Preacher: Pastor Ray
Text: Luke 14:12-24
If so many are invited to the final Wedding Banquet, why do only a few accept the invitation?
Here is a disturbing article by Conor Friedersdorf. Please sit down and pray before reading on.
Please note: This post contains graphic descriptions and imagery.
The dead babies. The exploited women. The racism. The numerous governmental failures. It is thoroughly newsworthy.
A procedure room at the Women’s Medical Society. / Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office
The grand jury report in the case of Kermit Gosnell, 72, is among the most horrifying I’ve read. “This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women. What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy – and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors,” it states. “The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels – and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths.”
Charged with seven counts of first-degree murder, Gosnell is now standing trial in a Philadelphia courtroom. An NBC affiliate’s coverage includes testimony as grisly as you’d expect. “An unlicensed medical school graduate delivered graphic testimony about the chaos at a Philadelphia clinic where he helped perform late-term abortions,” the channel reports. “Stephen Massof described how he snipped the spinal cords of babies, calling it, ‘literally a beheading. It is separating the brain from the body.’ He testified that at times, when women were given medicine to speed up their deliveries, ‘it would rain fetuses. Fetuses and blood all over the place.'”
One former employee described hearing a baby screaming after it was delivered during an abortion procedure. “I can’t describe it. It sounded like a little alien,” she testified. Said the Philadelphia Inquirer in its coverage, “Prosecutors have cited the dozens of jars of severed baby feet as an example of Gosnell’s idiosyncratic and illegal practice of providing abortions for cash to poor women pregnant longer than the 24-week cutoff for legal abortions in Pennsylvania.”
Until Thursday, I wasn’t aware of this story. It has generated sparse coverage in the national media, and while it’s been mentioned in RSS feeds to which I subscribe, I skip past most news items. I still consume a tremendous amount of journalism. Yet had I been asked at a trivia night about the identity of Kermit Gosnell, I would’ve been stumped and helplessly guessed a green Muppet. Then I saw Kirsten Power’s USA Today column. She makes a powerful, persuasive case that the Gosnell trial ought to be getting a lot more attention in the national press than it is getting.
The media criticism angle interests me. But I agree that the story has been undercovered, and I happen to be a working journalist, so I’ll begin by telling the rest of the story for its own sake. Only then will I explain why I think it deserves more coverage than it has gotten, although it ought to be self-evident by the time I’m done distilling the grand jury’s allegations. Grand juries aren’t infallible. This version of events hasn’t been proven in a court of law. But journalists routinely treat accounts given by police, prosecutors and grand juries as at least plausible if not proven. Try to decide, as you hear the state’s side of the case, whether you think it is credible, and if so, whether the possibility that some or all this happened demands massive journalistic scrutiny.
On February 18, 2010, the FBI raided the “Women’s Medical Society,” entering its offices about 8:30 p.m. Agents expected to find evidence that it was illegally selling prescription drugs. On entering, they quickly realized something else was amiss. In the grand jury report’s telling, “There was blood on the floor. A stench of urine filled the air. A flea-infested cat was wandering through the facility, and there were cat feces on the stairs. Semi-conscious women scheduled for abortions were moaning in the waiting room or the recovery room, where they sat on dirty recliners covered with blood-stained blankets. All the women had been sedated by unlicensed staff.” Authorities had also learned about the patient that died at the facility several months prior.
Public health officials inspected the surgery rooms. “Instruments were not sterile,” the grand jury states. “Equipment was rusty and outdated. Oxygen equipment was covered with dust, and had not been inspected. The same corroded suction tubing used for abortions was the only tubing available for oral airways if assistance for breathing was needed. There was no functioning resuscitation or even monitoring equipment, except for a single blood pressure cuff.” Upon further inspection, “the search team discovered fetal remains haphazardly stored throughout the clinic – in bags, milk jugs, orange juice cartons, and even in cat-food containers.”
And “Gosnell admitted to Detective Wood that at least 10 to 20 percent of the fetuses were probably older than 24 weeks in gestation – even though Pennsylvania law prohibits abortions after 24 weeks. In some instances, surgical incisions had been made at the base of the fetal skulls.” Gosnell’s medical license was quickly suspended. 18 days later, The Department of Health filed papers to start the process of closing the clinic. The district attorney submitted the case to the grand jury on May 4, 2010. Testimony was taken from 58 witnesses. Evidence was examined.
