If we are going to understand something, we have to know the context.

If we use the word “bear” does it mean “to carry” or does it mean “a large hairy beast that wants to eat your face off”? It’s important to understand which meaning.  And we understand by the context around the word.

In the ancient world there was a group of proto-monks called “the desert fathers and mothers” who lived in the desert to follow Jesus strictly, better than most people, anyway.  There was one monk who wandered off every week and his brothers wondered where he went.  They got curious enough that they followed him and found out that he visited a brothel every week.  That is not good.  Not at all.

So they held a tribunal to judge him.  They got a bishop, told him the circumstance and told the bishop to excommunicate the wandering brother.  The bishop said, “Wait.  We first need to listen to our brother and find out what he was doing.”  

“But we KNOW what he was doing.  He doesn’t need to spell it out.”


When the brother spoke, he said, “It is true.  I visited a brothel every week.  I am guilty of that.  But I visited the brothel because my sister is in there and I went every week to beg her to leave and to become a nun instead.”

Context is important.

When we read the gospels, it is important to know the context.  We need to know the point.  Sure, we know that Jesus was teaching about the kingdom, but what was the kingdom?  We know that Jesus died, but what did he die for?

Some want us to focus on the truth that Jesus was divine, that this is the context of the gospels, that every story is to point to that truth.  Some want us to focus on the truth that Jesus died for our sins, that this is the point of every story and teaching.  Some want us to focus on forgiveness.  Some want us to focus on God’s grace.  All good things.

But like the brother, sometimes it is good just to ask the person who is the focus.  It just so happens someone did ask.  It was John the Baptist.

John was sitting in prison, freaking out because the person he handed the mantle to is causing a bunch of strange controversy.  John is a law and order man and it sounds like Jesus is breaking the law.  Saying some strange, unorthodox statements.  So John wanted to double check and sent a couple followers to check Jesus out.

Jesus told John’s followers, “Sure, look what I’m doing for a few hours.”  After the day passed, Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you saw: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor.”  Matthew 11:5

The context of what Jesus was doing was his loving, merciful work.  When he taught, when he confronted others, when he challenged, when he quoted the Bible, it was all with this intention: to provide assistance for those in the greatest need. 

What was Jesus doing?  He was walking down the street in town after town and finding people who were hopeless and sick and impoverished and in need of desperate help, and he provided them with just what they needed.  What they needed at the moment, and what they needed to turn their lives around.

In Oregon there are many teams of people who just go around with life-saving supplies and provided them for people on the street—socks, food, blankets, sleeping bags, tents.  Whatever they need so they can survive for another night or week or for the winter.  These people are called outreach workers.  They go to where the need is and try to provide it.  This is what Jesus did.  He was an outreach worker.  He saw needs and met them.  And this is the heart of his teaching, his miracles, his focus on the kingdom, his forgiveness.  It is all about practical acts of mercy.

In one of these works, healing a blind person, Jesus said,

As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.  Night is coming when no one can work.”

I want you to notice a slight grammatical point—the first person plural.  Jesus didn’t say “I” must work, but “we”.  The healing and provision and great acts aren’t supposed to just be gazed at us in wonder.  We are supposed to figure out how we will do these deeds ourselves.  This is a ministry that is supposed to be characteristic of the whole kingdom of God, by all who participate in it, not just Jesus.

Some might say, Jesus is speaking to his apostles, not to all of us today.  To that I’d say look at the speech Jesus gives to his disciples in John 14-17.  We certainly accept that passage.  It is full of basics, such as “Love one another” and “I prepare a place for you.”  But it also says, “The works I have done, you will do as well. And greater works than these you shall do.”  Even as we are commanded to love, we are commanded to do the kind of work that Jesus did.

We could ask the question about how to do miracles… but that’s not the focus.  Jesus said that if we give a cup of cold water we’ve done a great work.  Or if we’ve housed a homeless person.  Or if we’ve visited people in prison.  Let’s not get caught up in the supernatural element.  Rather, we should learn some of the principles that Jesus taught us about how to help people in general.  Let’s not get caught up by focusing on the supernatural aspect of Jesus’ work.  Rather, let’s focus on the acts of mercy Jesus wants us to do and why we should do them.

Some want to say that social action is separate from the gospel.  Jesus says that social action is all that the gospel is about.  If you preach “good news” without giving food to the hungry, then your news isn’t good at all. 

And if you don’t act out the mercy and love of God, then your faith is dead.  I heard that before.  I probably read it in a meme or something.