Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
The lectionary begins at 9:35 and goes to 10:8, with an option to through 10:23, although according to most scholars, the whole narrative unit does not end until 11:1. This should not discourage preachers, but instead empower them to be playful with the text in terms of their focus for that week.
9:35 marks a hinge moment in Matthew, closing off a section that began in 4:23. There is a transition moment in 9:35-38 providing “retrospection and anticipation” as Carter says. After, essentially, five chapters of Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healing ministry, the focus shifts to his followers. Now, they will do as he has done. It might be worth asking why Jesus would need help for such a harvest? Couldn’t he just do it by himself? Many in the church assume evangelism and witness are important, but we do not often see the connection to atonement. There is something worth exploring about the connection between atonement and mission, that God in Christ through the Spirit has made possible a way of being in the world.
This is carried further by that ever-troubling instruction for the twelve apostles not to go to Gentiles but only to Israel. Is God being exclusive here? Perhaps this is an opportunity to teach on God’s basic movement of fulfilling the promise in Israel for the sake of all people. Thus, as Matthew 5:17 says, Jesus didn’t come to abolish but to fulfill the law. As N.T. Wright says, that Jesus, as the Messiah, did for Israel “what they could not do for themselves.”
Matthew uses the word “compassion” to describe Jesus’ disposition towards the people he was ministering to. This is always a fruitful word to consider and could serve your preaching well. If Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for this who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), how does this connect to compassion? In a world like ours where the tendency is towards division and boundaries and fear and misunderstanding, what does compassion say about mission? What does it say about who God is as one who becomes incarnate and suffers the rejection for it? What does it say about our motivation and desire? It should raise an eerie question about what moves us as people and as a church. Another way to approach this is to ask: What keeps you up at night? When does your heart ache?
There are also a couple of practical things to consider here. Jesus has called the twelve, instructed them to go only to Israel and to carry on Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healing ministry. But, moving beyond 10:8, there is no expectation of reception. For those who do not receive them, they are to move on. To “shake the dust”echoes Nehemiah 5:13, a sign of judgment, a shaking out, a getting rid of. This is not an easy thing to consider in shadow of the North American church-growth culture. Carter says that the implication is that they have fulfilled their responsibility and can, thus, end their interactions with those unreceptive. This provides some interesting things to think about in terms of where churches focus their resources and
energy. What does it look like to balance out the call to be all things to all people with the more realistic call to be some thing to these people?
One mantra I have in my life and ministry, especially when it comes to preaching, but also to people is this: follow the energy. And, of course, when it comes to people, the energy is not always cool, big, and flashy. But there is a kind of permission here to focus and do a couple of things really well, rather than try and do everything average. Furthermore, the implication is that there is a way of life that’s deemed faithful, which implies that not everything flies under the banner of “Christian.” This is also worth pausing to consider in a culture like ours where the liberal tendency to be inclusive can overshadow the pattern and form we see in Jesus. Of course, terms like “liberal” or “conservative” are not ultimately helpful to the church and should be left behind, but not to the neglect of considering what exclusion and embrace (stole this from Miroslav Volf) might mean for the church in a fragmented world.
Roger Hahn draws our attention to two very practical implications of this passage. The first is about the word “apostle” (10:2). This is a buzzword in missional theology circles, as it indicates that the church is sent by God to be on mission with God. Hahn draws our attention to the Jewish roots of the word apostle as those “authorized to speak for and act on behalf of their sender.” I wonder how many Christians view their lives as if, in each and every encounter, we are representatives of God, or ambassadors as Paul says? My guess is that we do not expect to be that intentional. How many of us still react with a “don’t shoot the messenger” mentality, as if somehow faith is somehow disconnected from other aspects of our daily lives? Something ancillary that may or may not come into play, depending on the circumstances? Perhaps it is worth the time to explore the ways we are still too individualistic in our faith. I wonder what would change if we embraced every moment as an opportunity to be ambassadors of Christ? What would change about your words, actions, habits, and tone?
The second thing Hahn draws our attention to is that among the twelve that Jesus calls, two of them are Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector. In Matthew’s first century Roman context, these two people would have hated each other. Tax collectors worked for the empire against the Jews and others. Zealots considered Jews who collected tax for Rome to be sell-outs. The potential animosity cannot be overlooked here. What sort of preaching paths does this open up in your context? In North America it is not difficult to reallocate the terms: Republicans vs. Democrats, liberal vs. conservative, pro-gay vs. anti-gay, inerrant vs. plenary, contemporary vs. traditional, educated vs. uneducated, programs vs. practices, fundamentalist vs. modernist, and more. I wonder what kind of mission it is that Jesus is calling the disciples into that makes it possible for that kind of tension to coexist? This isn’t to say that there is not more work to do in regards to how we talk to one another when we disagree. What seems fruitful, though, to borrow a phrase from Robert Jenson, is to consider a church that is “roomy” enough for a variety of people caught up in the beauty and splendor of the Triune God revealed in Jesus.
Roger L. Hahn, Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, Indiana: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007)
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part One: chapters 1-8 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2001)