In Pennsylvania, most doctors won’t perform abortions after the 20th week, many for health reasons, others for moral reasons. Abortions after 24 weeks are illegal. Until 2009, Gosnell reportedly performed mostly first and second trimester abortions. But his clinic had come to develop a bad reputation, and could attract only women who couldn’t get an abortion elsewhere, former employees have said. “Steven Massof estimated that in 40 percent of the second-trimester abortions performed by Gosnell, the fetuses were beyond 24 weeks gestational age,” the grand jury states. “Latosha Lewis testified that Gosnell performed procedures over 24 weeks ‘too much to count,’ and ones up to 26 weeks ‘very often.’ …in the last few years, she testified, Gosnell increasingly saw out-of-state referrals, which were all second-trimester, or beyond. By these estimates, Gosnell performed at least four or five illegal abortions every week.”
The grand jury report includes an image of a particularly extreme case (the caption is theirs, not mine):
That photo pertains to an unusual case, in that the mother had to seek help at a hospital after the abortion she sought at Gosnell’s office went awry. The grand jury report summarizes a more typical late-term abortion, as conducted at the clinic, concluding with the following passage:
When you perform late-term “abortions” by inducing labor, you get babies. Live, breathing, squirming babies. By 24 weeks, most babies born prematurely will survive if they receive appropriate medical care. But that was not what the Women’s Medical Society was about. Gosnell had a simple solution for the unwanted babies he delivered: he killed them. He didn’t call it that. He called it “ensuring fetal demise.” The way he ensured fetal demise was by sticking scissors into the back of the baby’s neck and cutting the spinal cord. He called that “snipping.”
Over the years, there were hundreds of “snippings.” Sometimes, if Gosnell was unavailable, the “snipping” was done by one of his fake doctors, or even by one of the administrative staff.
But all the employees of the Women’s Medical Society knew. Everyone there acted as if it wasn’t murder at all. Most of these acts cannot be prosecuted, because Gosnell destroyed the files. Among the relatively few cases that could be specifically documented, one was Baby Boy A. His 17-year-old mother was almost 30 weeks pregnant — seven and a half months — when labor was induced. An employee estimated his birth weight as approaching six pounds. He was breathing and moving when Gosnell severed his spine and put the body in a plastic shoebox for disposal. The doctor joked that this baby was so big he could “walk me to the bus stop.” Another, Baby Boy B, whose body was found at the clinic frozen in a one-gallon spring-water bottle, was at least 28 weeks of gestational age when he was killed. Baby C was moving and breathing for 20 minutes before an assistant came in and cut the spinal cord, just the way she had seen Gosnell do it so many times. And these were not even the worst cases.
Abuse of Women Patients
What little media coverage there’s been in the case has understandably focused on the murder allegations. The grand jury report also makes clear how horrific Women’s Medical Society was for the patients.
The unsanitary conditions were just the beginning.
One woman “was left lying in place for hours after Gosnell tore her cervix and colon while trying, unsuccessfully, to extract the fetus,” the report states. Another patient, 19, “was held for several hours after Gosnell punctured her uterus. As a result of the delay, she fell into shock from blood loss, and had to undergo a hysterectomy.” A third patient “went into convulsions during an abortion, fell off the procedure table, and hit her head on the floor. Gosnell wouldn’t call an ambulance, and wouldn’t let the woman’s companion leave the building so that he could call an ambulance.”
Often times, women given drugs to induce labor delivered before the doctor even arrived at work.
Said one former employee:
If… a baby was about to come out, I would take the woman to the bathroom, they would sit on the toilet and basically the baby would fall out and it would be in the toilet and I would be rubbing her back and trying to calm her down for two, three, four hours until Dr. Gosnell comes.
She would not move.
One patient died:
She was a 41-year-old, refugee who had recently come to the United States from a resettlement camp in Nepal. When she arrived at the clinic, Gosnell, as usual, was not there. Office workers had her sign various forms that she could not read, and then began doping her up. She received repeated unmonitored, unrecorded intravenous injections of Demerol, a sedative seldom used in recent years because of its dangers. Gosnell liked it because it was cheap. After several hours, Mrs. Mongar simply stopped breathing. When employees finally noticed, Gosnell was called in and briefl y attempted to give CPR. He couldn’t use the defibrillator (it was broken); nor did he administer emergency medications that might have restarted her heart. After further crucial delay, paramedics finally arrived, but Mrs.Mongar was probably brain dead before they were even called. In the meantime, the clinic staff hooked up machinery and rearranged her body to make it look like they had been in the midst of a routine, safe abortion procedure.
Even then, there might have been some slim hope of reviving Mrs. Mongar. The paramedics were able to generate a weak pulse. But, because of the cluttered hallways and the padlocked emergency door, it took them over twenty minutes just to find a way to get her out of the building. Doctors at the hospital managed to keep her heart beating, but they never knew what they were trying to treat, because Gosnell and his staff lied about how much anesthesia they had given, and who had given it. By that point, there was no way to restore any neurological activity. Life support was removed the next day. Karnamaya Mongar was pronounced dead.
