A Provocation: Second Sunday after Pentecost: June 14, 2020: Matthew 9:35–10:23

35     Jesus was passing by all the cities and villages.
              He was teaching in their synagogues
                   proclaiming the good news of the dominion
                   healing all illness and all softness.
36     After he saw the crowds
         he felt it in his gut for them
              because they were skinned alive
              and throw down,
                   like sheep without a shepherd.
37     Then he says to his disciples:
              The harvest is large,
              the workers few.
38              So ask the lord of the harvest
                  so that he cast out workers
                       into his harvest.

Chapter Ten
1     After he called to him his twelve disciples
       he gave them authority of unclean breaths
            so as to cast them out
       and to heal all illness
       and all softness/infirmity.
2     Of the twelve sent out
       the names are these:
            first, Simon
                 (the one called Peter),
            and Andrew
                 (his brother),
            and James
                 (son of Zebedee),
            and John
                 (his brother),
3          Philip and Bartholomew,
            Thomas and Matthew
                 (the tax collecting traitor),
            James
                 (son of Alphaeus)
            and Thaddeas,
4          Simon
                 (the Canaanite),
            and Judas
                 (the Iscariot)
                      (the one who handed him over).
5     These twelve Jesus sent out.
       After ordering them,
        he said:
             Do not travel on a Gentile road.
             Into a Samaritan city do not go.
6           Go more to the sheep,
                  the lost sheep,
                  of the house, Israel.
7           As you go,
             proclaim;
             say:
                  The dominion of the heavens is so close.
8                Weak ones,
                       heal them.
                  Dead ones,
                       raise.
                  Lepers,
                       Cleanse.
                  Demons,
                       cast out.
             As a gift you received;
             as a gift, give.
9           Do not acquire gold
                  or silver
                  or copper
              into your belt;
10          no knapsack for the road,
              no two undershirts,
              no shoes,
              no walking stick.
                   Worthy is the worker,
                   worthy of his food.
11          Into whatever city or village you go,
             inquire who in it is worthy,
                  and there remain up until you leave.
12              When you come into the house greet it:
13                   if the house be worthy,
                            let your peace come upon it;
                       if the house be not worthy,
                           let your peace to you return.
14              Whoever does not receive you,
                       and will not hear your words,
                            as you are going out of the house 
                            or that city,
                                 shake off the dust of your feet.
15              Amen I say to you all:
                      more bearable it will be
                      for Sodom and Gomorrah
                           in the day of separating
                      than for that city.
16               Look:
                        I am sending you all out
                        as sheep in the midst of wolves
                             So be sensible,
                                  like snakes.
                             Be guileless,
                                  like pigeons.
17                         Beware of people:
                                  they will hand you over into sanhedrins
                                  and in their synagogues they will flog you.
18                         Before leaders and kings you will be driven
                                  because of me
                             for a witness to them
                             and to the Gentiles.
19                         Whenever they hand you over,
                             do not worry how or what to say.
                                  It will be given to you all
                                       in that hour 
                                  what to say.
20                              It is not you who speaks
                                       but the breath of your father
                                       the breath speaking in you.
21                         Brother will hand brother over to death,
                                  and father, his child.
                             Children will rise up on their parents
                                  and they will kill them.
22                         You will be hated by all
                                  because of my name.
                             The one who endures to the completion,
                                  that one will be rescued.
23                         Whenever they hunt you all
                                  in that city
                                  flee into the other one.
                             Amen I say to you all:
                                  No way will you complete the cities of Israel
                                       up until the son of adam comes.

The violent language in this scene is dangerous. Christians have used it to teach themselves that anyone who disagrees with them is persecuting them. That is a dangerous, and narcissistic, way to live. There are, indeed, places where Christians are not in the absolute majority and do not hold political and social power, and in some of those places the groups that hold power are opposed to Christianity. And, indeed, there are violent ideological groups that attack Christians in some of those places.

But Christians are not persecuted in the U.S. People disagree with us. Which is good. Disagreement sharpens your thought and teaches you to hear things you would never otherwise hear, but is it not persecution.

