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. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’
Translation: And Jesus was going about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease. And seeing the crowds, he was moved with compassion for them because they were distressed and cast away, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is indeed plentiful, but the workmen are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest that he might send workmen into the harvest."
Background and situation: The opening verse is pure gospel, and recalls what Jesus had done at the end of chapter 4, right before the Sermon on the Mount: "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people." (4:23) This is gospel, and it sets the stage for the Sermon on the Mount which follows.
In 9:35, which begins our reading this week, Jesus does exactly what he had done in 4:23: "And Jesus was going about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease."
Matthew has five "books" in his gospel, reflecting the five books of Moses. Each book is introduced by a speech by Jesus. In the first book, the speech is the famous Sermon on the Mount. The second "book" of Matthew's gospel begins at 10:1, and introduces a new section, the theme of which is mission and its difficulties. As in 4:23, the proclamation of the gospel in 9:35 precedes the next speech and provides the "hinge" from one section to the next.
The primary source for this passage is Mark, but Matthew takes Mark and goes in a different direction. In Mark 6:6, Jesus goes through villages. Matthew changes this to "cities and villages". Why? Because Mark's purpose is to portray Jesus as being plotted against, mainly by people in cities, which is why Jesus spends most of his time in the countryside and in villages. In Mark, Jesus is under threat, and a victim. This is less so in Matthew.
"Sheep without a shepherd": The phrase "sheep without a shepherd" is an ancient one. See Number 27: 17 as one example. Mark uses the phrase to introduce his first feeding story (6: 34). Matthew, on the other hand, accents Jesus' emotional reaction to the condition of the sheep. "He was moved with the deepest compassion."
The word is esplagnisthe, an exceptionally strong statement. The word is associated with the bowels, for heaven's sake. Jesus was moved to the depths of his being by the "skinned" or "mangled" condition--eskulmenoi--of the people, who are also being "thrown down" (ripto). ("Harrassed and helpless," as the NRSV puts it, seems a bit more tame than is indicated by these strong words of oppression.)
What the people need is a mission! There may be a play on words here. In verse 35, Jesus is "healing every disease." The word translated as "healing" is therapeuon--which is, incidentally, where we get our word "therapy."
In verse 37, "the harvest is plentiful." The word for "harvest" is therismos. The similarity in the sound of the two words therapeuon and therismos leads one to the thought that the "harvest"--the "gathering in"--is associated with healing. The harvest will indeed be therapeutic. Even more, the mission to participate in that harvest is likewise "healing."
The twelve apostles:
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. 2These 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; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
Translation: And having called to him his twelve disciples, he gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every sickness. And of the twelve apostles, the names are these: first, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, the tax-collector, James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.
After Jesus mentions prayer that "the Lord of the harvest will send laborers," he calls his twelve disciples and gives them "authority"--exousian, also "power, ability, strength"--to do the very mission he has already been doing, casting out unclean spirits and healing disease and sickness. (Matthew adds healing, which is absent in the Markan parallel, 6:7.)
In this preparation for mission, Matthew, for the first time, introduces "the twelve." In actual history, Jesus had a lot more disciples than just twelve. In other places, 70 are mentioned. In yet other places (Luke 8), his women disciples are mentioned. Many people followed Jesus. We forget: Jesus was a tribune of the people. He was popular. Thousands rallied to him.
"The twelve" is a metaphorical device, meant to recall the twelve tribes of Israel. These new "twelve" represent the renewal of Israel in the light of God's Christ. Matthew follows Mark in calling them "apostles." The word literally means "one sent."
At the time of Matthew's writing, "apostle" had two meanings. The first is Pauline. An apostle is one who has seen Jesus and preaches the gospel. Another use of the word "apostle" was to refer to an envoy from the churches. Says John Meier:
Matthew reflects the usage of the church late in the first century, when a desire to legitimate the authentic tradition of the church against false teachers led to an emphasis on the original guardians of the tradition and their official successors.
To put is slightly different than Meier, Matthew wants to assert the apostolic authority of the Jerusalem church, which is headed by Peter (and James). This appears to be a concern of Matthew especially. Peter is looked upon with greater favor in Matthew than in any of the other gospels. For Matthew, Peter is the "rock" upon whom Jesus builds his church (16:18).
