First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 2

William Loader

Pentecost 2: 14 June Matthew 9:35 - 10:8 (9-23)

The reading (in its shorter or longer form) is part of the second major speech in Matthew (9:36 - 10:42). It comes immediately after the collection of Jesus' words and deeds which Matthew has assembled in chapters 5-7 and 8-9 respectively. We are still dealing with Matthew's creativity in composition. In the collection of deeds (8-9) he has included stories from Mark 5 as well as half the material from Mark 2. He will return to the rest of Mark 2:23-28 and 3:1-6, the controversies about the sabbath, in chapter 12. They fit so well after he portrays Jesus as the interpreter and teacher of the Law (11:28-30). The next segment of Mark (3:7-13) he had already used to complete chapter 4 and introduce the sermon on the mount - that is where the 'mount' came from. He is about to use Mark's account of the naming of the twelve (from Mark 3:14-19). He will re-use Mark 3:7-12 at the end of Matthew 12 and continue with the rest of Mark 3 and with Mark 4 in chapters 12 and 13.

In the present passage he brings together the naming of the disciples from Mark 3:14-19 with the sending out of the 12 which does not appear in Mark until 6:7-13. Everything follows Mark's order once we reach half way through Matthew 12 with the exception of those passages from Mark which Matthew had used earlier; but up to that point Matthew has worked hard on producing a distinctive retelling of the story of Jesus.

When we turn to the passage for today, we find first of all the summary of Jesus' activity in 9:35 which matches 4:23 and which the intervening material has illustrated. Then comes the note about Jesus' compassion for the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd (9:36). This was a common image for Israel in the Old Testament (eg. Numbers 27:17); 2 Chron 18:6). Matthew had found this statement in Mark's account of the feeding of the 5000 in 6:34. There Mark was using it to emphasise that in the feeding of the 5000 Israel was being fed as in the feeding of the 4000 Gentiles were being fed. Matthew turns away from such symbolism; for him both feedings are of Israel. So he can freely relocate this statement about Jesus' compassion for Israel. Its importance can hardly be over emphasised. It displays the attitude which informed all that had just been illustrated and summarised in chapters 5-9 and which would inform what he was about to do.

He is about to send labourers into the harvest (9:37-38). These verses almost sound proverbial, when they enjoin people to ask the owner to send in the harvesters, because Jesus, himself, is about to do precisely this without being asked. Matthew doubtless has in mind that this is a prayer which needs to be constantly on the lips of the faithful in every age.

Here it forms the backdrop for Jesus' action. 10:1 tells us that Jesus authorised the 12 to do what he himself had done. His ministry is their job description. The summary of 9:35 is very close to the task set the disciples in 10:1. The rest of their commission will fill in the missing items (see 10:7-8). Their mission is set within the context of Christ's compassion. They are being authorised with what kind of authority? The authority to love! It included involvement in liberating people from the powers which oppressed them, whether physical or spiritual: 'He gave them authority to cast out demons and to heal all sickness and all disease.' In 12:28 Jesus will declare: 'If I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.'

How is your ministry of exorcism and healing going? These days we mostly shy away from such commissions; they are, at most, imitated in fringe groups. But if we ignore them, we are ignoring something central to the task of ministry. The good news was that Christ's authority can make that kind of difference. We need to live with the modern discomfort which such passages bring - until we can find our way back into them and get in touch with what powers are alive today. We will then find we touch the chaos of the individual soul and of the community in new ways.

The instruction, forbidding the twelve to enter Gentile and Samaritan territory (10:5-6), reflects an understanding of Christ's mission as directed only to Israel. It probably reflects Jesus' own understanding of his mission. Matthew makes this explicit by having Jesus claim that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (15:24), a sentiment echoed in Luke's tradition about Jesus' response to Zacchaeus ('For he, too, is a son of Abraham' 19:9). Jesus may have expected the final gathering in of the Gentiles as part of the miracle of the end time to be undertaken by God and some sections of the early church may well have persisted in this belief and been reluctant to engage in mission to Gentiles. Certainly this is no longer so in Matthew's community, although it is likely that such a community preserved these words of Jesus or attributed them to him. In Matthew they are fitted into a pattern according to which Jesus' mission was, indeed, only to Israel, and that the shift to the wider world occurred only at the great commission. He certainly revises or relocates all Markan traditions which suggested ministry among Gentiles prior to this.

They are to go and do what Jesus had been doing. That is the import on 10:7-8. Matthew 28:19 implies that this command is also passed on to all successive disciples - including us.

The optional verses, 10:9-23, draw together diverse traditions. First there is the weaving together of Mark's version of how the apostles are to be equipped and how they are to behave, with the Q version, now preserved in Luke 10. Luke's solution was to use both Mark's account and Q's account in successive chapters for the two groups, the 12 and the 70 (Luke 9 and 10). Matthew has combined them into one and prefers the stricter Q version where there are differences. Matthew has also used part of Mark 13 which speaks about persecution and has inserted it here, where it certainly fits well. The result of dropping these additional verses and opting for the shorter reading is that the theme of persecution and suffering is left aside - for now. One cannot deal with everything - as long as it is not forgotten! Including 10:20 in the shorter reading is a rather daring stroke which removes it from its context of persecution and applies it to mission generally - a manipulation of the passage, but not stating an untruth.

The passage reflects the changing patterns of discipleship and ministry. We begin with Jesus' ministry. We see that he commissioned others and sent them out to minister as he did (probably reflecting early post Easter practice). These were set apart within the wider body of those who affirmed his message, most of whom lived out their discipleship where they were. Acts still reflects the commission that the apostles go out in pairs (eg. Paul and Barnabas; Peter and John), but Matthew has dropped this element, preserved in Mark, perhaps because it no longer applies. By Matthew's time such commissioned apostles have died and their equivalents are rare; perhaps wandering prophets and travelling preachers whose behaviour brought many into disrepute (and brought Paul unjustly into disrepute). The authority passed from the travelling apostle to the local leaders and on pragmatic grounds to whatever structures of authority developed locally. This resulted in a very complex situation which entailed dealing with local charismatic authority, rulers of hosting households (mainly men), and appointees from outside. In Matthew's setting the authority seems to be borne primarily by the congregation in council, exercising the authority given Peter as the representative leader.

Mission and strategies and structures of ministry interact. These complex realities forbid our naively deriving our present patterns of ministry and ministerial oversight directly from those times. Our social realities are vastly different. Yet the task of mission remains to take up the authority to care and to do as Jesus did in ways that make sense in today's setting. That means ministry of which it can be said that through this work of the Spirit powers are cast out and the kingdom comes into reality.

Epistle: Pentecost 2: 14 June  Romans 5:1-8