A Provocation: Second Sunday After Pentecost: June 18, 2017: Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
9:35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

9:37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;

9:38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

10:2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;

10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;

10:4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

10:5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,

10:6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

10:7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’

10:8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

10:9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,

10:10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

10:11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.

10:12 As you enter the house, greet it.

10:13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.

10:14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.

10:15 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.

10:16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

10:17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues;

10:18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

10:19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;

10:20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

10:21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;

10:22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

10:23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

A Question or Two:

  • Sodom and Gomorrah refused hospitality to vulnerable people.  Why is this so serious?
  • Who is vulnerable?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus goes about teaching, proclaiming, and curing.  He sends his disciples out to proclaim and heal.  If you look at the list of things that are to be healed, it is clear that “proclaiming the kingdom” is closely tied to real, active concern for everything that affects human life.  These are not abstract “religious” tasks, they take on the things that restrain human flourishing.

This comes especially clear in the list of things that Jesus is doing.  The last item in the list is translated as “sickness,” which is a suitable translation.  But the word is μαλακίαν, a word that refers to vulnerability.  It might be better translated as “infirmity,” but only if you stop to think about it a little.  The word has a long history in English.  If you are old and infirm, you might indeed be subject to infirmities, for which you would be sent to the infirmary.  The word implies that healthy people are firm, and sick people are infirm.  Healthy people can stand up for themselves, and sick people need help to stand up at all.  Healthy people are able to resist disease (and other things), but sick people are vulnerable.

We do not like being vulnerable.  This can be a nasty world if you have a pre-existing condition.

A little over a year ago I found myself in the midst of some dangerous health adventures.  Heart stuff.  Lung stuff.  Nasty stuff, some of it.  I remember the day that I discovered that if I walked to chapel on campus at 10:00 (a distance of about 100 yards, one way, involving descending and then ascending two flights of stairs) I would be too out-of-breath to teach at 11:00.  This was an unpleasant discovery.  Attending chapel has been a regular part of the rhythm of my work for my whole time at Augustana University, now 27 years.  Fortunately, friends in the Nursing Department lent me a wheelchair for the semester, so I could go to chapel if I found someone to push me.  Again fortunately, Augustana is filled with people willing to help with tasks like that.

And I found myself hating the idea of having to ask.

I disliked being “infirm” more than I might have guessed I would.  And I really disliked the attention that rolling into chapel in a chair brought.  I generally slip into the back row, right side.  In a wheelchair with a helpful pusher there is no slipping in anywhere.  People felt bad for me.  I didn’t like that much.  My “infirmity” brought with it a loss of my ability to vanish into the ordinary crowd.

By the time my health issues were sorted out I had a new appreciation of why Jesus might spend his time curing infirmity.  Yes, please.

But our dislike of infirmity, of having to ask for help, makes Jesus’ instructions to his disciples interesting.  He tells them:

Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…

 

That means that he sends them out vulnerable, as infirm as the people they are to cure.  They aren’t naked, but they aren’t wearing shoes.  And they have no money.  If they are to survive, they will have to ask for help.

I wonder why this is so important?

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