Sermon — Rev. Martin Noland — The Least of These My Brothers

Text: Mark 1:40-45 [Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, with commentary on the present abortion issue]


When Christians look at the many stories about Jesus in the Gospels, one of the questions they should ask themselves is, “What is unique about this story that moved the Holy Spirit and the Evangelist to preserve it in writing for posterity?”  We know that some selection of stories was involved, since the last verse of the Gospel of John states, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

The story reported in our Gospel lesson tells about a man who had leprosy.  On his knees, the leper begged Jesus to heal him.  Mark reports:

Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand, and touched the man, “I am willing,” he said.  “Be clean!”  Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

The result of this was that news about this healing spread like wildfire.  Everyone wanted to see and touch Jesus, and if they were sick or disabled, to be healed.

There are many stories like this in the Gospels.  What makes this one, and other stories about lepers, unique?  Leprosy was not just an illness; and it was not just another illness that resulted in death.  Leprosy was an illness that resulted in the victim being ostracized and cut-off from the rest of society. Lepers were worse off than poor widows and orphans, who at least enjoyed some protection from society.  Lepers were in a social and economic class even below that of slaves.  Lepers had nothing and little hope.  They were the very “least” among the members of society in those days.

The fact that Jesus had compassion on the “least” members of society says something very powerful about Jesus and the Christians who followed him.  Christians have always, in almost all of their national churches and denominations, demonstrated care for the poor, the sick, the maimed, the disabled, and the disadvantaged.  Christians have sought out, helped, and defended the “least” members of society, not just members of their own churches.

In our own Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, we have a variety of national–and hundreds of local–social service agencies that help coordinate and provide care for the poor and disadvantaged in the USA.  We support disaster relief work through “LCMS World Relief and Human Care,” both in this country and around the world.  Here in Evansville, our Missouri Synod churches and lay people sponsor a Food Pantry at the Lutheran Community Outreach Center, which helps feed the poor.  In these and many other ways, we continue to express the same compassion that moved Jesus to heal the leper.

Many people think that the Biblical warrant for such “social ministry” is Jesus’ prediction of his judgment of the sheep and goats, when he said, “Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to the least of these My brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-46).  But they really need to pay attention to the phrase the “least of these my brothers.”  Jesus did not call everyone his “brother.”  Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and mother” (Mark 3:33).  Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

How then should we understand this?  In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus is saying that Christians must care for those true believers who are in dire need.  They cannot forsake their brothers and sisters in the faith, when those persons come into severe hardship or persecution.  Persecution means physical imprisonment, torture, or being run out of town.  In Matthew 25, Jesus was setting up a type of insurance policy for persecuted believers.  Jesus knew that when his faithful were persecuted, someone would have to come to their aid or they would die, and so he put all believers under obligation to care for them.

Does that mean, then, that believers may turn their backs on the rest of the world who don’t, or may not, believe in Jesus?  No.  Jesus had compassion on everyone, including his opponents and enemies.  Remember what he said on the cross, “Father, forgive them!”  If we claim the name of Christ in our title of “Christian,” then we too should show compassion, just as he did to the lepers who were the “least” members of his society.

How does all this affect you today?  You always have the responsibility to care for those inside your circle of family, neighbors, congregational members, and friends, when they are in dire need.  I hardly need to tell any of you about that; I know that you do that already.  You always have the opportunity to help others in dire need outside of that circle, through your financial contributions to the church and to Christian “social ministries.”  But this year, in 2012, you also have the opportunity to show compassion to the “least” members of our society by how you vote to protect Christian “social ministries.”

Here is an issue that will affect elections this year.  This past week there was political uproar in Washington D.C. over a  new law from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The law states that religious organizations must provide and pay for free birth control for all of their workers.  This includes birth-control products, such as “Ella” and the “morning after pill” that can be used to induce the abortion of babies. The new law exempts only churches and other houses of worship.  This means other religious organizations, including church-related universities, church-related hospitals, and church-related “social ministries” must comply with the new law.

Since the 1970s, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has passed resolutions at almost every national convention that clearly state that our church is opposed to “abortion-on-demand” in all of its forms, including “morning after” pills.  We are against abortion-on-demand, because it is the unwarranted killing of the “least members of our society,” i.e., unborn babies.  We stand with the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptists, and many other Protestants and religious groups in this position.  We differ from the Catholics in that we accept birth control that is not abortive.

