< June 29, 2008 >

Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42

 

This is the third consecutive Sunday devoted to Jesus' instructions to the disciples as he sends them on mission. A pattern unites Matthew's entire missionary discourse.

First Jesus calls the disciples to enact his own ministry, performing the same signs and proclaiming the same message. Then Jesus prepares them for the hostility they will surely face. The second movement includes the saying that "a disciple is not above the teacher." If Jesus faces violent opposition, his disciples should expect the same (10:24-25). The missionary discourse's overall structure insists that the disciples' experience follows the pattern of Jesus.

So it is with this third selection, Matt 10:40-42. To welcome a disciple is to welcome Jesus. One receives the same reward for offering cold water to a "little one" in a disciple's name as for offering it to that disciple--or even to Jesus himself. As with the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), it does not matter who receives care. What matters is the care that is offered. Once again, the experiences of the disciples carry the same value as that of Jesus. The pattern has come full circle.

These verses address the disciples directly, in the second person. Yet the sayings seem directed not so much to the disciples themselves as to the communities who will give them welcome. Matthew's Gospel stands apart for it speaks directly to the conditions of churches two or three generations after the ministry of Jesus. The only Gospel to employ the term, "church" ekklēsia (16:18; 18:17), Matthew instructs brothers and sisters on how to deal with conflict in the assembly (18:15-20). When Simon confesses Jesus' messianic identity Jesus names him "Stone" (Petroi). He then expresses his approval with the saying, "upon this rock (petra) I will build my church" (16:18). To Peter and to the other disciples, Jesus gives authority to bind things on heaven and on earth, even to forgive sins (16:19; 18:17; 28:18). In each instance the church overhears itself in Jesus' address to the disciples.

Those early churches met an abundance of traveling preachers. This created a major discernment issue for the churches. Which preachers to welcome, and which to send away? Paul's correspondence with churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi reflect conflict among traveling preachers, while his letter to Rome solicits funds. The Didache, composed early in the second century and perhaps dependent upon Matthew, grapples with the same question. The Didache provides tests of prophets' authenticity. True prophets do not stay three days, true prophets who by inspiration order a table set will not eat from it, and true prophets live the truths they proclaim (11:5-12:8).

In our day churches rarely have visiting preachers who just pop in for a few days. However, the question of authentic ministry remains ever present. The local Christian bookstores shelve resources only from the most limited point of view. Church members often carry study Bibles that promote those same theological and cultural viewpoints. It is likewise the same for popular Christian media. So great is this effect that many people think there is a single "Christian" point of view for a host of topics, ranging from ecumenical relationships to sexuality to economics--often ignorant that these positions often stand at odds with the expressed sentiment of their own denominational bodies. How may pastors assist their congregations in discerning true prophecy in such a contested arena?

Matthew's missionary discourse addresses the church at two levels. First, the church sees itself in the stories of the disciples. Commissioned by Jesus, the church not only proclaims the reign of heaven but demonstrates that reign through works of healing and liberation. In some contexts, that mission and message bring danger. Second, in 10:40-42, the church recognizes the challenge to discern true preachers from false ones--and to support those who represent the truth. The disciples carry on the work of Jesus, and the church participates in the work of the disciples. So the realm of God continues beyond the ministry of Jesus.

Each of the four Gospels has its own way of saying the same thing. The ministry of Jesus continues in that of the church, with no diminution in value.

  • Mark does it by leaving the resurrection story unfinished. The risen Jesus precedes the disciples out into the Galilee, leading them on.
  • Luke develops a unique strategy by composing an additional book. The deeds and experiences of Peter and Paul in Acts repeat those of Jesus: inaugural experiences of the Spirit, trials before vacillating authorities, healings related to centurions and disabled persons, restoring life to those who have died.
  • John's Gospel insists that the disciples are better off after Jesus' departure (16:7): indeed, their works will supersede those of Jesus himself (14:12).

Matthew makes a similar point in at least two ways. Matthew reminds the church that Jesus dwells with them wherever their mission leads (18:20; 28:20). Moreover, the missionary discourse repeatedly reveals how Jesus' own experiences take form in those of his disciples. In this Sunday's passage, this pattern applies both to the disciples' authority to travel in the name of Jesus and to the churches' need to discern authentic from inauthentic witnesses to Jesus.