In accenting the role of Peter, Matthew is lifting up the role of the "head office" of the church in Jerusalem. It is from there, undoubtedly, that "apostles" would be sent to promote "apostolic teaching" in other early Christian communities, or so Matthew thinks.
Matthew gets his list of "the twelve" from Mark (3: 13-19). Matthew changes Mark to say that Peter is "first"--protos--which is another reflection of Peter's special position in Matthew, as is Matthew's placement of Andrew, Peter's brother, in second place. Matthew drops Mark's designation of James and John as "sons of thunder." Matthew also adds "tax collector" to the name of the disciple Matthew.
Cananaean may reflect an Aramaic word for "zealot" (Meier). The zealots were first century terrorists who believed in violent action against the Roman occupation. They appear to have had their beginning in the revolt against the tax census which was called by Cyrenius (Quirinius) in 6 AD.
Notice that the list of disciples contains a startling juxtaposition. It includes both a Roman lackey--the tax collector Matthew--and a Roman enemy, Simon the zealot. The new community of Jesus is broad. It is able to contain both these disparate people.
Judas is mentioned last, as per usual. Whenever Judas' name appears anywhere in the New Testament, there is a disparaging comment appended to his name. Here, as in Mark, it's "who betrayed him."
The identity of Judas is still being debated today. I find intriguing the possibility that his name, "Judas Iscariot," may refer to his hometown--"Judas, from Kerioth." "Kerioth" was in Judea. If this is the case, then Judas would be the only member of "the twelve" who was a Judean. Was Judas a traitor--a Judean spy--all along?
To the lost sheep of the house of Israel, for now:
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
Translation: These twelve Jesus sent forth, having instructed them, saying, 'Do not go into the way of the nations, and do not enter into any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Go and proclaim, saying that 'the kingdom of the heavens has come near.' Heal the weak ones, raise dead ones, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You have taken freely. Give freely."
"Do not go in the way of the nations (gentiles), and do not go into a city of Samaritans, but go, rather, to the destroyed (lost, ruined) sheep of the house of Israel." We are beginning chapter 10. At this point, Matthew understands Jesus' mission to be only in Galilee and to the "destroyed" sheep there.
Matthew presents that, at this point, Jesus saw himself as sent only to oppressed Jews living in Galilee. That mission will expand rather dramatically following Jesus encounter with the Canaanite woman in chapter 15. After he loses an argument with a foreign woman--and one associated with Israel's ancient enemy--Jesus appears to expand his own mission beyond Israel. When Matthew closes his gospel, that mission is expanded to "all nations" (28:19).
Matthew also seems to reacting against the situation in Galilee at the time of his writing, c. AD 80. During and after the Roman-Jewish war, many refugees fled from the south to the north. It appears Matthew had some difficulty with the pharisees who took it upon themselves to organize these folks into synagogues. (Even though Matthew refers to "their synagogues," there is a fair chance that there were no synagogues in Galilee in AD 30, but there were synagogues at the time of Matthew's writing, synagogues which had been organized by pharisees. Matthew took a dim view of them--see chapter 23.)
"Go and proclaim, saying that 'the kingdom of the heavens has come near.' Heal the weak ones, raise dead ones, cleanse lepers--(the word is katharizete, where we get our word "catharsis")--cast out demons. You have taken freely. Give freely."
Again, "the twelve" are to reflect the ministry of Jesus himself. Matthew is especially keen on identifying the mission of the church with what Jesus himself did. Note especially "heal the weak," which is usually translated "cure the sick." The word is therapeuete again, which means not only "heal" but also "serve." The word normally translated as "sick" is asthenountas, which, in my view, has a broader definition than "sick." It means "weak" or "feeble" or "lacking strength." (The word is used in psychiatry today to refer to weakness and torpor.) "Serve the weak" would be a perfectly good translation, and one that is thoroughly consistent with Jesus' mission.
That is what the church is to be about--serving the weak, healing the sick, cleansing the unclean. It is to be about bringing others into the practice of the kingdom, wherein all people are treated with respect and dignity, all tables are open, all people are lifted up, and all are called to higher purpose.
Funny. How did we ever get the idea that the mission of the church was to get people to "convert" to something called "protestant theology" whereby they could be "saved"?
Image: Christ healing the blind man, El Greco