It is too early to tell where all this will end, politically or otherwise.  It appears that, as the new law stands right now, it could force churches who oppose abortion in principle and practice to close-and-liquidate their universities, hospitals, and charities; or release them from church control.  It could mean the closing or secularizing of all of our Concordia Universities, the Catholic universities like Notre Dame, and all of the Catholic hospitals-such as Saint Mary’s Hospital here in Evansville.  It could also have the effect of wiping-out the largest and most effective institutions of Christian charity that aid the poor and disadvantaged, which have been part of a strong tradition in America since the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock.

Jesus had compassion on the least members of his society.  As his disciples, we want to follow his example.  As his disciples, we will continue to care for and defend the least members of our society, so long as he gives us the strength and ability to do so.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


Sermon — Rev. Martin Noland — The Least of These My Brothers — 15 Comments

  1. I got the Law out of this sermon. Where is the Gospel?

    I can project myself in to the place of the leper, and say that I too need to be cleansed by Jesus because of my profound sin. I can say to myself; man I am really not meeting the needs of my neighbor. Where does the forgiveness of Christ for me fit in?

  2. Mary, God has given you your pastor to preach the Gospel to you. If you’re looking for political fare, the Drudge Report and Hot Air are far superior to the political commentary you’ll find here.

  3. Excellent message.  Pray also for the persecuted Christians being “run out of town” from the campus ministries in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

  4. Mary,

    Preaching on social issues is a dicey proposition. Noland’s goal is clearly to move us to sanctified action. I suppose there could have been clearer preaching of “Christ for me” but besides that, the Christ who is preached in this sermon is clearly one who has compassion on the downtrodden, including you, me and all sinners.

  5. @John Rixe #3

    Oli Young reports “78 days until the congregation at ULC MN (on the campus of U of MN, Minneapolis) is put out on the street by its own district (MN South).”  

    Perhaps I’m being unfair, but all I see lately is massive indifference on the part of district and synod administration.

    (Pardon the thread drift but this also involves caring for true believers in dire need).

  6. The Gospel is the news of the forgiveness of sins. In this sermon, Pastor Nolan told us that from the cross, Jesus forgave, by asking his Father who always gives him what he asks for, to forgive those who were crucifying him. Now since our sins put Jesus on the cross, I take it that I needed forgiveness for his crucifixtion just as those actually, physically present. I’ve found the Gospel in this sermon, the forgiveness of my sins that makes it possible for me to have compassion.
    I want to note that Pastor Nolan did not tell me how to vote, but only that an important election was approaching that could and probaby would severly affect the eleemosynary duties of the Christian church. How have Christian institutions of charity fared under regimes of national health care and the myriad of regulations that control them? Since the USA is the last of the large developed nations to start this process, surely whatever is going to happen to Christian hospitals and social services is in evidence in a dozen countries already.
    But I dislike the idea that the only avenue of Christian compasion may become to pay taxes while the state actually does the work of charity. Christ expects me to do the work of charity, not Ceasar.

  7. It is too early to tell where all this will end, politically or otherwise.”

    In expanding a phrase, “otherwise,” of course, includes that important aspect of the first use of the Law – “with Justice.”

    Christians, to whom the third use of the Law is applied and within their vocation of government-citizens, have the responsibility to speak up, demand, and carry out that justice, as they are able. This particularly applies when the evildoers are the elected and appointed representatives, who have treacherously abused and perverted our form of government.

    This contextual emphasis of “justice,” when it is applied to one of the important vocations of a Christian, should not be censored from the pulpit.

  8. Mary :I got the Law out of this sermon. Where is the Gospel?
    I can project myself in to the place of the leper, and say that I too need to be cleansed by Jesus because of my profound sin. I can say to myself; man I am really not meeting the needs of my neighbor. Where does the forgiveness of Christ for me fit in?

    Pastors are to preach “the whole counsel of God,” and one could, I suppose, take issue with Pr. Noland–the Gospel seems to be missing from this sermon. Yet this is hardly a “Jesus died for you, so get to work” sermon, a la Rick Warren. And it certainly does not paint Christian good works as meriting salvation. Taken in isolation, removed from the context of the Divine Service, it seems light on Gospel. Taken as part of the Divine Service, however, it is perfectly appropriate, since the forgiveness of sins had already been proclaimed.