Another provocative detail: A former employee testified “that white patients often did not have to wait in the same dirty rooms as black and Asian clients. Instead, Gosnell would escort them up the back steps to the only clean office — O’Neill’s — and he would turn on the TV for them. Mrs. Mongar, she said, would have been treated ‘no different from the rest of the Africans and Asians.'”
Said the employee:
Like if a girl — the black population was — African population was big here. So he didn’t mind you medicating your African American girls, your Indian girl, but if you had a white girl from the suburbs, oh, you better not medicate her. You better wait until he go in and talk to her first. And one day I said something to him and he was like, that’s the way of the world. Huh?
And he brushed it off and that was it.
Anesthesia was frequently dispensed by employees who were neither legally permitted nor trained to do it, including a 15-year-old high school student who worked at the clinic, the report states.
Most employees did as they were told, but one objected:
Marcella Stanley Choung, who told us that her “training” for anesthesia consisted of a 15-minute description by Gosnell and reading a chart he had posted in a cabinet. She was so uncomfortable medicating patients, she said, that she “didn’t sleep at night.” She knew that if she made even a small error, “I can kill this lady, and I’m not jail material.” One night in 2002, when she found herself alone with 15 patients, she refused Gosnell’s directives to medicate them. She made an excuse, went to her car, and drove away, never to return. Choung immediately filed a complaint with the Department of State, but the department never acted on it.
The Failure to Stop It
That brings us to a subject you’ve perhaps been wondering about: How on earth did this go on for so long without anyone stopping it? The grand jury delved into that very question in their report. I’m going to excerpt it at length, because it bears directly on the question that will concern us afterward: has this story gotten an appropriate amount of attention from the news media?
Here is the grand jury on oversight failures:
Pennsylvania is not a third-world country. There were several oversight agencies
that stumbled upon and should have shut down Kermit Gosnell long ago. But none of them did…
The first line of defense was the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The department’s job is to audit hospitals and outpatient medical facilities, like Gosnell’s, to make sure that they follow the rules and provide safe care. The department had contact with the Women’s Medical Society dating back to 1979, when it first issued approval to open an abortion clinic. It did not conduct another site review until 1989, ten years later. Numerous violations were already apparent, but Gosnell got a pass when he promised to fix them. Site reviews in 1992 and 1993 also noted various violations, but again failed to ensure they were corrected.
But at least the department had been doing something up to that point, however ineffectual. After 1993, even that pro form a effort came to an end. Not because of administrative ennui, although there had been plenty. Instead, the Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all… The only exception to this live-and-let-die policy was supposed to be for complaints dumped directly on the department’s doorstep. Those, at least, would be investigated. Except that there were complaints about Gosnell, repeatedly. Several different attorneys, representing women injured by Gosnell, contacted the department. A doctor from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia hand-delivered a complaint, advising the department that numerous patients he had referred for abortions came back from Gosnell with the same venereal disease. The medical examiner of Delaware County informed the department that Gosnell had performed an illegal abortion on a 14-year-old girl carrying a 30-week-old baby. And the department received official notice that a woman named Karnamaya Mongar had died at Gosnell’s hands.
Yet not one of these alarm bells — not even Mrs. Mongar’s death — prompted the department to look at Gosnell or the Women’s Medical Society… But even this total abdication by the Department of Health might not have been fatal. Another agency with authority in the health field, the Pennsylvania Department of State, could have stopped Gosnell single-handedly.
The Department of State, through its Board of Medicine, licenses and oversees individual physicians… Almost a decade ago, a former employee of Gosnell presented the Board of Medicine with a complaint that laid out the whole scope of his operation: the unclean, unsterile conditions; the unlicensed workers; the unsupervised sedation; the underage abortion patients; even the over-prescribing of pain pills with high resale value on the street. The department assigned an investigator, whose investigation consisted primarily of an offsite interview with Gosnell. The investigator never inspected the facility, questioned other employees, or reviewed any records. Department attorneys chose to accept this incomplete investigation, and dismissed the complaint as unconfirmed.
Shortly thereafter the department received an even more disturbing report — about a woman, years before Karnamaya Mongar, who died of sepsis after Gosnell perforated her uterus. The woman was 22 years old. A civil suit against Gosnell was settled for almost a million dollars, and the insurance company forwarded the information to the department. That report should have been all the confirmation needed for the complaint from the former employee that was already in the department’s possession. Instead, the department attorneys dismissed this complaint too… The same thing happened at least twice more: the department received complaints about lawsuits against Gosnell, but dismissed them as meaningless…
Philadelphia health department employees regularly visited the Women’s Medical Society to retrieve blood samples for testing purposes, but never noticed, or more likely never bothered to report, that anything was amiss. Another employee inspected the clinic in response to a complaint that dead fetuses were being stored in paper bags in the employees’ lunch refrigerator. The inspection confirmed numerous violations… But no follow-up was ever done… A health department representative also came to the clinic as part of a citywide vaccination program. She promptly discovered that Gosnell was scamming the program; she was the only employee, city or state, who actually tried to do something about the appalling things she saw there. By asking questions and poking around, she was able to file detailed reports identifying many of the most egregious elements of Gosnell’s practice. It should have been enough to stop him. But instead her reports went into a black hole, weeks before Karnamaya Mongar walked into the Woman’s Medical Society.
