At last! After the detours in Luke-Acts and John for the series of feasts around Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity, the lectionary finally brings us back to the Gospel according to Matthew for the First Sunday after Trinity in Year A! Whew! The reading set, Matt 9.35–10.8, is slightly odd, in that it bridges from one section of Matthew, chapters 8 and 9, where he collects together a series of actions and sayings of Jesus, and into his second collection of Jesus’ teaching (the second of five) in Matt 10, this time on mission.
(Matthew’s five collections of Jesus’ teaching are in chapters 5 to 7, on discipleship, chapter 10 on mission, chapter 13 on the kingdom, chapter 18 on life in the ekklesia, and chapters 24 to 25 on The End.)
The first half of our reading appears to act as a bridge from what has gone before—the description of Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching—into what follows, the commissioning by Jesus of the Twelve to ‘mission’. Chapters 8 and 9 include very compressed accounts of Jesus’ ministry in characteristic Matthean style; he tries to include many more episodes than Mark, and as a result gives very summary accounts, which are often loaded with theological ideas (such as ‘According to your faith let it be done to you’ (Matt 9.29) without any real explanation or expansion. So, on the one hand, the statement ‘And Jesus went through all the towns and villages…’ appears to summarise the previous two chapters, and the list of activities matches the previous stories; but on the other, the description of what he does there matches closely what he commissions the disciples to do, especially ‘healing every disease and sickness’ (Matt 9.35, 10.1). In other words, Matthew is telling us that the mission of the disciples is a continuation of the ministry of Jesus. Luke does this in a slightly different way—by linking the 72 with ‘every place he himself was about to go’ in Luke 10.1, and depicting the Acts of the Apostles as the continuation of Jesus ministry in Acts 1.1—but the message is the same.
(At the same time, there is clearly a unique dimension to Jesus’ ministry; it is only he who fulfils the anticipation of Is 53.4 as quoted earlier in this section at Matt 8.17.)
The links between Jesus’ ministry and the disciples’ mission continues with the mention of ‘sheep’ in Matt 9.36 and 10.6, and ‘workers’ in Matt 9.37 and 10.10. This is all part of what R T France describes as Matthew’s ‘body of Christ’ theology, coming close to Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ followers as representing his own presence in the world. It can be seen most clearly in the sequences of comment beginning ‘Whoever receives you receives me…’ in Matt 10.40–42, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where Jesus’ poor followers (‘the least of these brothers of mine’) are proxy for his own presence, so that response to them is response to him.
The ‘crowds’ are mentioned repeatedly in Matthew; large crowds follow him from the beginning of his ministry (Matt 4.25, 8.1); they are astounded at his teaching which they overhear (Matt 7.28); and they wonder at his acts of deliverance (Matt 9.33). Having been spectators to Jesus’ ministry, they now become the object of his concern.
The language of ‘sheep’ and ‘shepherds’ picks up a prominent theme in the Old Testament, and especially the key passage in Ezek 34.1–16. Here, the sheep of Israel have been failed by the shepherds who are their leaders and so God himself will become their shepherd. Jesus’ positioning of himself as their shepherd doesn’t necessarily have any Christological overtones, as it more likely does in John 10, since the ‘shepherding’ role is immediately delegated to the Twelve, and Paul follows this kind of pattern by describing leaders of the Jesus communities as ‘shepherds’ (Acts 20.28, 1 Cor 9.7, Eph 4.11 though contrast 1 Peter 5.2). Note that, contrary to popular preaching at Christmas, the image of the shepherd is not a negative one, and there is no evidence that shepherds were seen as social outcasts.
In immediately changing to a quite different metaphor, that of harvest, Matthew appears to be drawing together teaching of Jesus that is found in different contexts in Luke 9 and 10: in Luke 9.1, Jesus sends out the Twelve, with similar instructions to those listed here; whilst in Luke 10.2 he uses the metaphor of ‘harvest and workers’.
The image of ‘sending workers into the harvest’ suggests that this is a field of grain, which is significant given the OT origins of this metaphor. ‘Harvest’ is generally a sign of final judgement at the end, when there will be a reckoning for all, both Israel and the nations—but there are both positive and negative aspects to this. The positive aspect is the harvest of grain; Jesus talks about the fields being ‘white for harvest’ in John 4.35, as an indication of the possibility of those who will follow him, and in Matt 13.30, the wheat will be gathered into God’s barn at the end of time. So the ministry of Jesus, with his proclamation of the coming of the kingdom, brings this positive aspect of future judgement into the present.
But the negative aspect is represented by the biblical tradition of the grape harvest, where the grapes are trampled to make its ‘blood’ (juice) run out (see Joel 3.13 and Isaiah 63.3). Both these harvests are described in turn in Rev 14.14–20, but within the ministry of Jesus, the opportunity to respond to the future kingdom is presented now, whilst judgement is deferred—just one aspect of the ‘partially realised eschatology’ of Jesus’ teaching and the New Testament more generally.
It is rather striking that Jesus enjoins his disciples to ‘pray’ that God will send his workers into the harvest—and immediately, those disciples become the answer to their prayer! But we should also note that Jesus is emphatic: this is his harvest, so the mission and the work belongs to God in the first instance, and not to his people. It is not that the church of God has a mission, but that the mission of God has a church.