    But there is more. For the first time in my life, I thought it important that my pastor speak to a civic or political issue and asked him to read without comment President Harrison’s statement to the congregation after worship. Pastor Noland went further and brought it into his sermon. Is this appropriate? I believe it is. This latest action by the administration is clear demonstration of its antipathy to the Church, its stand on the Hosanna-Tabor suit being another. Privatization of religion is the goal. HHS Secretary Sebelius, in her recent address to NARAL said, “We are in a war.” Sebelius, the National Catholic Register reports, “boasted of the regulation that forces religious objectors to choose between violating their religion and kicking their employees off of health insurance.”

    The Church–the LCMS–must respond to this opening salvo in Ms. Sebelius’ (and clearly the administration’s) war. Pr. Noland has taken a bold step, and one from which he cannot retreat. It had to be done, and apparent Gospel shortcomings notwithstanding, I’m glad he did it. After all, it is the Gospel which ultimately is at stake. In proper Lutheran worship, the Gospel is never a “given” or taken for granted. Pr. Noland’s speaking to a political issue is a defense of that Gospel. I’m glad he did it.

  9. @John Rixe #6

    We who want to help, what can we do?

    The district seems far worse than indifferent to me.

    The synod, more or less helpless, and regretting that bitterly. So it seems to me.

    What about us? What we can do, we should.

  10. @Old Time St. John’s #10

    We can continue in our prayers and communication.  By keeping the issue on the front burner, hopefully further property deals can be headed off.  Keep writing those cards and letters.  Keep discussing this on good forums such as this.  Let district and synod administration know that we common folks consider this top priority.   Keep pressing for reorganization of districts.  Are synod officers trying to do anything at all regarding the UCLA property?  Let’s keep whining and don’t give up.   🙂

    ULCMN ’61

  11. Someone should talk to the buyer of ULCMN, someone not in the congregation, with no conflict of interest, and alert him about the uproar that this proposed demolition has evoked. He is someone who has run for public office in the past, and whose company’s website talks about the company’s extensive volunteer work and donations to community groups. So he cares about his reputation, as anyone should. It seems downright unChristian not to let him know how broadly this sale is detested and how controversial it is–which he is clearly not going to hear from the MNS BOD. But the longer this doesn’t happen, the more entrenched the plans will be, and the more difficult it would be to change them–to perhaps carve out the Sanctuary and a couple of other rooms for the Chapel’s use, for instance. Who knows, maybe the plans are completely set in stone already and this is all for naught.

    Still, if I were inadvertently doing something that made me a watchword and a byword nationally from then on, I would want someone to clue me in that that was so. It seems wrong not to at least let him know the truth.

  12. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Before I address a couple of the excellent comments above, I want to direct your attention to a new statement I found after delivering my sermon. The statement responds to the President’s new position of “accomodation” announced at the end of last week. You won’t find your major broadcast networks quoting this, for obvious reasons.

    The statement was authored by professors of law and jurisprudence at Harvard, Princeton, and Notre Dame, by the President of Catholic University of America, and a Fellow of the non-denominational “Ethics and Public Policy Center” ( It continues to be updated as it gets new signatories. Here is the statement:

    My sermon is a poor attempt at trying to alert my own congregational members that Christian institutions they care about are at risk with the new HHS law. Of course, I know there are some Christian folks who “don’t give a rip” (as they might say) about the poor, the disadvantaged, and the “least members of society.” I don’t think my sermon, or any prodding, is going to change their attitudes and I didn’t try to accomplish that.

    Nor was I, in any way, trying to direct anyone’s votes to specific candidates. Politics and voting is always a complicated, multi-faceted thing. It was simply to inform the people who care about Christian universities, Christian hospitals, and Christian charities that those things are at risk. If I knew about the risk, and did not inform my congregation, I would share in the guilt for their demise. Now I have done my duty as a citizen and a pastor of the church.

    I have shared the sermon with the “Brothers of John the Steadfast” to encourage our Lutheran pastors to inform their members about this risk to Christian education and Christian charities.