…And it wasn’t just government agencies that did nothing. The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and its subsidiary, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, are in the same neighborhood as Gosnell’s office. State law requires hospitals to report complications from abortions. A decade ago, a Gosnell patient died at HUP after a botched abortion, and the hospital apparently filed the necessary report. But the victims kept coming in. At least three other Gosnell patients were brought to Penn facilities for emergency surgery; emergency room personnel said they have treated many others as well. And at least one additional woman was hospitalized there after Gosnell had begun a flagrantly illegal abortion of a 29-week-old fetus. Yet, other than the one initial report, Penn could find not a single case in which it complied with its legal duty to alert authorities to the danger. Not even when a second woman turned up virtually dead…
So too with the National Abortion Federation.
NAF is an association of abortion providers that upholds the strict est health and legal standards for its members. Gosnell, bizarrely, applied for admission shortly after Karnamaya Mongar’s death. Despite his various efforts to fool her, the evaluator from NAF readily noted that records were not properly kept, that risks were not explained, that patients were not monitored, that equipment was not available, that anesthesia was misused. It was the worst abortion clinic she had ever inspected. Of course, she rejected Gosnell’s application. She just never told anyone in authority about all the horrible, dangerous things she had seen.
The conclusion drawn at the end of the section is provocative. “Bureaucratic inertia is not exactly news. We understand that,” it states. “But we think this was something more. We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
A Front-Page Story
Says Kirsten Powers in her USA Today op-ed, “Let me state the obvious. This should be front page news. When Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, there was non-stop media hysteria. The venerable NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williamsintoned, ‘A firestorm of outrage from women after a crude tirade from Rush Limbaugh,’ as he teased a segment on the brouhaha. Yet, accusations of babies having their heads severed — a major human rights story if there ever was one — doesn’t make the cut.”
Inducing live births and subsequently severing the heads of the babies is indeed a horrific story that merits significant attention. Strange as it seems to say it, however, that understates the case.
For this isn’t solely a story about babies having their heads severed, though it is that. It is also a story about a place where, according to the grand jury, women were sent to give birth into toilets; where a doctor casually spread gonorrhea and chlamydiae to unsuspecting women through the reuse of cheap, disposable instruments; an office where a 15-year-old administered anesthesia; an office where former workers admit to playing games when giving patients powerful narcotics; an office where white women were attended to by a doctor and black women were pawned off on clueless untrained staffers. Any single one of those things would itself make for a blockbuster news story. Is it even conceivable that an optometrist who attended to his white patients in a clean office while an intern took care of the black patients in a filthy room wouldn’t make national headlines?
But it isn’t even solely a story of a rogue clinic that’s awful in all sorts of sensational ways either. Multiple local and state agencies are implicated in an oversight failure that is epic in proportions! If I were a city editor for any Philadelphia newspaper the grand jury report would suggest a dozen major investigative projects I could undertake if I had the staff to support them. And I probably wouldn’t have the staff. But there is so much fodder for additional reporting.
There is, finally, the fact that abortion, one of the most hotly contested, polarizing debates in the country, is at the center of this case. It arguably informs the abortion debate in any number of ways, and has numerous plausible implications for abortion policy, including the oversight and regulation of clinics, the appropriateness of late-term abortions, the penalties for failing to report abuses, the statute of limitations for killings like those with which Gosnell is charged, whether staff should be legally culpable for the bad behavior of doctors under whom they work…
There’s just no end to it.
To sum up, this story has numerous elements any one of which would normally make it a major story. And setting aside conventions, which are flawed, thisought to be a big story on the merits.
The news value is undeniable.
Why isn’t it being covered more? I’ve got my theories. But rather than offer them at the end of an already lengthy item, I’d like to survey some of the editors and writers making coverage decisions.
Compare the trio of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, their gratitude, with that of the disciples and Judas in particular.
In Matt 26:8, you have a chorus of indignant disciples shouting, why this waste? I get it. We have to be good stewards. We can’t give away our life savings every single day in a moment of extravagant, wasteful love. But in light of Jesus’ imminent death, the timing was critical. Mary had no idea that Jesus was going to die soon. Nobody did, not even the disciples, even though Jesus had been preaching about his death extensively. Their spiritual eyes had not yet been opened to this truth regarding the resurrection. Nobody believed. Perhaps, out of their humanistic love, they were all in denial. Maybe they thought Jesus was speaking figuratively. Whatever the reason, nobody was prepared for what was about to unfold.
