Year A: Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Compassion of Jesus
Matthew 9: 36-10:8
At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few so, ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”
Then he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew; James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus; Simon from Cana, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.
Jesus sent out these twelve after instructing them thus, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
- It is interesting that in this story, the “abundance of the harvest” is an excess of emptiness; the needy, the troubled and those without a shepherd. In what part of your faith journey are you actively a “laborer in the harvest” of those who feel troubled and abandoned?
- As a baptized disciple, how do you exercise your authority in the service of healing others? Do you believe you have the authority to be Christ in the world for others?
- Without cost you are to give” What gets in the way of your ability to give freely?
- How does the reality that you cannot solve the problem of suffering impact you as one of God’s laborers being sent?
Matthew 9: 36-10:8
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
Today’s Gospel begins, “At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned. Like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew has just told us that Jesus raised the daughter of an official whom everyone believed to be dead (Matt 19:18-26), and healed a woman suffering from hemorrhages (Matt 9:20-22), two blind men (Matt 9:27-31), a mute demoniac (Matt 9:32-34), as well as many others in various towns and villages. There is no end to the people who need Jesus’ good news and healing touch.
On seeing the crowds Jesus tells his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” The power to bring others to God is a God-given gift. That is why the disciples are told to pray for laborers for the harvest. However, the harvest does not belong to the laborers, but to the master of the harvest, to God. It is “his harvest.”
Jesus then summons “his twelve disciples” and gives them authority to do the very things that he himself is doing. They will have “authority over unclean spirits… and to cure every disease and every illness” (remember Matthew’s constant interest in authority). When we are told the names of the twelve Matthew calls them apostles: “The names of the twelve apostles are these…” This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where the twelve are called apostles. In the New Testament “the twelve” and “the apostles” are not synonymous terms. Notice that Peter is named as “first,” and we are told that he is “Simon called Peter.” Matthew is emphasizing Peter’s unique role, a role upon which he will greatly elaborate in chapter 16 (Matt 16:13-20).
When Jesus instructs the disciples he tells them, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” On the feast of the Ascension, when we read Matthew’s great commissioning, we noted that Jesus instructs the eleven disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 2.8:19). That instruction reflects the experience of’ the early church after the resurrection, when the Spirit led the church to understand that covenant love was now open to everyone, even Gentiles (see Acts 10). In todays scene Jesus is giving his disciples their immediate marching orders. They are to serve the lost sheep of Israel.
Jesus instructs the disciples to proclaim just what he himself is proclaiming: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” As part of this announcement of the imminent in-breaking of the kingdom the disciples are to ‘‘Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out demons,” just as Jesus himself is doing. These mighty acts will give authority to the truth of their words about the kingdom.
Though the disciples have authority? they are not to use their authority for personal gain. What they have they have received as a gift and so they must freely give. Authority is never to be used in any way but to give service.
Protesting the Way Things Are
So much begins when the heart cries, “This shouldn’t be!”
“The way this education is being conducted shouldn’t be.”“The way this health care is being delivered shouldn’t be.” “The way this neighborhood lives in fear shouldn’t be.
“The way this city is run shouldn’t be.” “These banking policies shouldn’t be.” “These governmental rules shouldn’t be.” “These church procedures shouldn’t be.”
It took me a long time to value prophetic grievers, the people who felt the underlying pain of situations and gave it a voice. I always felt: “Enough already; let’s get on with it.” Prophetic grieving was the first step, and I was always leery it would be the last step. We would complain and do nothing.
What I valued was the analyst who could size up situations and the strategist who could lay out an action plan and implement it. For me this text begins to move when Jesus delegates and commissions his disciples, turning them into apostles, “ones sent.” I imagine intensive training in driving out unclean spirits and curing diseases. Then when the twelve are named, I am reminded of a classic scene in Howard Hawks’ film, Red River. When the cattle drive is about to begin, the camera focuses on each cowboy who screams out, “Yiha!” Then the drive begins. I see the naming of twelve as focusing on each individual agent, singling him out as a significant player. If they could, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, the tax collector; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus; Simon from Cana, and even Judas Iscariot would leap out of the pages and cry, “Yiha!”
I also appreciated Jesus the strategist. When he advised beginning with the house of Israel and steering clear of Gentiles and Samaritans, I understood him to be working his home turf first. Pilot it in Israel before taking it on the road. Also, concrete instructions about what to do are always important. Proclaim and cure, raise, heal, and drive. All that was needed was to put these commands into bullet points. We have here the beginnings of organizational structure and leadership development.
However, we are also a long way from that bursting heart that energized the training, sending, and action plans. But the truth is the heart has to accompany the analyst and the strategist. It is the movement of the heart that creates the desire for change. The analysis that follows, however expert, will always need to be redone. The strategy that is implemented, however effective, will always need to be complemented and evaluated.
Since all attempts to change the world are long-haul projects of success and failure, the heart that created the desire will also have to sustain the desire. As obstacles multiply and people betray and diseases win out over cures and driven-out demons return to stay, apostles will have to return to the heart with its primordial sigh, “This shouldn’t be!” It begins with a movement of Jesus’ heart when he sees the trouble and abandonment of the crowd. When this movement goes away, the analysis becomes sterile and the strategy unworkable.
The pressing problem may be what the pragmatist takes it to be: we can’t make things work. But the foundational problem may be what the prophet has always suspected. We have become numb. We have anesthetized ourselves to the pain of the world. Our heart no longer moves, and we no longer cry out.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.