective. He has two desperate needs, but he manages to deal with
both of them. I thought men weren’t supposed to be able to multi-task! But Jesus
seems to manage it! If a woman asks me to do something and before I’ve done it
is onto making the next request and perhaps a third one too, then I can tell
you, I get stressed! ‘I’m a man,’ I say, ‘I can only do one thing at a time!’
Time is what Jesus has. Time is what Jesus gives to people.
He gives it to Matthew and his disreputable friends – a whole evening at dinner
with them. In the middle of pressure to save the synagogue ruler’s daughter, he
gives the haemorrhaging woman the gift of time.
Time is what we say we don’t have today. We have so-called
labour-saving devices, but they exist so that we may cram more things into our
daily ration of twenty-four hours.
Time is what I was taught not to have for people in pastoral
care. At college, I was told to visit five people every afternoon and give them
twenty minutes each. That’s hardly enough time to get your coat off and the
kettle on! Time is what doesn’t happen when you glad-hand everyone and
concentrate on no one. You may speak to everybody, but you may do good for
Why time? Because in his use of time, Jesus gives dignity to
people who are treated as worthless by their society. In the gift of time,
Jesus can engage in spiritual listening. By ‘spiritual listening’ I mean what
some people have called ‘double listening’ – listening to the person and to
God, and then acting accordingly. If you’re going to engage in double listening
both to the person and to God, then that takes a considerable amount of
deliberate attention. You can’t just shake someone’s hand and be done with
But the gift of time isn’t just happening right in the
middle of a human mêlée for Jesus. This gift of time to practise double listening
to the person and to his Father can happen, because he has already given time
over to listening to God and being tuned in. Right in the middle of his busy
life is the time out. In order to engage, he must also withdraw. Time for
engagement with people must be matched by time deliberately spent with God in
prayer and the Scriptures.
How we do it, where we do it and how long for may not be the
same as Jesus. There aren’t too many mountains and hills in Springfield! That
we need to do it, however, can hardly be in dispute.
Too often, we are afflicted by the curse of busy-ness in
today’s world, and the church falls for the lie, too. The busier you are, the
better you are. The more good actions you can accumulate, the better person you
Not so. Not so in Jesus’ example. When some would have urged
him to press the flesh of as many people as possible, like a politician on the
election trail, Jesus didn’t do that. In the middle of that hurly-burly, he had
time for people. And he did so, because he had already given time to his
Father, and then committed to go to the places where those least likely to meet
the approval of the religious tastemakers hung out.
These simple and challenging practises will be needed if we
are to have a ministry like that of Jesus. We shall go outside our usual church
circles, to meet the unlikeliest of people. We shall have a ministry of time
that contrasts our frantic culture, by giving quality time to God and to those
outsiders. In these ways, we make room for the grace of God to bring his love
to surprising people in surprising ways.