If Mary were second guessing herself–is it wise to pour out all the oil, am I being a good steward, could this money be used better elsewhere–if she second guessed herself, she would have missed this opportunity to prepare Jesus for his burial. Her thinking wasn’t complicated. She wanted to give thanks in the best, most extravagant way she could and she seized the moment.
Sometimes, what we do for the Lord won’t make good sense. And so we will want to hold back. Hold back our money, our time, our effort. We want to give our best to the Lord, who wouldn’t? But we pause. We say, let me pray about it. Often, these are just excuses. When God prompts you to pour yourself out and you don’t, you are sinning. Don’t hesitate when God prompts you by His Spirit to give extravagantly.
In John 12, the chorus of criticism is narrowed down to one voice. Judas is singled out.
4 Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray Him), said, 5 “Why wasn’t this fragrant oil sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?”
What is the motivation behind Judas saying, why this waste? Judas doesn’t quite say it that way here, but that’s the gist of what he is saying when he says, why wasn’t this fragrant oil sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor? This is poor stewardship. Look at the poor. Look at the great needs around us. Think about how many mouths we could have fed with $25k.
The gospel writer John gives us some commentary to see right through Judas’ words straight to his heart.
6 He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the money-bag and would steal part of what was put in it.
Judas was the treasurer. He had access to the money bags. You put someone in this kind of position at a church if he can be trusted. You don’t make a newcomer a treasurer. No one except Jesus knew it at the time, but in retrospect, as John writes this gospel, he notes that Judas must have been stealing money throughout Jesus’ ministry.
Who knows when it began? I doubt Judas first started following Jesus with an intention to steal money and then eventually betray him. He would have made more money had he stayed in whatever vocation he had before following this poor, itinerant Rabbi. He probably started out like the rest of the disciples with trust, loyalty, surrender, love. But somewhere along the way, where Judas wanted to go and where Jesus wanted to take him diverged like a fork in the road. Somewhere along the way, Judas became disappointed with Jesus. Judas had certain expectations of what following Jesus would be like and Jesus did not meet his expectations.
We’ve all been there. If you’ve been following Jesus for a while, then you can attest to the fact that many of us began our Christian journeys like artillery fired out of a canon. We were fired up. We’ll go anywhere. We’ll do anything. No cost was too much to pay. We were ready to give it all. Along the way, however, we hit some rough patches. Some bumps in the road. Maybe we were disappointed one too many times. You thought following Christ would be easier. You didn’t know Christian life involved so much sacrifice and self-denial and dying to self and suffering for the sake of others or because of others. So we hold back. Our hearts grow cold. Over time, we stop giving Jesus our best.
Judas responded to his sense of disappointment in Jesus by stealing money. The first time he stole money and didn’t get caught was one step closer to his eventual betrayal of Jesus. He didn’t wake up one day and decide, hey, I think I’m going to betray Jesus today. His betrayal was the result of one decision after another. Moving away from Christ one step at a time. And gradually, sin accumulated in his life over time.
Don’t underestimate the power of sin in your life. You don’t decide one day to commit a sin like adultery. A sin like that comes at the end of many years of distancing from and having contempt for your spouse. It is the culmination of years of neglect and a failure to love and to invest in the relationship. Judas fell into the pit of betrayal not in one careless misstep, but after a multitude of missteps which brought him to the edge of the pit.
Judas’ fall is a warning to us all against sin. Sin is like a prowling lion, waiting for someone to devour. It starts with a small decision. A little money stolen here, a little compromise there, a small white lie, a seemingly harmless decision to hold back trust, a decision to hate instead of love, a choice to remain apathetic for one day too many. If there was trust in Jesus or trust in the other disciples on Judas’ part, perhaps this sin could have been exposed and dealt with early on before it grew and literally devoured him.
This sin of stealing grew in darkness. No light exposed his sin. Sin molds, it festers in darkness. Sin loves to stay hidden. Sin, if it remains hidden and unconfessed, grows in its power over us.
If you are struggling today, the last thing you want to do is to isolate yourself. If you are struggling in your marriage, seek help. If you struggling with personal sin, confess it. Don’t deal with your issues on your own. The longer you isolate yourself, the more the power of sin will grow in your life. If you let sin fester in darkness, there will come a point when you will reach the point of no return. And you might end up doing something you never thought was possible. Or worse, you might end up turning your back on Christ, never to return.
Why is compassion important?
Compassion is important simply because it’s important to God. If you don’t believe me, let me try to convince you. Here is just a small sampling of verses.
21 “He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy.”
13 If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
31 “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
22 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.’”
11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
5 “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”
17 “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
There are hundreds more verses in the Old Testament. What about the New Testament? Let me share two.