    A sermon may not be the best method for other congregations. Every pastor who is concerned about HHS will have to figure out what works best in his situation. At my congregation, we do not have a web-site, and only an occasional newsletter. We are a small church here, with many elderly members that don’t use the Internet, and almost everything happens by word of mouth.

    Maybe the best method for many congregations, for this particular issue, is to publish an article in their monthly newsletter, or post it on their website and direct readers to various statements, such as President Harrison’s statement on the recent HHS decision (

    At the same time, from a homiletical standpoint, sermons about support for Christian charities are just as important as those about Christian education, Christian missions, Christian evangelism, Christian campus ministry, etc. They are what we preachers call “occasional sermons,” not regular fare. Walther preached plenty of occasional sermons, and many of them are translated into English. One collection is CFW Walther, “The Word of His Grace: Occasional and Festival Sermons” (ELS Bd for Publications, 1978).

    If the lessons for the day provide the occasion, then pastors may preach on that topic. If not, some churches schedule regular dates in the year for such occasional sermons. Many districts and synodical offices encourage this practice. I don’t think I have ever preached on “Christian charities” at this congregation. I have preached here now for three years, so I was a bit overdue on this topic. The Gospel lesson provided the occasion.

    To the question about the “lack of Gospel,” it is true that I did not say “your sins are forgiven” or “Jesus died for your sins.” But I don’t know how someone could miss the “grace of God in Jesus Christ” in Jesus’ compassion, which is the basis for forgiveness and justification. Looking back now, I would add a sentence or two about how “Jesus’ compassion led him not only to forgive his opponents and enemies, but also you.”

    The reason that all of my sermons don’t come out sounding the same, in regard to Law/Gospel, is that I focus on textual exposition in my preaching. I concentrate on what the text says, and almost always preach on the Gospel lesson. As I have said previously on BJS, some pericopal Gospel lessons have no Gospel, IF you define “Gospel” very narrowly. I follow Walther’s definition of the Gospel “The Gospel proclaims and reveals nothing but free acts of divine grace” (see Walther, “Law and Gospel” (CPH, 2010 edition, p. 12). I think that Jesus healing of the leper was a “free act of divine grace.” The healing shows that we have a gracious and merciful God. If you define “Gospel” this way, I think every Gospel lesson contains Gospel.

    I have also recently been influenced by the excellent article on preaching by Dr. David R. Schmitt, (Professor of Homiletics at the Saint Louis seminary), “The Tapestry of Preaching” CONCORDIA JOURNAL 37 #2 (Spring 2011): 107-129.

    With regard to the comment that “you can get better political commentary elsewhere,” I TOTALLY agree. I have said above that this was a POOR ATTEMPT. But most of my members don’t listen to political commentary. How will they know what is going on? The local and national news that they read or listen to don’t carry a Christian perspective; some of the media is obviously hostile to Christian concerns, interests, and values. Who is going to inform this “silent majority” about laws that directly affect Christian things they care about? If I don’t, nobody will.

    Luther set an example for all Lutheran pastors, educators, and leaders with his treatises AND SERMONS on social and political issues, which are published in LUTHER’S WORKS, volumes 44-47. Of course, such things are not regular fare from the pulpit or elsewhere, but they are part of the heritage and purposes of the Lutheran church. Certainly we should say something when the Christian church and religious communities are under attack!

    If anything, the HHS law is a STRONG ARGUMENT for “Issues, etc.” and the “Brothers of John the Steadfast” website. If you don’t want your preacher to say anything from the pulpit about what is happening in your church-body, local community, national society, or politics, then you should be the foremost advocate for BJS and “Issues, etc.” in your congregation.

    One final comment, and that is about abortion itself. I am not sure that I have ever preached a sermon about political issues, except maybe one or two other sermons in thirty years against “abortion on demand.” Our LC-MS is clearly against that social ill. If people don’t hear about that from the pulpit, most of them won’t hear proper teaching about it at all.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  13. Our seminary professors always taught us to preach the text. Healing and the messianic secret of Jesus is the textual gospel. Jesus in Mark 1 is doing exactly what the Messiah was prophesied to do. The gospel sure runs along the lines of Jesus being the annointed one, a testimony we see during the Epiphany season. Also interesting is the call of Jesus for those touched by him (leper) to say nothing. The people who had Dr. Nagel for Christology love to smile when we read these texts:)

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