Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 2, 2017
Matthew 10:40-42 Commentary
“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.”
That is the famous closing line spoken by the character Blanche DuBois in the play A Streetcar Named Desire. In Matthew 10 Jesus basically tells the disciples that they, too, must rely on the kindness of strangers when they go out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Jesus even went so far as to tell them earlier in this chapter that they were to set out on their first mission trip essentially under-packed. Today we would never send our youth group out on a service project without money, luggage, and extra clothing—many of us parents are familiar with the long packing lists youth group leaders send out ahead of a service trip–yet that’s basically the marching orders Jesus issues. And when those service trip vans pull out of the church parking lot, they are LOADED!
By advising the near opposite, Jesus put the disciples at the mercy of the hosts they would encounter along the way. If their message was worth hearing (and if the disciples presented that message with all the loving urgency it warranted), then people would take them in. As this chapter concludes, this theme crops back up through the now-famous image of someone handing out a cup of cold water to a disciple.
In some ways this is surprising. We tend to think that the reception of the gospel is such a spiritual matter. If someone “comes to Jesus” because of the preaching of an evangelist at a revival meeting, we expect the result of this conversion to be new patterns of thought, a new sense of morality, a new inward devotion to God. And indeed, those traits ought to be in evidence among the converted. But we don’t often imagine that the first result of someone’s new life in Christ would be inviting the evangelist over for supper!
But perhaps part of the reason we don’t think along those lines is because we tend to separate the message from the messenger in a way Jesus does not do. Throughout this chapter, and certainly in the concluding three verses, there is a snug fit between the person who talks about Jesus and Jesus himself. “He who receives you receives me,” Jesus says. He doesn’t say, “If they believe the words you speak, then my Spirit will move into their hearts.” No, he says that if people find cause to love the disciples enough as to welcome them into their homes, then Jesus himself will be present in all his fullness.
The reason “the kindness of strangers” receives such a high profile in Matthew 10 is because Jesus is not talking about a message to be heard but about the reception of a person, namely himself as he dwells inside the disciples. Among other things in this passage, there is a curious verbal triple play in the last couple of verses. In the history of the church, commentators have spent a lot of time wondering why Jesus mentions the reception of a prophet, a righteous person, and “little ones.” Do these three groups stand for certain people in the church? Some have wondered if maybe “prophets” were to be identified with the apostles, “righteous persons” with the clergy, and the “little ones” with lay people.
But that’s not the point, and if you think it is, you will probably miss the real scandal of this text. It’s not so important to decode just who Jesus may (or may not) have had in mind in listing those three groups. The main thing to see is that whatever group you happen to be in, the message is the same: people are to identify you with Jesus and Jesus with you!
This isn’t the only place in the New Testament where this personal connection to Jesus becomes evident. Recall, for example, a most startling such instance when the apostle Paul said that when a man sleeps with a prostitute, he drags Jesus into bed along with him. In a bold image, Paul suggests that a Christian man’s relations with a prostitute forced Christ to be there in that way, too, making Jesus “one flesh” with some streetwalker. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that warning goes a wee bit further than that song some of us learned to sing as children: “O be careful little hands what you do, for the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little hands what you do.” To Paul’s mind (and, in Matthew 10, to Jesus’ mind, too), the image of a Father “looking down” from some point “up above” is too remote a way of viewing things. Apparently, our link with Jesus is vastly tighter.
That is a thought at once glorious and daunting. Jesus once said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Who among us is brave enough to say, “If you receive me, you receive Jesus.” If anything, many of us have been taught to see Jesus as the goal to which we aspire (but which we will never attain in this life). So we mostly focus on the disparity, the gap, between who Jesus is and who we are.
We’d rather present the gospel as something outside of ourselves instead of suggesting that people need to meet Jesus through us. We’ve all heard the old phrase, “Please don’t shoot the messenger!” Just because I need to be the one who tells you the news that your son just flunked out of college, please don’t blame me! I’m only the bearer of the news, not the cause of it. But sometimes we seem to put some daylight between the gospel and ourselves, too: the shape of my life may or may not look a lot like Jesus but at least you can hear the message. Don’t let me get in the way! Don’t look at me as a role model or example!
Matthew 10 says it doesn’t work that way. There needs to be a radical consistency between the Jesus you proclaim and yourself. And perhaps these days it is well that we recall this. Christians who are offensive in the loud, mean-spirited, in-your-face way by which some have tried to fight culture wars in recent decades have not served the cause of Jesus very well. Who wants to believe the gospel’s content if the ones proclaiming that gospel are the very folks many people most want to avoid in life?! If Jeremy is such an uncouth, ungrateful, loud-mouthed fellow that no one would even want to have him over for dinner, then what difference does it make if Jeremy can reel off the Beatitudes from memory? Few people will ever be willing to receive Jesus’ presence into their lives if they are not willing to receive those who represent that same Jesus.
New Testament scholar Dr. David Holwerda has pointed out that underlying Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 is the core of God’s original covenantal promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 when God told the patriarch of our faith, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you, I will curse; all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Something of this fundamental covenant dynamic is on display here as Jesus assures the disciples that blessing and curse attend the reception of the disciples and the message/Christ they bring to all peoples. Indeed, there are other Old Testament stories (particularly the ones involving Elijah and Elisha) that display the coming of blessings to those who received God’s prophets well. In this sense, we can see a link here to the Old Testament lection for this Sunday after Pentecost in the Genesis 22 story. For more on Dr. Holwerda’s observations, see “The Lectionary Commentary: The Third Readings: The Gospels” Eerdmans, 2001).
On the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation there is a nightmare alien species known as The Borg. The Borg capture individual people of all races and backgrounds but then essentially wipes out their individual personalities, cultures, distinctive features. Through a kind of brainwashing, each person becomes just like every other person, assimilated into the Borg Collective. Every single Borg looks alike, talks alike, thinks alike. If you meet one, you quite literally have met them all for they are all one. A Borg never uses the 1st person singular pronoun “I.” Every sentence instead begins with “We . . .”
But baptism doesn’t have that effect on believers. Becoming a Christian does not make you less of an individual. We may lose our lives for Christ’s sake, but Jesus also promises in Matthew 10 that once you so lose your life, you get it right back again. You are still you after baptism.
So how can each of us be the unique individuals God made us to be and each also be Jesus? If you had 100 people in a room and then told them, “I want each one of you to imitate and be just like Jimmy Carter,” what would happen? Well, you’d likely see 100 people who started to speak with a soft Southern accent like Mr. Carter, who worked on smiling broadly and who would start to say things like, “Rosalyn and I would like to thank you for supporting Habitat for Humanity.” If all 100 would-be-Carters did a good job, you would expect a certain uniformity and sameness among them.
So what about imitating and being just like Jesus? Why doesn’t this result in an entire Christian community worldwide in which individual personalities are over-written in favor of a certain sameness? The answer has to do with the Holy Spirit. The answer has to do with what can be described only as a true miracle of grace. We are all different. God made us that way. Even so-called “identical” twins are not really identical. God loves variety, as Genesis 1-2 make so abundantly clear. The human face alone is one of the most amazing features to creation of which we know: each face has the same basic set of components, the same basic shape, the same basic make-up. And yet there appears to be an infinite variety of faces–like snowflakes, no two faces are ever truly alike. What’s more, the personalities behind such faces are likewise highly varied.
God is not interested in over-riding the uniqueness he himself created! But by a miracle of grace God is able to place his same Holy Spirit into each one of us. Somehow or another, over and above and even through our marvelous individual variations, God is able to make every last one of us like a window on the one and same Lord Jesus Christ.
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