7 On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. 8 For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Paul and Peter had different ministry emphases. Peter was a minister to the Jews. And Paul, for the Gentiles. But it’s interesting. While they had very different callings, different ministries, there’s one thing they can agree upon. The leadership in the church, they say, one thing Paul, one thing Peter, one thing you mustn’t forget. Remember the poor. And Paul says, of course, that’s the very thing I was eager to do. No one has to remind Paul. God had already laid that burden on his heart.
To me, this passage is significant. This is a burden that God laid on my heart a number of years ago and I’m thankful that I can finally share it with you. Our church might have a focus on college ministry. The church down the street might say, we specialize in family ministry. Another church might say, we focus on troubled teens, but I believe, regardless of each church’s specific calling and gifting, every single church is responsible for the poor. It’s not the responsibility of a committee within a church. It’s every Christian’s responsibility. In some concrete, tangible way, like Peter, like Paul, we must remember the poor.
The final passage I want to share is Matthew 25.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
This passage is about Final Judgment when Jesus returns and he will separate the sheep from the goats, the truly saved from those who thought they were saved but were not. And in this chilling passage, the criteria for salvation is one group fed the hungry, and clothed them and visited them in prison and gave them water to drink and the other group didn’t. Showing compassion is not an option. If the love of God has transformed you and you are born again from the Spirit, you will have compassion for your neighbors in need.
The most encouraging part of this passage is the fact that when you do provide food and water and clothing to the least of these, you do these things unto Jesus. What an amazing thought! The beggar on the street, the starving kid in Africa, the homeless on Skid Row, these are not just our neighbors, but as you serve them, Jesus is there. He receives these acts as if you and I were doing them directly to Jesus. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. Let that verse sink in during the holiday season.
I want us to turn our attention back to Matthew 14. This passage about Jesus feeding the crowds is sandwiched between 2 other accounts. The first account is about Herod and the second is about Jesus walking on water. I believe this structure helps us to answer the question–
What are the chief reasons we don’t show compassion?
I believe this chapter gives us 2 reasons: 1) we’re selfish and 2) we care too much what others think about us. Let’s start with the account of Jesus walking on the water in v22-33.
Having just fed thousands of people, the disciples must have been exhausted, but there is little physical rest when you are a disciple of Jesus. They find themselves on a boat in the middle of the storm. It’s the fourth watch so that means it’s about 3am and they must be dead tired after rowing all night. In the midst of the storm, Jesus appears out of nowhere. I find it odd that Jesus is not in the boat with them. Did they forget Jesus? Are they running away from Jesus because he’s tiring to be around? They are working so hard against the winds and the waves and Jesus is not with them.
Don’t we often find ourselves working hard, fighting the storms and then realize later, hey, where’s Jesus? Even as a church, we can rush off ahead and discover after the fact that Jesus was never with us.
Whatever the case, Jesus appears and he is walking on water. And of course, the disciples are freaked out. Disciples react as we all would–it’s a ghost! They were afraid. But Jesus says in v27, take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid.
You gotta hand it to Peter. He is the only one who tests Jesus. If it is you, Lord, tell me to come to you on the water. And Peter experiences the exhilaration of being the only person who ever lived to walk on water.
Why did the rest of the 11 disciples remain in the boat? Fear. Fear of dying, which is a fear of losing oneself. And the fear of looking foolish, which is a fear of man. For many of us, the next worst thing to dying is looking like a fool because that feels like a slow death. Peter has no problem looking like a fool because he doesn’t care what the other disciples think about him and so we commend that in Peter. He’s the only one who stepped out. But as soon as the winds came, he feared losing his life and he began to sink. Jesus responds in v31. He reaches out his hand and says, you of little faith, why did you doubt?
Staying in the boat is safer. You don’t have as much chance of drowning. And certainly, you have less chance of looking like a fool before others. Fear of losing self and the fear of man. These are two reasons why we may never show compassion to others. Showing compassion takes courage. It takes courage to step out of the boat. It takes courage to leave our comfort zone. We don’t want to take risks or be uncomfortable because you and I are selfish.
Many of you are in the prime of your lives. You are expected to be selfish. You are expected to maximize your study time and maximize your GPA and increase your chances of going to the best grad school and landing the best job. All of that takes time and commitment to oneself.
Showing compassion involves saying no to self on occasion and stepping out in faith toward someone in need. That takes time. Selfishness is the number one reason why you and I rarely show compassion.
And number two, if you are enslaved by the opinion of others, you will find it difficult to show compassion. We see this in the lives of the 11 disciples who didn’t want to risk looking like a fool by stepping out of the boat and we see it more prominently in the first account of Herod starting in v1.
