6/14/2020 Second Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 9:35-10:8 [9-23].
35Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10:1Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. [9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
16“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”]
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Those Gospel verses that zero in on one rather obvious lesson are the easier ones to preach on. The direction is generally pretty well laid out for the sermon writer, the preacher. The wider-ranging ones, those that branch off in several directions, tend to make it more difficult to select a specific topic on which to focus. And there is a lot going on in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus visits several towns and villages and is received as a holy man, a prophet. He cures the sick and has compassion on the destitute, oppressed crowds. Jesus recognizes that if the Gospel, the “Good News’, were to be spread beyond the local area, that ‘harvest laborers’ would be needed; those who were hired to assist with gathering in the crops. With this in mind, Jesus gave authority to, and sent out his twelve disciples as ‘hired hands’ to go forth and expand upon Jesus’ teachings in the area surrounding Galilee. Then Matthew lists the names of the twelve for us. It’s no accident that Jesus initially calls, and sends out twelve disciples; this is reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel.
We read that they are to spread throughout the surrounding area, preaching the Gospel; but only to the Jewish people, the ‘chosen’; not yet to the Gentiles. Jesus tells the twelve to take nothing with them on their travels, depending instead on the hospitality of those they meet, preach to, and heal. They are to accept hospitality if they are greeted with it and bless it with their peace. If they are not welcomed, they are to ‘shake the dust off their feet’. This was the ancient Middle Eastern way of showing that one had no regard for their host; of turning their backs on those who do not accept and believe.
They are told to expect to be as sheep among wolves; persecuted and flogged because of the uncomfortable, disconcerting message they bring. But they are to be secure in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit will provide for them the manner in which they are to respond when confronted; they will know what to say in their defense when accused.
Jesus lays out for them what the cost of following him will be. Families will be at odds with one another, as some will embrace the Good News while others will reject it. The twelve are told they must flee persecution, not to protect themselves, but that they might be free to bring the Gospel to the next Jewish town. The message of the coming kingdom of God may be more readily embraced by those in the town they enter next, if not in the one from which they have fled.
It’s time to take a breath, no? As I said at the beginning some Sunday readings have quite a bit more going on than others. With all these potential focus points, I think we should zero in on just one, or we might be here until Monday. So, which one? Which piece of this sprawling story is to serve as the kernel for this morning’s conversation among us? I think I’m going to go with ‘dusty feet’.
In Christ’s time, when leaving Gentile cities, pious Jews often shook the dust from their feet to show their rejection of non-Jewish beliefs. Any dirt or sand that remained on their sandals was not to be brought back home. This was to signify that they were not bringing anything ‘unclean’ from those Gentile areas into their home towns, where traditional Judaic understanding of ritual ‘cleanliness’ and ‘uncleanliness’ was of vital importance. If the disciples shook the dust of a Jewish town from their feet, it was to show their estrangement from those Jews who were unwilling to embrace the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. The gesture was designed to show the people that they were making the wrong choice. Thus, these unwilling, unbelieving, unaccepting neighbors, these who were the disciples’ own people, were to be treated in the same way that non-believing Gentiles were. A rather harsh treatment of one’s own people, indeed!
All this leads to the assumption that while Jesus is sending the twelve out to preach the coming of God’s kingdom, he seems to have chosen a rather narrow audience. First, he tells them to avoid the people of Samaria.
Now, the Samaritans were first cousins of the people of Judah. In fact, well before Jesus’ time, Samaria was part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Strange then, that Jesus tells the disciples he sends out, to avoid bringing the Good News to the people of Samaria. Also, they are not to minister to the Gentiles, that is, any non-Jewish people. Jesus tells them they are to spread his message only to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’. And even further, if their neighbors, their fellow Judeans do not accept the message, they too are to be forsaken. ‘Shake the dust off your feet’, and leave the area of even otherwise devout Jews.
This intent to bring the message of the coming Kingdom of Heaven to the Israelites only, is repeated a little further along, in chapter 15 in Matthew. A Canaanite woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Where he earlier told the disciples to preach to, and heal only the ‘lost sheep of Israel’, Jesus now takes it a step further as he scolds; no he insults this foreign woman to her face; ‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’ he tells her. If shaking the dust off one’s feet was considered a strong snub, I submit to you that calling this woman and her ailing daughter ‘dogs’, is a repudiation of their very humanity. But it seems that Jesus’ humanness is the determining factor at play in this event, and perhaps even in those preceding ones. Lutheran theology states adamantly that Jesus the Christ is at once fully divine, and fully human. God and man, inseparable and coexistent. Consistent with his initial intention to save only the Israelites, Jesus, thus far in Matthew is adamant that his message of God’s kingdom is solely for them. In his humanity, he reduces the status of a foreign woman, and her sick daughter; outsiders, to that of a pair of mongrels.
