First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 4

William Loader

Pentecost 4: 2 July Matthew 10:40-42

This is a very short gospel passage but plays a key role in relation to the chapter. In fact 10:40 is a major theological statement. 'The person receiving (or welcoming) you receives me and the person receiving me receives the one who sent me.' It recalls the instructions at the beginning of the chapter which sent the disciples out. 'Sent ones', envoys, in a non technical sense: 'apostles' (which means: 'sent ones') were of enormous importance in the ancient world in all cultures. Jews identified such a figure as a 'shaliach' (which also means 'sent one') and one tradition speaks of a man's shaliach being like the man, himself.

It is difficult for us to grasp the importance of envoys because we have telecommunication systems which enable immediate contact. They used letters - but not a postal system! Therefore they were dependent on travelling representatives who had to be authorised to act for their senders. They might carry letters from their senders, but they had to be able to represent the interests of the ones they served. This was a major factor in ancient civilisation. You needed authorised envoys, representatives. The envoy model had already been employed to explain the role of prophets. They were God's messengers. Interestingly the words for 'angels', in both Greek and Hebrew, come from this background; they are sent ones, people who are to announce (we see the root in the word for gospel: euangelion). Jesus is God's envoy. The commissioned disciples are Jesus' envoys. There is a line of authority here. It fits Matthew's understanding of ministry so well; we all share the same commission: Jesus and disciples.

In Q Jesus speaks of himself and his followers as envoys of God's wisdom (sophia) (Luke 11:49; Matt 11:16-19, as we shall see next week). In Paul's circles we see this being applied not just to Jesus' ministry, but to his life as a whole: he is God's Son whom God sent into the world (Gal 4:3; Rom 8:3). In the tradition of John's gospel this became so central that Jesus regularly refers to God as 'The one who sent me' and sending here refers to sending from the heavenly realm to become flesh and dwell among us. The envoy represents the sender, so that to respond to Jesus is to respond to God. In terms of an encounter he is effectively God, God's Word, although John never forgets that he is also separate from God and subordinate to God, carrying out the Father's will.

Do we extend the same sense of authority to the ones Jesus sent? That is certainly the logic of this verse and of this way of thinking. It can also lead us into our own home grown heresy when we forget that we are envoys and begin to think we are God. It is also the kind of model which invested the church's ministry with enormous prestige. It distorts our understanding of our ministry and the ministry of Jesus when we fail to see the lines of authority. This danger is one of the weaknesses of the envoy model. Your response to me is your response to God - who dares claim this? But wait...

10:41 sounds similar to 10:40, except that it specifies 'prophets' and 'righteous' (maybe a technical term in Matthew for a form of leadership?). In 23:34 Jesus speaks of sending 'prophets and sages and scribes'. 10:41 shifts the emphasis to receiving the reward of a prophet. It is a significant shift in focus and addresses a problem which doubtless many of Matthew's hearers would have felt and many face today. What if I am not an apostle or a prophet or out there in the front line? What if all my responsibilities which are important to me mean I simply cannot fulfil them and be carrying official church roles as well? At one level Matthew is saying: welcoming and supporting such people warrants the same reward.

Something is happening here which definitely undercuts a sense of hierarchy. Ordinary people get the same reward as the high flyers or the necessarily public functionaries, the envoys. Matthew uses the language of reward not to incite our consumer imagination, but to evoke an image of God's favour. Matthew wants us to believe that it is just as rewarding to be on the supporting side of these ministries as to be exercising them. We don't have to feel we have to do everything ourselves! Paul would say, it is OK to be part of the body; you don't have to be a foot if you are a hand.

10:42 takes us one step further. It speaks of 'little ones'. This appears to be a term with which members of the community described themselves. Caring within the community is also ministry. This trio of verses sets side by side: welcoming Christ, supporting ministry, and caring for one another. In the final speech of Jesus' ministry in Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, which takes this to its widest conclusion 25:31-46). Your caring for people in need (and probably in that context not only those in your church community) stands on the same level as your response to Christ. Back to our question above: Your response to me is your response to God - who dares claim this? Here it finds a radical answer.

Many people could feel disenfranchised by all this talk about apostles and ministry in Matthew 10 until we reach these final verses. Here in these verses is an opportunity to address that feeling and affirm mutual ownership of the gift given to all of us to own and to exercise: allowing ourselves to be involved in God's life in the world. And what could be more natural than that and more inclusive!

Epistle: Pentecost 4: 2 July Romans 6:12-23