Herod is a picture of a man enslaved by the opinion of others. Herod had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias and John the Baptist condemned this arrangement, which led to his imprisonment. It says in v4 that Herod wanted to kill John, but he didn’t. Why? Because he was afraid of the people because John the Baptist was popular. He feared there would be some kind of uprising if he killed the man many considered to be a prophet.
Then, on his birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced and Herod was so pleased that he promised to give her anything that she wanted. That’s a bold promise. He probably expected her to say, I want a pony or a new wardrobe. But because of the promptings of the mother, Herodias, who hated John the Baptist, the daughter asked for John the Baptist to be killed. This is the last request that Herod wanted to hear because he was afraid of the people. And although he didn’t want to do it, Herod had John the Baptist killed basically in order to save face in front of a few dinner guests.
Herod is a ruler but he is a ruler with illegitimate power. He has no real power because he is enslaved by the praise of men.
We don’t show compassion because 1) we are selfish. And 2) we care too much what others think about us. The second reason is related to the first. If you care what others think of you too much, your entire orientation is self. You are self-focused. How am I looking before my peers? Are my parents proud of me? That girl I have a crush on, what does she think about me? I better comb my hair and work out so that she will notice me. What do my coworkers think about me? Am I pulling my weight on my team so that others like me? What does my boss think about me? My review is coming up so I need to put in extra hours so that I can get that promotion. What do other church members think about me? And we can be so focused on how we are perceived by others that we never ask the most fundamental question–I wonder what does God think about me? And we lose sight of the needs of those suffering around us.
Managing your reputation among people is a full-time job. If you live this way, there will be no room in your heart for compassion. You’ll end up staying in your puny little boat where it is safe and dry. And because you are unwilling to step out, you will never experience the exhilaration of walking on water as you serve others.
Let’s read Luke’s version of the Beatitude in Luke 6:20-26.
Please turn with me to Luke 6:20-26.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
This is similar to Matthew 5, but there are some notable differences. One obvious difference is in v20 – Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. It doesn’t say, poor in spirit, like it does in Matthew 5. Just poor.
Related to this, there are 4 blessings and 4 woes. 4 blessings for those who are: 1) blessed are the poor, 2) hungry, 3) those who weep, and 4) blessed are those who are hated because of their love for Jesus. Then, the 4 woes: 1) woe unto the rich, 2) well fed, 3) those who are laughing and 4) woe to those who are spoken well of.
When you take the first blessing–blessed are the poor–and you connect it to the first two woes–woe unto the rich and woe unto the well fed, the message is pretty clear, isn’t it? Unlike Matthew where it is talking about spiritual poverty, or the poor in spirit, Luke is talking about the literal poor, those who are not rich materially speaking, those who are hungry, or not well fed.
Why the two versions? Why can’t the gospel writers get their facts straight? Poor in spirit and just plain old poor – why the discrepancy? First off, I want to point out that there isn’t a 1 to 1 relationship between spiritual poverty and material poverty. You can’t draw the simplistic conclusion that those who experience spiritual poverty and those who experience physical poverty are identical. We can’t say that if you have no money and no food, automatically, you feel your spiritual poverty and therefore you are blessed by the Lord. Nor can you say that those who have big bank accounts and wear nice clothes never experience their spiritual poverty, and therefore, it is a foregone conclusion that they’re cursed. The Bible is not that simplistic.
But there is a link between spiritual poverty and physical poverty and the key is in how material things affect our relationship with God. Why are the poor in spirit blessed by God? Because the poor in spirit are constantly going to God, Lord, I need you, Lord, have mercy on me, Father, I am running on empty, deep in my soul, I’m famished, please feed me.
However, if you are rich in spirit, if you think you are spiritual and you’ve gotten the basics down, then you don’t really need a daily, moment by moment relationship with God. You’ll go to God once in a while when you really need help, but most of the time, you can skate by on your own without Him. Then, for all intents and purposes, you are living like a practical atheist.
How is this related to being physically poor? Certainly, I know some people who have little financial means who are complete atheists. And there are rich people who are incredibly godly. So why does Luke mention the financially poor as being blessed in contrast to the rich and the well fed who are cursed?
To answer that, there is a story of a rich man in Matthew 19:16-26. Please turn with me there. From the other gospel accounts, we know this guy was rich, he was young, and he had power. He was a ruler. Pretty devastating combination. This rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him in v16, “…Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” From the text, we see that he also was a religious man. He kept all the commandments. He never murdered, he never committed adultery, he honored his parents, he loved his neighbors as best he could. But he lacked one thing. Jesus said, if you want eternal life, “…go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
This rich man was doing everything right externally. He was like many of us. We are generally decent people. We’re fairly nice. We don’t want to deliberately hurt anyone. Plus, like this rich man, we try to be moral. Why else would you be at church? Yet, despite everything, this rich man felt his spiritual poverty, he had a sense that he lacked something. Wealth, youth, power and he was moral. But he still felt a lack so he went to Jesus and wanted to learn what else he needed to do to get eternal life.
