Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 18, 2017

Matthew 9:35-10:8 Commentary

Be careful what you pray for—you might just get it!  You can see a little of the dynamic of this bit of proverbial wisdom in the pivot from Matthew 9 to Matthew 10.  At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus tells the disciples to pray that more workers would be sent out into the ripe harvest fields he saw all around him.  If we assume that the disciples took their master’s urging seriously and did indeed pray for more workers, they soon discovered that God answered their prayers by sending out the disciples themselves!  No sooner do we turn the corner into Matthew 10 and immediately the disciples are sent out into those harvest fields to do ministry in Jesus’ name.  Their prayers were answered and the answer was them!

In many ways Matthew 10 is a remarkable chapter but also a strange one.  The Common Lectionary has recognized the richness of Matthew 10 by dividing the bulk of its verses up among no fewer than three different Sundays in the Year A cycle.  Here we get just the first 8 verses, most of which are devoted to a listing of the disciples and then to the broadest commands Jesus gives them for their new mission (viz., to go to the lost sheep of Israel only for the time being and to do a ministry of preaching, healing, and exorcism).

But stepping back a bit, we can wonder about something we don’t often ponder, which is why and how it can be the case that Jesus authorizes such a powerful ministry for disciples who were clearly—at least as of that moment—completely clueless as to the meaning and shape of Jesus’ wider mission.  It’s like authorizing some high school students to go out and start building skyscrapers even though they really do not yet understand the basics of engineering and the mathematics that (literally) undergird technical marvels like the Empire State Building.

In the gospels, the disciples remain clueless about the fundamental things of Jesus.  Indeed, if Luke’s account is to be believed, most of their misunderstandings as to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom persist all the way until Pentecost.  Remember Acts 1 and the moments right before Jesus’ ascension into heaven when—even at that late date some forty days after the resurrection—the disciples ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  A question like that does not get asked by people who understand the kingdom.

And yet even so in Matthew 10 Jesus tells these people to go declare “The kingdom of heaven is near.”  But can you preach that message and not understand the kingdom?  And lest we think that all these instructions were meant to go into effect only after Pentecost, remember that Jesus’ restriction to stick with the Jews locates this ministry and this proclamation as taking place prior to the Great Commission (when Jesus will open up gospel ministry and proclamation to all people from all nations).

So in essence what Jesus does in Matthew 10 is to tell disciples who really do not grasp the full richness of Jesus’ kingdom to go proclaim that same kingdom’s nearness.  And since in the ears of many Jewish persons a proclamation of the kingdom would sound like a political message—and since the disciples were perhaps not in a position to clarify the spiritual nature of Jesus’ kingdom in that they shared this perception at this time—it’s fair to wonder just what Jesus was doing sending out these disciples with the core of his message!

Perhaps here is a good chance to reflect on some of Thomas G. Long’s observations on the shape of Matthew’s gospel.  First, we need to remember that although the disciples in Matthew obviously still do not have everything figured out, neither are they presented as being clueless and repeatedly in the dark the way they get presented in, say, Mark’s gospel.  As an illustration of this, Long reminds us of the parallel incidents in Mark 8 and Matthew 16.  The story is the same: the disciples and Jesus head out in the boat but the disciples forgot to bring lunch along.  So when Jesus says “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,” the disciples all get a little white around the gills and say, “Oh dear, he’s mad that we forgot to pack lunch!”  But in Mark, even after Jesus tries to explain what he had really been getting at, the bottom line of the story is Jesus, with brow furrowed, plaintively looking at his bewildered disciples and asking, “Do you still not understand?”  Apparently they did not.  But not in Matthew.  Matthew assures us that after Jesus explained what he had been getting at, “then they understood.”

The disciples “get” more in Matthew and so in this particular gospel, it may appear a bit less risky to send them out with the message of the kingdom on their tongues.

But Long also reminds us that in Matthew there is great urgency to getting the kingdom message across.  Indeed, there is so much urgency that it’s worth the risk of sending out even less-than-fully-informed disciples to start beating the bushes and getting the message out there.  As Long says, for Matthew the circle of light is small—there is in Matthew great fear that people will fall out of the light and into the darkness.  And so even messages of judgment and stern exhortation are seen by Matthew as finally loving, not unloving.  Judgment exists to help people, not hinder them; judgment is for the people, not against them.

So the urgency of the situation—and Jesus’ sorrowful sense of how lost people were without the guidance of God, their great shepherd—is what propels the disciples out into ministry even before they are as fully informed as they might otherwise have been.

Today in the church we often lack either this sense of how bad off people are or, therefore, the sense of urgency Matthew felt.  Perhaps this is part of why Matthew 10 seems strange to us.  Not only are we not familiar with activities like driving out demons and healing diseases right on the spot, we’re also not all that familiar with the fire-in-the-belly sense of mission Jesus experienced even among his own people (the “lost sheep of Israel”).  To preach on Matthew 10 requires not just the usual cultural translation to bridge the gulf of history from then to now but also a little bit of wondering about our ecclesiastical situation today and what we might do—even in an age of tolerance when overt missions and proselytizing is frowned on by the culture and sometimes even many in the church—to recover something of Jesus’ sense that this is work that simply needs to be done.

“The kingdom of heaven is near.”  What can we do also this day to invite others into that kingdom with all the urgent—but loving—intensity that invitation deserves?

