Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Healing and liberation certify the presence of the realm of heaven. Both Jesus’ own mission and that of the Twelve bring not only proclamation but also healing. Jesus sends forth the Twelve to perform his own works, the very works that have defined his ministry from the beginning (4:23-25).

June 15, 2008

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Commentary on Matthew 9:35—10:8 [9-23]

Healing and liberation certify the presence of the realm of heaven. Both Jesus’ own mission and that of the Twelve bring not only proclamation but also healing. Jesus sends forth the Twelve to perform his own works, the very works that have defined his ministry from the beginning (4:23-25).

Jesus commissions his disciples to perform the very works that he does, calling them to advance beyond him into new and emergent contexts. Whether with Jesus or commissioned by Jesus, the authentic proclamation of God’s realm is marked by healing and liberation.

This is precisely Jesus’ reply when John the Baptist inquires, “Are you the one who is coming, or should we wait for another?” The blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead living–all these signs accompany the proclamation of the good news (11:5).

Jesus gives the Twelve clear instructions, then sends them forth to do his works and proclaim his message. Once sent, however, they are on their own. They must assess the responses of the cities; they determine whether to stay or to move along.

Instructions only take us so far. The faithful church must move beyond Jesus himself, as the disciples do.

Yet many Christians–and too many churches–want direct instructions for every issue. A student recently asked me for guidance as to what the Bible says about sex. He seemed surprised when I suggested that perhaps he was asking the wrong question. When we think about things like economics and government, we don’t ask the Bible to tell us how to manage things directly. Instead, we ask how the Bible may inform our vision of a just society. Most of the Bible’s instructions concerning sex address things like a man’s obligations when he has sexual relations with an unmarried woman, which sexual partners are allowed and which are permitted, how to test whether a woman has committed adultery or not, or how to marry a desirable slave woman. The Bible simply does not address things like dating, egalitarian relationships, and women who have built lives of their own. In this conversation I suggested that the parts of the Bible most pertinent to our sex lives might not say anything directly about sex at all. Don’t things like honesty, compassion, justice, and love say more to us today than what to do about a woman who displeases her husband on their wedding night?

The point is simple: our search for instructions often detracts from the main thing. Where the realm of heaven is breaking out, we find healing and liberation. This is what we need to know.

Jesus’ ministry and that of his disciples entail the exorcism of demons, an issue that will pose a stumbling block for many congregations. One path is simply to skip over this detail, as modern congregations find it either baffling or irrelevant. Another path is to explain it away, boiling down healing and exorcism to a common denominator: people got better. It once was commonplace to say that ancient persons frequently attributed the inexplicable to the demonic realm, particularly mental illnesses and neurological disorders. We should think more deeply. Even those of us who cannot get our imaginations around real demons tormenting poor individuals can relate to what it means to be bound by a power one feels powerless to resist. Such demons need not be found only in “those” people, but they reside whenever evil has us firmly in its grip. Many (all?) people find themselves bound by behaviors, patterns, or structures they cannot escape, often cursing themselves when they repeat the same behavior time and again. When we imagine the realm of exorcism, let us imagine liberation, freedom from powers that constrain us and prevent us from living full human lives.

Matthew’s Gospel requires that proclamation first extend to Israel before it may move along to the nations. Both Matthew’s inaugural description of Jesus’ ministry (4:23-25) and our present account locate Jesus in the synagogues, while Jesus sends the Twelve only to Israel. Among the Gospels, Matthew alone, though quoting from Isaiah, locates Jesus’ ministry in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15) then pronounces that “in his name the Gentiles will hope” (12:21).

Matthew 10:23 is notoriously difficult. If the disciples will not have gone through all Israel before the Son of man comes, then how can it be that the gospel must also proceed to the Gentiles (24:14; 28:18-20)? Some commentators find ways to harmonize this apparent contradiction; still others find here an authentic saying of Jesus in 10:23, followed by Matthean redaction elsewhere. Perhaps this is one instance in which the church moves beyond the initial aims of Jesus, faithfully exploring their implications in new contexts.

That Gentile mission is critical to Matthew’s Gospel. Apparently written to Torah-observant Jewish followers of Jesus, the Gospel anticipates a Gentile mission (24:14; 28:18-20). Preachers should exercise prudence with this matter, since Matthew’s Gentile program carries an ugly underside. God’s realm departs from Jesus’ own people, or at least their authorities, given to a people who will produce its fruit (21:43). Even this dangerous saying returns us to the heart of the matter. For Matthew’s Gospel, Jewish or Gentile identities do not qualify persons for participation in the realm of heaven. What matters is bearing the fruits of that realm (7:15-29; 21:28-32). Like Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience, the Gentiles are taught to “keep everything that I have commanded you” (28:20).

Matthew’s Gospel addresses the church more directly than do Mark, Luke, or John. It invites its audience to see the church in the story of the disciples. Here the disciples imitate Jesus, who not only proclaims the realm of heaven but demonstrates its nature. When the realm of heaven is near, healing and liberation take place. In the disciples the church finds itself cast into the world, taking Jesus’ message beyond his instructions into surprising new contexts.