And Jesus went straight to the heart of the matter. If you want to follow me, then sell your stuff. I imagine, upon hearing those words, the jaw of this rich man must have dropped. That’s the last thing this rich man expected Jesus to say. The rich man couldn’t do it, so it says, he went away sad because he couldn’t let go of his wealth.
Jesus provides some commentary for this encounter with the rich man in Matt 19:23-26.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
It’s really, really hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Imagine a camel going through the eye of a needle. It’s impossible. It’s equally impossible, by analogy, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. That’s a sober warning for the rich. In the end, most who are rich will walk away from Jesus sad like this man. But while the salvation of a rich man is impossible with man, all things are possible with God. God does impossible things, like saving those who are wealthy.
How does wealth affect your relationship with God? Recall what I said earlier. The poor in spirit, those who feel a deep, prolonged sense of lack in their heart, these people will turn to God readily and ask him to sustain them moment by moment. In other words, they will rely totally on God and develop a relationship of constant trust and dependence. It’s a relationship of complete reliance on God.
What about those who are rich in terms of finances? Wealth will cause you to feel less needy for God. Why do you need to depend on God moment by moment when you have money, when you have opportunities, when you have degrees? It’s a life with many options. If Plan A fails, don’t worry, I got Plan B.
Like in IT, you get RAID hard drives because your data is spread over multiple drives such that if one drive fails, don’t worry, you got a backup drive that has everything on it. Or web servers, you load balance 2 identical web servers so that if one server goes down, the site remains up because all the web traffic can failover to the server that is still running. You have all your bases covered. You are safe in the event of a disaster.
If your relationship with God is not going well, don’t worry. Focus on your studies. Put in overtime at work. Turn on the TV. Watch a movie. Go out and eat a steak. Or, take a vacation. We have so many options. The rich have so many other things to prop up their lives. Faith is just one of the many options so if our relationship with God goes sour, don’t worry, we have our disaster recovery plans in place.
Be honest. None of us in this room really has to rely on God all too much day in and day out. We can get by fine without Him. Isn’t this true? We have to recognize this as a huge, a HUGE spiritual detriment. It’s a huge handicap in the spiritual landscape to be rich, rich monetarily, rich in our talents, rich in terms of opportunities, rich in the myriad of ways that we can distract ourselves. Because God wants us to depend on Him moment by moment.
Look back on this past week, how much did you cry out to God? How desperate were you to be near God? How much did you long to be in His presence? How much did you ask for mercy?
For those living in poorer economic conditions, their day to day life is a constant reminder, life here is broken. This is not how life was meant to be. And they long for Jesus in a way that I’m afraid may be completely foreign to me and you.
Is it any wonder that Jesus went to unschooled and ordinary men and made them his disciples? Isn’t it any wonder that Jesus went to seek and save those who recognized their lostness? He went to heal those with real sicknesses, whether physical, or emotional, or mental, not the healthy and the ones who have it all together. Jesus went to the literal poor as well as the spiritually poor, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, those who are so poor or so rotten that they know they have nothing to offer God.
We can’t do much about our physical wealth except to give it away or to downgrade our lifestyles. If you find that physical wealth is hindering your spiritual life, perhaps Jesus may challenge you at some point in the same way that he challenged the rich man. He may ask you to give up your wealth. Oh no, that’s too radical. Is it? If he challenged you right this moment to give up your wealth, will you walk away sad? Will you exchange a blessing-filled spiritual life that cheaply? Just so you can live comfortably for a few decades and then suffer for a few billion years eternally? Don’t trade in spiritual riches for physical riches, or any other idol for that matter.
Are you in the category of the rich in spirit? You don’t really need God because you have spiritual life figured out. You feel like you have so much to offer others. You feel like you’ve arrived because there is nothing more to learn about spiritual life. You’ve somehow managed to fit an infinite God of the universe into a box of trite sayings and cliches and traditions. This is someone who thinks he is rich in spirit.
Or, are you poor in spirit? You don’t have the answers. You don’t have spiritual life figured out. God is infinite so you feel like the more you get to know him and the longer you live out your Christian life, the more questions you have and the fewer answers. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Update #4 from Lisa Chan
Obviously…I am not meant to blog. I allow far too much time to pass, and too many things happen in the space of that time! I cannot believe December is here and we have been gone for six weeks now.
Our time with the children at Life Impact and in Thailand in general has been a true trip favorite for the whole family. Watching my older girls work so hard to help with the playground, and watching them love on the children, just made my heart want to burst. I learned a lot about them and from them. They were truly selfless and poured out their joy and their love and their hugs and kisses freely. [Read more…] about Where is Francis Chan now? (Dec 2010)