Questions to Consider / Issues to Address

In a cartoon I once saw there were two somewhat rough-looking characters emerging from a church after a worship service. As they walk down the church steps, the one man is saying to the other, “Well, the news wasn’t all bad–at least I ain’t made no graven images lately!”  Among other things, this little cartoon may remind us that in church and in our preaching, we can be rather casual in tossing around language that people mostly don’t encounter the rest of the week.  If the gospel is true, however, then any apparent gap between what we talk about in church and what goes on the rest of the week must be only apparent and so not a real gap.  That is to say, if there is simply no such thing as “graven images” in life, then talking about such an unreal thing in church ushers us into the realm of fantasy, of a fictional world that has no true connection to the actual world.

So also in Matthew 9 and 10: Jesus is going around announcing the kingdom of God and authorizing his disciples to do the same.  He also casts out demons left and right, healed all manner of diseases (indeed, Matthew 9 tells us that Jesus healed ALL the diseases he encountered) and again tells the disciples to start doing the same.  Yet this can sound so foreign to our world and even to us in the church.

All of these works are the result of the kingdom’s approach.  But just what does even that mean?  Usually we are far too casual about this idea of God’s kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” we solemnly say each time we intone the Lord’s Prayer, but when we finish our prayer and open our eyes, we do not see any such kingdom.  It is difficult for us to conceive of a kingdom that is not also a definable place on the map–a realm with borders and with visible signs that this particular place is different from all other places.

Most of us know what such markers might be like.  Cross the border into Canada and immediately lots of things look different: highway signs, street signs, traffic lights.  Everything is in kilometers, some traffic lights have something called a “Delayed Green.” The lines painted on the roads may be a different color.  In England the entire flow of traffic is reversed, which is why some of us very nearly got hit when crossing some London street because we instinctively looked the wrong way to see if any cars were coming.

A kingdom or country or nation or realm would rather be like that, we think.  Kingdoms are defined by their different customs, signage, currency, and habits.  So it is perhaps no surprise that when even Christians pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, they quietly assume that this is something that will happen only, or at least mostly, in the future.  When God’s kingdom comes, we’ll all know it because living inside the borders of that kingdom will be just as obvious as being in a different country even today.  But although we do believe in the reality of the New Creation that is yet to come, it is nevertheless wrong to relegate God’s kingdom to any other place, dimension, or time than this place, this time.

As Dallas Willard has written, the kingdom is real and it is real now.  Because a kingdom is that realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens.  In a sense, we all have our own little kingdoms in life–those places where what we want happens.  If we say it, it goes.  Maybe this is in our households, maybe it happens at work in the department of which you are the manager.  But wherever a person can say, “Well, that’s the way I want it and so that’s the way it is going to be,” then that is in a real sense a kingdom, a place where your influence rules and makes stuff happen.

That’s why the kingdom of God is real and that’s why we can see it, right now today.  The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray.  The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the fruit of the Spirit.  The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.

The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus.  Whenever and wherever a woman says no to abortion, whenever and wherever a college student refuses to participate in some binge-drinking party, whenever and wherever someone refuses to cut corners on his taxes, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.

The message we have to proclaim and to embody and to exemplify is the same now as it has always been: the kingdom of God is at hand.  Today as much as ever, people need to know that this kingdom is real and available.  They need to see the joy and the possibilities of that kingdom in us.  Because often people are too easily satisfied just to make do with what is quick and easy and cheap.  People settle for sex or liquor or a rock band or the distractions provided by entertainment.  They look to these things to save them, or at least to help them move forward in a grim world.  But, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, we are far too easily satisfied.  We’re like a child who turns down an invitation for a day at the beach and chooses instead to stay sitting in a slum alley making mud pies just because the child really can’t imagine how much better a day at the shore can be. “What could be better than making these slimy mud pies?” the child might think.  Ah, if only he knew!

Textual Notes

In Matthew 10:8 the NIV translates Jesus’ words as “Freely you have received, freely give.”  Other translations like the NRSV say, “You received without payment, give without payment.”  Both translations are dancing in the right neighborhood linguistically and theologically but both miss the real punch of the original Greek.  In the Greek Jesus utters just 4 words here: “DOREAN ELABETE, DOREAN DOTE.”  But the word DOREAN there is the accusative of the word DOREA, which means “gift” and when used in the accusative like this, it is emblematic of something that comes gratis, as a gift.  It carries with it the idea of being totally undeserved (and hence unexpected) and can even trickle over into meaning something like “unreasonable” as when Jesus says in John 15:25 “They hated me without reason” (in the Greek, EMIMESAN ME DOREAN).  In other words, this is a word that traffics in the area of divine grace, of that wild—almost irrational and incredibly lavish— and prodigal gift of God that always comes to us from out of a clear blue sky as the greatest gift ever given or received.  That is what the disciples are supposed to pursue in their ministry: they are to embody and proclaim and proffer the same divine grace that they received from Jesus.

Illustration Idea

Dallas Willard writes that when he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside.  But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrubboards, ice chests, and rug beaters.  A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines.  “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!”  But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house. “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.”

Maybe the kingdom is like that: it’s here, it’s real, it’s right outside your door.  The kingdom of God is at hand!  Don’t be so easily satisfied with the temporary pleasures of sex and money, power and food, cable TV and the wonders of technology.  A better, exciting, hopeful, joyful kingdom of life is real.  We need to be in the business of driving away the demons of doubt, despair, cynicism, arrogance, and anything else that hinders people from believing our message and so entering Jesus’ kingdom.  The kind of unclean spirits Jesus so routinely encountered have not gone off duty, my friends.  Just look around.  It is because they remain so real and powerful that we must proclaim and also live under the rule of God right now.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  We live knowing that this is true! We live to help others believe it, too.


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