Lectionary Reflection—18 June 2017
Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.
Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”
He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. Here are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who’s called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean; and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.
Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons. You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment.
[Workers deserve to be fed, so don’t gather gold or silver or copper coins for your money belts to take on your trips. Don’t take a backpack for the road or two shirts or sandals or a walking stick. Whatever city or village you go into, find somebody in it who’s worthy and stay there until you go on your way. When you go into a house, say, ‘Peace!’ If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if the house isn’t worthy, take back your blessing. If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.
“Look, I’m sending you as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as snakes and innocent as doves. Watch out for people—because they’ll hand you over to councils and they’ll beat you in their synagogues. They’ll haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me so that you may give your testimony to them and to the Gentiles. Whenever they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you’ll say, because what you can say will be given to you at that moment. You aren’t doing the talking, but the Spirit of my Father is doing the talking through you. Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn in his child. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you’ll not go through all the cities of Israel before the Human One comes.]
You know, the more I keep the Lectionary readings in context, the more convinced I am that there’s a very distinct meaning behind phrases like “Whoever stands firm until the end will be saved” and it’s not what we think. It reminds me of that scene in the movie Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya says to Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
As I stated last month (and over and over again on this blog), the belief that Jesus would soon return to the disciples and the first century followers of The Way (known as eschatology) is dripping from the pages of the New Testament. In the passage before us, it’s no different. Let me explain.
While traveling throughout the region, Jesus is moved with compassion for the people he and the disciples encounter. To him, they’re like “sheep without a shepherd” (that’s how “Matthew” puts it, anyway) because they’re “troubled and helpless.” He then tells the disciples that “the harvest” is bigger than they can even imagine. Jesus encourages them to “pray for more workers.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but in my part of the world, this passage of scripture gets used quite a lot for evangelism. That is, it’s used to “encourage” people (or maybe guilt them) to “witness” and “save souls” from “Hell”. We’re told that Jesus is talking to all of us throughout the ages in this passage. It’s as if Jesus has taking us up to a spaceship circling the planet and we’re all looking at the world from the observation deck. Well, it would have to be a time machine, too, since the way the passage is used, it’s directed to all people throughout history instead of just the slice of it the disciples and Jesus were living in. So, essentially, Jesus is the Doctor traveling in the TARDIS and we’re all his companions.
Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, indeed.
But that’s not what this passage tells us. That’s not what the context tells us.
Jesus is talking to the disciples (he uses the personal pronoun “you” over 25 times in the context of this passage). These are specific instructions for them, not us. “Then he said to his disciples…” That is, he was speaking directly to the twelve and told them that they should pray for more workers because the harvest was bigger than they imagined.
This is later confirmed when, after Matthew lists the twelve disciples, he writes, “Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them…” And then the big long list of “you/your” in the rest of the passage—“…your money belts…your trips…you go on your way…” and so on.
And then, as if this wasn’t enough to establish that Jesus was talking to the disciples, there’s the eschatological passage that ties all of it together, Matthew 10.16ff. When the twelve were being persecuted by their own people and families, they would be led by the Spirit as to how to respond. And that’s just what we find. Throughout the book of Acts, we read that the twelve were beaten and betrayed, imprisoned and executed, and mostly because of their fellow Jews. And it’s in the midst of their persecution, Jesus told the twelve, “whoever stands firm until the end will be saved” (we’ll come right back to this). He then promises them that he’d return before they finished their missionary journeys “through all the cities of Israel.”
Notice that. Jesus sent the twelve to “the people of Israel” (10.6) but he said he’d return before they finished their mission (10.23). There’s no way this could be a reference to the “end of the world” popularized by so many today. Jesus is clearly tying his return to the mission of the twelve. The only reason (that I can see) for seeing this passage differently is a misunderstanding of New Testament eschatology, whether willfully or ignorantly (or if one’s wanting to make money from writing fiction and pretending it’s real).
So what event falls into this timeline? You guessed it!—the war between the Jews and the Romans that included the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and ended the Old Covenantal System.
But what, then, does “whoever stands firm until the end will be saved” mean? When seen in it’s context it clearly refers to being rescued from persecution at the hands of the Jews and Romans. What we see happening in the New Testament is that this persecution extended beyond the twelve to include many other Jews and Gentiles who trusted in Christ and became followers of The Way of Jesus (Saint Paul is a good example of this; see Acts 7.54-8.3; 9.1-2). The more I see this term or phrase—“saved” or “salvation” or “being saved”—in context, the more I’m convinced that it’s only meaning is being rescued from the persecution instigated by the Jews and carried out by the Romans. To “be saved” meant to be rescued from physical torture and death.
Are you saying we aren’t saved from our sins?
What I’m saying is that the majority of the passages that talk about “being saved” do not refer to being saved from sin. Instead, they’re about the first century followers of The Way of Jesus being rescued from persecution at the hands of the Jews and the Romans. The problem is that when we in the Christian family see the word “saved” we automatically think it’s talking about being saved “from our sins”. And then, like in the passage above, we twist it out of the context to fit that meaning. We need to take a step back. We need to set aside the suitcase that the word “saved” has become and look at it within the context. If we do that, our understanding of Holy Scripture and the words it contains will only become deeper and richer.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC