Proper 6, Year A
Romans 5:6-11 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 9:35 - 10:8(9-15) - link to NRSV text
Some passages are easier than others for me to preach on. There are parts of the Gospel According to John that I really have to wrestle with every time they come up. It was a gospel written to a community that was undergoing persecution of a sort I've never personally seen, and I hope never to experience it. And as a result, they did something that an Afrikaner friend of mine spoke of as "circling the wagons," pulling tightly in toward one another in a defensive posture that draws a firm (and hopefully impenetrable -- that's the point of using it as a defensive posture, after all) line between insiders and outsiders. It's a gospel that shows some concern for those outside the group; after all, this is where we hear that "God so loved THE WORLD that God gave the only-begotten Son," even if "the world" is spoken of in largely negative terms elsewhere. But the Gospel According to John is where believers are commanded to love one another, and are not commanded to love their enemies.
The book of John is, of course, canon, and that means I'm obligated to continue to wrestle with it. But as rich a voice as it is, I'm glad it's not the only voice in the canon. We've also got Mark, Luke, and Matthew, and Matthew is the source of our gospel reading for this Sunday.
At first glance, this Sunday's reading from Matthew might seem to illustrate the same dynamic I wrestle with in John. Like John, it has early on a clear expression of an evangelistic impulse, a sense that the Good News is for all. The harvest is plentiful, far more plentiful than the current number of workers could gather. It's a dynamic like that I see in the calling of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11, in which a miraculously large catch of fish instantly changes the fundamental question in Peter's life from "will there be enough to feed my family?" to "can I gather enough people to take in God's bounty?" Pray that God would send workers to gather the harvest: it's too great for us to handle alone!
That's core theology for me. I believe that God's love and blessings are so rich that the whole world can't entirely contain them. The great urgency I feel (and believe me, I feel it!) as an evangelist (by which I mean a person called to enflesh Good News in the world such that people experience Good News in the world -- it's a shame that the word 'evangelist' has come in the popular usage to refer to someone who yells at everyone within earshot about Bad News) is to build communities of mercy, love, and justice broad enough to take in the fullest extent possible of God's passion for Creation.
But then there's this pair of verses in Matthew (10:5-6) that I struggled with for years every time it came up in the lectionary:
Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.
For years, whenever that came up in the lectionary, I shuddered. It sounded like the opposite of that core theology I valued; it sounded like Jesus was telling his followers to limit the Good News to a chosen few, the "good" people who deserve it.
I don't think that's a good reading of the text any more, though, and I think that the lectionary does us one big favor and two disfavors is helping us to read the text helpfully.
One disfavor, I think, is in pairing this Sunday's gospel with Exodus 19:2-8a. I imagine that this reading from the Hebrew scriptures was chosen because of its portrayal of God saying, "Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you [Israel] shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6). But I don't think that Israel's role as a priestly people is what Matthew has in mind in its exhortation to go "to the lost sheep of Israel."
What I think it's about has to do with the second disservice that the lectionary does for us this Sunday: cutting the reading off at verse 8 or verse 15, when I don't think we can understand the passage well without reading further, through verse 23 at least. That's where we find out that Matthew's community, like John's, is experiencing persecution. And I don't mean the "someone's taken my parking space" kind. This is the kind where "they will hand you over to councils and flog you ... and you will be dragged before governors and kings" -- who aren't handing out parking tickets, but death -- as Matthew 10:21 makes abundantly clear.
And who's bringing about this persecution? Take a look at that passage about persections in Matthew 10:16-23. Where are people initially flogged? In synagogues (Matthew 10:17). And the Matthean disciples are dragged before kings and governors "as a testimony to them [i.e., to the persecutors] and to the Gentiles," implying again that the persecutors doing the dragging aren't Gentiles.
No, this isn't evidence that the New Testament is antisemitic. Check out verse 21:
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death
This isn't about Jews betraying Gentile Christians. It's not about strangers betraying strangers. It's "all in the family," in a very literal way. It's about family not only disowning family -- as also seems to be a common experience for Christians in Matthew's community -- but sons sending fathers and fathers sending sons to be imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
Maybe that's at least partly why the gospels don't present biological family in a very flattering light. But here's the kicker:
This Sunday's gospel has Jesus commissioning his followers to go to the very people who are persecuting them.
That's what I think is the import of Jesus' saying to go "to the lost sheep of Israel." It's not saying that the Good News is only for the good people. It's saying ... well, let me let St. Paul do the talking:
For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
-- Romans 5:10-11
That's the huge favor the lectionary does for us this Sunday, though I don't know how intentional it was. It pairs Romans 5 with this Sunday's passage from Matthew in a way that underscores what I think is the most radical edge of Jesus' commission there. When Jesus talked about the abundance of the harvest, he wasn't saying that everyone will receive the Good News with cheers and applause. This harvest is about just how much reconciliation the Body of Christ can effect in the world, and that means that we are sent not just to those who will support and encourage us, but also to those who seek to wound us, or worse.
The hard truth of our call to reconciliation is that reconciliation happens in the context of wounds and division. As Christians, our icon of the ministry of reconciliation is the Cross. But our willingness to be present with the world's wounds, to return blessings for accusation, to love without regard for who is appreciative or deserving, will be a means through which the whole world -- friends and persecutors, and even ourselves -- will experience the Good News of healing, reconciliation, and abundant life in Christ, the boundless harvest of which Jesus' resurrection was just the first fruits.
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I enjoyed your comments.
I'm an Afrikaner following your blog.
Posted by: Tom Smith | Jun 8, 2005 4:49:05 AM
Beautiful -- I really like the way you allow the readings to engage in critical conversation.
Thanks for a challenging word.
Posted by: Tim Fleck | Jun 8, 2005 9:47:11 PM
I just became an episcopal this past May. I was in/out of two major christian faith communities. At last I found my home due to blogs like this. A continual source of inspiration and learning. I have found there are no easy answers. I find I am like a child again, I am defenseless but growing. This is awesome! Thank you for your time and energy!
Posted by: Don J. Herbert | Jun 22, 2006 8:46:27 PM