Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 18, 2023
Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23) Commentary
Packed into this passage is a description of not only the calling we have as Jesus’s disciples to be people who proclaim the good news through our actions, it also gives us a real-time picture of how Jesus feels for us. We don’t have nearly as many live-action emotive moments from the Christ in the gospels as we do stories that share the heart and affection of God for his people—but when we do, they really pop a wallop.
Matthew tells us that Jesus was going around to all the cities and villages, spending his time proclaiming the good news and doing the good news by curing diseases and sicknesses—a God of word and deed. Then, in verse 36 we’re told that Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion for the people because they were a weary lot from being thrown around (translated as “harassed and helpless”); Jesus has compassion on them because they remind him of sheep who need a shepherd to protect and care for them—especially in their vulnerable state.
This harvest of need, it seems to me at least, wasn’t cultivated in a positive manner. There are plenty of hurting people in the world in need of someone to care for them. And yet, the workers, the people willing to be moved by the kind of compassion that Jesus felt as he looked out at the crowd, are all too few. The people willing to commit themselves to doing Kingdom good and to harvest for the Lord of heaven are few.
Being moved by compassion, showing his commitment to roll up his sleeves and be about the work of the Kingdom, Jesus tells the disciples to pray for the situation and then makes the disciples the answer to their prayer.
What are we to make of the specificity of both the actions performed and the list of disciples named in verses 1-4 of chapter 10? For one thing, the tasks set before the disciples are the ones that Jesus was modelling for them when he was driven by compassion to increase the number of workers in the field. He calls them to harvest as one with proven authority, and as their rabbi who is teaching them what to do and how to be. It is in this moment that we learn the pivotal lesson that true disciples of Jesus Christ become apostles by God’s authority. Discipleship is a constant that includes becoming a proclaimer, through word and action, of God’s good news and Kingdom good.
And so Matthew reminds us of who these first disciples were by name. Ordinary men who decided to follow after Jesus and are now being called to do more than they could have imagined when they did so. Every single one of them will prove themselves a failure, one will even go so far as to betray Jesus. But to every single one of them, Jesus gives the power and ability to do good for their fellow human being, to relieve someone else’s suffering, to be a source of hope and well-being in someone else’s life.
This is not a job that disciples of Jesus can just pass off to someone else. They have been called by name (10.1-4). True disciples of Jesus will find themselves becoming apostles of God’s good news. The question we must ask ourselves, if the need for compassion and cures is still plentiful, how is our discipleship expressing our authority as Christ’s apostles?
We are called with the same sort of specificity as the first disciples. And, at times, we might even be called to time-specific specificity. That’s the best way I make sense of the added “target audience” that Jesus gives the first disciples in verses 5-6. We know from the larger canon of Scripture, including the gospel texts themselves, that the good news of Jesus Christ is not just for the people of Israel, but this is where Jesus is asking his disciples to focus their attention on this missionary journey. Was it because the crowd Jesus was feeling his compassion for were those long ignored by their fellow Israelites? Was it because Jesus wanted the chosen people of God to see that their shepherd was in their midst?
There will be other missionary journeys that will enfold the Gentiles into the Kingdom and will enlist them as apostles of God’s good news, but in this particular moment and place, God is inviting his people—and equipping them—for a specific set of tasks and a specific set of people to bless. It is a good reminder to us that the general call to be people of blessing will, at times, have a very specific component to it.
We cannot rely on or believe that these callings are only for other people to do: as God’s true disciples, we have been given even more authority than Jesus gives to the first disciples in our text today. We have the Holy Spirit within us, gifting us, coming upon us for service in the body of Christ with power, anointing us with the authority of the Godhead, transforming our whole selves so that we might be people who proclaim through word and deed the very good news of God in a world ripe for a harvest reaped through compassion.
Verses 9-23 are closely connected to the main lectionary selection and you might choose to include them. Be sure to note, though, the way the focus slightly shifts from what the disciples will do to help folks to what they will face as they do their Kingdom good. As Jesus continues to describe the conditions of their missionary journey, what is good news for others will—at times literally—feel like bad news for the Kingdom workers. I suspect that in our fallen world this has always been the case, and may just pinpoint why the workers are so few: many of us do not want to risk being punished and made to suffer for our good deeds that help others.
In the modern world, most of the people experiencing cures of their sickness are doing so through modern medicine. Though miraculous healings still happen, we rightly turn to medical professionals along with praying in order to cure what ails us. Many Christians throughout history have learned that they can faithfully follow Jesus’s calling to do Kingdom good by founding medical facilities that treat anyone who comes through their doors. And today, a number of congregations are banding together to help pay off the medical debt of their fellow citizens; still others have become advocates for mental health and relief agencies in the public sphere. And, if you look hard enough, you may just find a prayer ministry in your community where people are using their spiritual gifts to manifest through the Spirit Jesus’s Kingdom goodness in this world. Who are the people doing Kingdom good in your midst?
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