The language in this scene flips from sending people out to accomplish a life-giving mission (“Weak ones, heal them. Dead ones, raise”), to giving reasonable advice (“As a gift you received; as a gift, give”), to demonizing opposition (“…more bearable it will be for Sodom and Gomorrah…”). When things get to the point that we need to bring in Sodom and Gomorrah, all the safeties are off. That language is dangerous. And it is distressingly familiar. You’ve heard it. So have I.

  • People say: “I don’t see how a leader of a church or especially our local pastor could….”
  • People spread misinformation and disinformation the way clowns throw candy during a parade.
  • The editor of the Democrat-Reporter in Linden Alabama, in an editorial, called for the KKK to “night ride again.” He subsequently said: “”If we could get the Klan to go up there and clean out D.C., we’d all been better off. …. We’ll get the hemp ropes out, loop them over a tall limb and hang all of them.” (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/editor-alabama-newspaper-calls-ku-klux-klan-night-ride-again-n973066?fbclid=IwAR01lEdbEiMiiZkYddPhl4gTTwKFxO7vfldkVzJMbs_ggaUPbXAI7ks329E )
  • The current president finds “very fine people” amongst white supremacists and Klansmen, and suspects that anyone who questions him or objects to police brutality must be a terrorist from Antifa. (I’m anti-fascist. I imagine you probably are, too, or should be.)

There are examples everywhere, and we all have heard them.

I am not wishing for a return to some imagined “golden age” when everybody just got along. There was no such age, not in the dim past, not three weeks ago, though those of us in the dominant majority culture sometimes find ourselves wishing we could just “go on with our lives.” But of course “going on with our lives” is impossible for people who have to teach their children how not to be attacked by police officers. That’s, like, the point.

And no one should ask for an end to anger from people who look at their children and have to wonder if they will be the next Ahmaud Arbery, the next Breonna Taylor, the next George Floyd. The list goes on, and history gives us no reason to believe that it will stop. No one should ask for an end for anger until there is an end to privileged self-interest that calls for quiet, promises to do better, and then forgets about all of it and gets on with its life.

What I find fascinating in this scene in Matthew’s story, though, is that the opposition that Jesus tells his followers to expect comes because they are sent out to announce that the messianic age has arrived and God is proceeding to turn the world right-side-up. Christians tend to think of this as a religious message, something about forgiveness and heaven and piety, not to mention pie in the sky by and by.

It is not.

Jewish thought looks at the world and sees that it is upside-down, and out of that recognition came the notion that God would send messiah to correct what was deeply wrong. That means that the message Jesus commits to his followers has its roots in the fear and anger that go with living in a system that runs on injustice. The message takes its energy from people who have learned that, while it may be the case that the large majority of police are well-intentioned and trustworthy, there is little you can do when the force closes ranks to protect another rogue officer who is rightly charged with murder. And when the police force itself precipitates violence (and there are credible reports of this in every decade of my life, and of my father’s life), there is little anyone can do. Or hope for.

In this scene in Matthew’s story, Jesus and his messengers announce that the time of abuse, brutality, and casual injustice is over. This message is not well-received by privileged people in positions of power. Governors and kings will accuse such messengers of treason and terrorism. I do not mean to pretend that there are not traitors or terrorists in the world. I just mean to point out that governors and kings find terrorism to be indistinguishable from opposition.

This odd little scene with its dangerous language is strangely appropriate for this moment in our history. Perhaps our task is not to figure out how we read the text, but to let the text read us. Those impulses within us that just want it all to calm down so we can go back to our lives put us on the side of the governors and kings. That is worth thinking about slowly. The scene, however, also points out that those moments when we get glimpses of the reasons for the fear and anger and desperation are moments when we actually hear what it is to wait for messiah.

This is a moment to listen to people who have been afraid for far too long. This is a moment to pray and work for the world to be turned right-side-up. This is a moment to realize that things are going to change because they have to change. This is a moment to listen for messiah. Especially from voices that you have never listened to before.

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