Each time I read these verses later in Matthew 15, it pains me to think that the Son of God would stoop to this rather callous level. But then I am heartened by the knowledge that Jesus is, like us, intrinsically human. But just as we cringe at his rebuff of the Canaanite woman, we read her response to his refusal to restore her daughter; ‘yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’; and hearing this retort Jesus recognizes and reward her great faith, and instantly her daughter is healed. Jesus’ divinity comes to the fore.
In Matthew, quite a bit more happens subsequent to Jesus’ encounter with this Canaanite woman; the four thousand are fed, Jesus admonishes the disciples to allow the little children to come to him, he teaches huge crowds, and he tells many parables to teach the multitudes. And as we fast-forwarded to the final few verses in Matthew, after the Passion and the Resurrection; last Sunday we encountered Jesus and the remaining eleven disciples on a mountaintop, back home in Galilee. There he tells them; “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of”… (and here it comes), “all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
Jesus’ ultimate mandate, the commissioning of the original disciples, instructing them to bring the Gospel to all nations; that is, the entire world, seems a far cry from where we began this morning. In the short space of the three years or so of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the spread of the Gospel progresses from; ‘no Samaritans, no gentiles, no unbelieving Jews’, to now; ‘the whole world’. Now it seems that it’s no longer be necessary to shake the dust off the feet.
We might struggle to understand exactly what it was that led Jesus to this radical change of scope in his ministry. Perhaps he simply grew in his desire to spread his saving Gospel message, as he ventured further from Galilee and into the wider world. Maybe he simply came into contact with more and more Gentile people of great faith; the Canaanite woman; Cornelius, the centurion; the woman at the well; and the many others we encounter in the gospels.
Suffice it to say, the lesson we ought to take from this morning’s verses, is that we too are called to step outside our comfort zone, to venture beyond the local environment. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that any of us will bring the Gospel to ‘the whole world’, but we too are called to ‘feed, clothe, and be a place of shelter’ to all who are in need. Even to; no especially to, those who might be considered modern-day Samaritans, those with whom the Gospel should probably not be shared; you know, the unworthy. And we know who these unworthy people are, don’t we? The broken, the sinful, the hurting, the poor in spirit. Those who fail to keep the Commandments; those who sin.
The lost, those who are different, those who judge, who speak ill of others, who dismiss and have contempt for those they don’t understand. We are painfully aware of just who those people are. They’re us, aren’t they? We are modern-day Samaritans, just the type of unworthy people from whom Jesus initially thought to withhold the Good News of the kingdom of Heaven. And I daresay it’s a darn good thing that he changed his mind, expanded his ministry, and eventually decided to convey the Good News of God’s kingdom to those unworthy Samaritans, the centurion, the woman at the well; and eventually to the rest of the undeserving world…and through the ages, to us.
Perhaps, after all, it’s not about shaking the dust off one’s feet. Maybe it’s about getting our footwear dirty in the first place. Possibly it’s all about getting our sandals dusty, our sneakers grimy, our shoes grubby, and our boots muddy. And perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much about getting the grime off of our shoes. Perhaps, instead, we should be more concerned that the dust that drops off our feet should serve as a kind of trail marker, a signpost that points back to where we started; and more importantly, follows us where we are going. We ought to leave easy-to-follow footprints as a reminder to ourselves and others that we, in whatever manner, great or small, are making disciples, bringing the Good News to the world. This, in thankfulness that Jesus determined that the Samaritans after all should be the recipients of the Gospel. That we, although unworthy, are also inheritors of the Kingdom. Jesus‘ commandment to bring knowledge of the Kingdom of God to the world may have begun, but certainly didn’t end with, his original disciples. It’s now our vocation, our calling, to continue this work. Keeping the Good News of God in Christ Jesus within these walls, squirreling away the Gospel for our own selves, is paramount to keeping it from the Samaritans and the Gentiles. No, we are meant; rather we are commanded to go forth from our familiar place of community, our tiny sphere of security, our nuclear family; to beyond these walls, to wherever the need may be. To bring food, clothing, and shelter to this world’s Samaritans. And as we do so, let us stride forth boldly, allowing the mud, the dirt, and the dust to not be shaken from our feet, but to fall naturally as we tread the path Jesus has set before us. Let us leave footprints of grace, faith, and hope for the world to discover, and follow.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God; inspire, motivate, and propel us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Give us strength and a willingness to tie our shoelaces, slip on our sandals, or lace up our boots. Help us to look outward to those most in need of the Gospel message. Use us to spread the Good News of Christ Jesus. May we be those few laborers engaged in your Son’s plentiful harvest.
And we pray these things the name of Christ…Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.