Although the Twelve are only named at this point in Matthew’s gospel, it is clear from the reference to ‘his twelve disciples’ that they are a group who have already been defined. Both Luke and Mark described their calling and list their names earlier in their narratives, separately from the description of this commissioning (Mark 6.6ff, Luke 9.1ff).
This is the only place where Matthew uses the word ‘apostle’, but it is highly appropriate here, since the term refers to an ambassador who is commissioned to take the message of the one commissioning to another party. To be ‘apostolic’ is both to bear the message of Jesus and to take it to those to whom Jesus sends us—it concerns both what is believed and is done with that belief. By contrast, Matthew uses the term ‘disciple’ quite flexibly, like Luke but in contrast to Mark for whom it is reserved for the Twelve; in Matt 8.21, the term appears to be used of both the person who is equivocating about Jesus’ call, and the previously mentioned ‘teacher of the law’ who also raises objections. This implies that what the Twelve do here is not a unique ministry confined to them, but has application to all who are disciples of Jesus.
The fact that the Twelve are all male can hardly bear the weight of claims that discipleship or leadership is only male; it is striking that little is made of the ministry of these individuals, and for a good number we never hear them mentioned again! The symbolism seems more clearly pointing to the renewal of Israel, not least because Matthew includes this list immediately before Jesus’ mention of the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ in Matt 10.6. It is an image of both continuity and discontinuity; this is change and renewal, but this comes from within Israel not without, and is led by 12 Jewish men after the pattern of the 12 patriarchs (who were, of course, male)—and Matthew’s ‘These are the names…’ (Matt 10.2) might even echo Moses’ choice of tribal leaders (‘These are the names…) in Num 1.4. Jesus makes it very clear in Matt 12.50 that disciples who ‘do the will of my Father’ includes both male and female, as his new ‘brother, sister, mother’ (note, two female terms and one male term).
Matthew’s listing of the Twelve differs slightly from the presentation of the lists in Mark and Luke. Simon, later called ‘Peter’ by Jesus, is specifically identified as ‘first’, indicating his later prominence and leadership; Judas Iscariot is, of course, named last. There is no grouping of Peter, James and John as the leading three, as indicated elsewhere in the narrative; instead, all the Twelve are grouped in pairs, hinting at Jesus’ pattern of sending them out in pairs that is made explicit in Mark 6.6 and Luke 10.1.
In Matthew 10.5–6 the ministry of Jesus and his followers appear to be defined in exclusive terms only to the true Israel. But Matthew has already made it clear that this is but the first stage of Jesus’ mission. This seems rather surprising, in the light of both what has already happened in the narrative, and what is to come later; the late Michael Goulder described it as ‘a famous conundrum, a citadel of contradiction’ (cited in France, NICNT, p 381). But France points out:
[T]he wider unfolding of Matthew’s story…has seen Jesus already welcomed by non-israelite magi (Matt 2.1–12), located in fulfilment of scripture in ‘Galilee of the nations’ (Matt 4.15), celebrated not only in Jewish areas but in ‘all Syria’ and Decapolis (Matt 4.24–25), responding to the plea of a Roman soldier (8.5–13) and delivering a Gentile demoniac on the other (non-Jewish) side of the lake (8.28–34), whilst Jesus’ own comments in response to the faith of the centurion (Matt 8.10–12) have pointed decisively away from any idea of an exclusively Jewish presence in the kingdom of heaven (p 381).
So what is going on here? This appears to indicate the primacy of Israel as the first place for proclamation of Jesus as messiah who brings the kingdom—but set within the wider narrative of Matthew, it is clear that this good news cannot be contained within Israel alone. In that sense, Matthew is preserving historical reality; Jesus was recognised amongst Jewish followers first, and only later did he become saviour for Gentiles as well, as Luke carefully delineates.
The last section of our lectionary reading for this week covers just the beginning of Jesus’ teaching about mission (a later part is picked up in next week’s reading). Matthew blends Jesus’ teaching on this specific occasion, to the Twelve, with wider and more general teaching to all his followers as the chapter continues, making connections with later teaching in chapter 24. But even this short section is as challenging as it is radical: in contrast to almost every practice of Christian mission in the last couple of centuries, the disciples are to go with no resources other than the news and power of the kingdom. In fact, Jesus depicts this as a kind of mutual exchange: the disciples offer the news and deliverance of the kingdom, and in return, those they go to offer them food and lodging.
Although made explicit only in Matthew’s account, the principle of ‘Freely you have received; freely give’ underlies Christian ministry all through the NT. It was once song as a rather twee chorus in the 1970s—but the reality of this as a practice of mission and ministry more generally is anything but ‘twee’!
From all this, we might then observe from Matthew’s account, that the task of mission:
a. is a continuation of the ministry of Jesus;
b. is part of what it means to be a disciple or follower of Jesus;
c. has eschatological significance, in that it is inviting people into the reality of the future kingdom ahead of future judgement;
d. is challenging, in that it is about powerlessness as much as it is about power, and involves stepping into a place of extreme vulnerability in several ways;
e. is a shared, corporate activity, rather than something undertaken by us as individuals.
There is much here that continues to challenge common assumptions about mission as individual, specialist, and optional!
For a discussion of these issues with James and Ian, watch this video: