Strangers Seeking Welcome
Third Sunday after Pentecost
The passage we just read from the tenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew details what has traditionally been called the Mission of the Twelve. Jesus sends out his newly appointed twelve apostles to carry out his mission in the towns and villages of Galilee and its environs. But when we take a closer look, we find that it’s a curious mission indeed.
Long experience in church has taught us that Jesus’s mission was and is to bring salvation to the lost. He will accomplish that purpose in Jerusalem, when he dies on the cross for the sins of the world, but before his death his ministry is to heal the sick, drive out evil spirits, and teach the people about God. All of these activities are subordinate to his real mission: to get to Jerusalem and get himself crucified.
That is the traditional understanding of Jesus’s mission, anyway, but if we take that narrative at face value, it raises some thorny questions. What, for instance, is this business about persecution and bringing a sword instead of peace? If God has sent Jesus to save the world and forgive people’s sins, what on earth could be the basis for rejection or conflict? Shouldn’t a lost world welcome the news of its salvation with open arms and hearts? Why introduce this dark note of warning about arrest, betrayal, and death? I thought this was supposed to be good news!
A second and related question is why does Jesus have to die at all? The typical answer, going back at least a thousand years to a medieval theologian named Anselm, is that our sins have offended the honor of God and broken God’s law, the penalty for which is death. Jesus, as the incarnation of God or, as Anselm puts it, the God-Man, is able to represent both sides of the equation—the offended God and offending humanity—and can therefore pay the debt for us, releasing us from our sentence. Because the sentence is death, however, in order to free us he must die himself; hence the cross.
The third thorny question this interpretation of Jesus’s mission raises is why is it necessary for the disciples to participate in the mission? If Jesus is going to accomplish salvation for the whole world through his death in Jerusalem, why send out the disciples to Galilee beforehand? I can understand why he would send them out after his death and resurrection—to proclaim that great good news and help the people receive salvation—but why send them now? Isn't it just a waste of time to heal people who are still under sentence of death? Why not wait until everything has been completed, then send them?
After considering these questions I can’t avoid the conclusion that there must be something else going on here. The traditional understanding of Jesus’s mission must be wrong in some fundamental way, or else this episode in Matthew 10 makes no sense.
Let’s take another look at the instructions Jesus gives his disciples in the first part of the passage. He tells them, first, to go to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 6). So he is interested in the lost, but he may have a different meaning in mind than how many Christians define “lostness.” A few verses before our reading for today, Matthew tells us that Jesus has compassion for the crowds he encounters “because they [are] harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). In the Hebrew Scriptures, sheep are often used as a metaphor for the people of Israel, and shepherds for their rulers. So to describe the people of Galilee as like sheep without a shepherd is to indict the leaders and authorities for failing in their responsibility to care for their charges. Jesus sends the Twelve to the lost sheep of the house of Israel because of a failure of leadership at all levels, from the emperor in Rome, to Herod Antipas in his glistening palace on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, to the priests and aristocrats in Jerusalem, all the way down to the first-century equivalents of mayors and aldermen in villages like Capernaum and Magdala.
Next, Jesus tells them, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (v. 7). When Matthew says “kingdom of heaven,” he means the thing Mark means by “kingdom of God,” but Matthew has a pious squeamishness about using the name of God too freely, so he replaces it with “heaven.” He still understands it as a profoundly this-worldly phenomenon. Jesus is not sending his disciples to tell the people to get ready for heaven; they are to tell them that things are about to change right down here on earth. The inbreaking of God’s kingdom will be revealed through physical healing, compassion, and justice. “You received without payment; give without payment,” he tells them (v. 8). The kingdom, or reign, of God, is about sharing. It’s about grace.
Next, he tells them what to take with them on their journey. Or rather, he tells them what not to take. He says, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food” (vv. 9–10).
This sounds, quite frankly, like really bad advice. Don’t take any money? Don’t pack a bag or even take a change of clothes? Go barefoot? And don’t even carry a staff, the barest form of protection against robbers and wild animals? No wonder he tells them he is “sending [them] out like sheep in the midst of wolves” (v. 16); he is leaving them deliberately unprotected. They will be completely vulnerable and he knows it. Jesus wants the disciples to learn to rely on God and God alone, and he’s not pulling any punches. To paraphrase Kevin Spacey’s character in the movie The Big Kahuna, he’s not tossing them in the water to see if they can swim; he’s tossing them off a cliff to see if they can fly.
Finally, notice the strategy he tells them to follow during their mission:
Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listento your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (vv. 11–15).
The instructions that appear in this chapter provide the key to understanding Jesus’s mission as a whole, and this last section shows that none of it is random or unplanned. He instructs the Twelve to follow a very deliberate pattern of behavior as they go from town to town. They are not to shout the good news at people in a scattershot kind of way. He is not training street corner preachers here. Rather, he tells them to conduct an investigation to determine who is worthy. In a parallel passage in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5–6). In other words, they are to look for partners who are ready to welcome the reign of God—who share in the hope of shalom that is the essence of that reign.
Jesus says that when they find that worthy person, the one who shares in peace, they are to stay with him or her until they leave. They are not to move around from house to house, but to set up a headquarters, as it were, in the home where they experience the reciprocation of shalom. From that home base they are to practice their proclamation that the reign of God is near.
What we see here looks suspiciously like community organizing. Remember at the Republican Convention in 2008, when Sarah Palin made a speech disparaging Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer in Chicago? In the wake of that speech there suddenly appeared bumper stickers, t-shirts, and a series of Internet memes declaring, “Jesus was a community organizer!” It was another indication of the wide gulf between the way Christians of different stripes see and understand the work of Jesus. Sarah Palin is outspoken about her faith, and I have no reason to doubt her sincerity, but I do object to the depiction of Jesus I infer from her rhetoric and her role as a leader in the culture wars. For Palin and those like her, to call Jesus a community organizer is an insult. He’s the Savior of the World, after all, with much bigger and more cosmic fish to fry.
I, on the other hand, feel pretty confident that Jesus would have no problem with the title of community organizer. In fact, I think he would welcome the designation. As I have said before, I believe it’s a mistake to try to spiritualize everything Jesus said and did, put it on some otherworldly plane that seems bigger and more important than the concerns of a group of peasants in a Galilean fishing village but that loses its impact because of that very abstractness. There’s an old cliche about a person who is so heavenly minded that she’s no earthly good, and that concept applies here. The universality of Jesus’s message and work derives precisely from its particularity. Take away the particularity—the physical hunger of a day laborer’s family in Nazareth, for instance—and the universality—Jesus as the Living Bread—disappears as well.
For another example, take indebtedness. Every Sunday we recite the Lord’s Prayer together, and here at UBC we say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Our automatic tendency is to spiritualize this language, to make debts a mere stand-in for sins or, as another version of the Prayer has it, trespasses. But for the people to whom Jesus first taught the Prayer, literal monetary debts were among their gravest concerns. Many of them had lost their land and were forced to live hand-to-mouth because their wealthy neighbors had conspired to manipulate their debt in order to foreclose on their farms and houses. They didn’t need to spiritualize that prayer for debt-forgiveness; in fact, it would have been something of a kick in the teeth to tell them that debts really mean sins and the reign of God has no word to speak to your desire to hold onto your property, feed your family, and other such petty, mundane concerns.
What Jesus is doing in his mission, and what he instructs his disciples to do in theirs, is to organize these communities of the lost sheep of the house of Israel so that they will be able not merely to survive but to thrive in the midst of the corrosive effects of living under the thumb of Empire. He tells them to take with them the hope of the reign of God, which reflects the modest yet enduring hope articulated by the prophet Micah: “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Mic 4:4). He tells them to look for those who are worthy, a process that will entail listening and discernment, and then to work with them as partners to bring the shalom of God to fruition in that neighborhood, that village, that region.
The authors of Weird Church, the book our Bible study group is reading and discussing on Thursday evenings, draw another lesson from this passage that I had never thought of before but find compelling. They see in Jesus’s instructions to his disciples a new model for doing and being church. Listen to a few excerpts from chapter 2 of the book:
Jesus [told] them … to leave their baggage—their need for control, power, safety, and security—behind. They were to depend solely upon God to guide them on their journey into the unknown. Deep listening was required—both to God and to the communities where they were sent. In their listening and discerning, they were to keep an eye out for people of peace—folks who welcomed and helped them, and who might serve as gateways into the community.
They were sent as the strangers who were to seek welcome with people who were willing to share their gifts with them. The heart of the shift that Jesus models is this: they were not called to welcome the stranger; rather, they were called to be the stranger seeking welcome. As they became the stranger, they grew in their capacities to heal the sin that separates people from each other, from God, from all sentient beings. When they looked into the eyes of the other they could see their own humanity reflected. They in turn grew in compassion. It is the palpable experience of holy witness, divine presence, heaven on earth (Estock and Nixon, loc. 512–519, emphasis added).
Our identity as a welcoming and affirming congregation is important to us at UBC. We want to create an environment in which everyone feels valued and safe. But perhaps we could also explore the model of church in which we are the stranger seeking welcome. What might that look like in our context? Who are the villagers we need to approach, looking for persons who share in peace and will welcome us? How can we learn to become untethered to this physical space so that it does not define who we are or shackle our imaginations when it comes to our mission? How can we follow the principles laid out in Matthew 10 to do some community organizing for justice here in our community? How can we best embody the good news of the reign of God for our neighbors, and how can we learn to receive the gifts God wants to give us through them?
These are the questions we are pondering in our Thursday night study group. The campus ministry vision committee has been pondering similar questions in the context of what we want to do on the Ohio State campus. All of us who care about the reign of God and the continuing witness of University Baptist Church need to be pondering them as well. The future is bearing down on us fast, bringing both risk and opportunity. God is at work in our community. The reign of God is near. Let us engage in the deep listening we need to do—to God, to each other, and to our neighbors outside this congregation—and discern how we can join in God’s work to bring justice, hope, and healing here in this time, this place.
Just after he recognizes that the people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and as a prelude to his sending his twelve apostles on their mission, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:37–38). He is saying the same thing to us today. Who among us is ready to answer that call? To become the stranger seeking welcome? To go out as sheep among wolves to share the good news of God’s reign? To organize communities of justice, peace, and sharing? Who among us is ready to say, “Here am I, Lord; send me”?
Estock, Beth Ann and Paul Nixon. 2016. Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press. Kindle edition.