Sunday of Week 11 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Exodus 19:1-6; Romans 5:6-11; Matthew 9:36-10:8

THE GOSPEL OPENS with Jesus looking over the crowds of people. He is filled with compassion for them. They are “harassed and helpless” like sheep without a shepherd. Things have not changed that much. So many today are still harassed by various forces and helpless, drifting without any real direction in their lives. “Do you know where you’re going to?” Diana Ross and the Supremes sang some years ago. How many of us can really answer that question?

A rich harvest So Jesus says to his followers: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” Certainly the harvest is plentiful. There are about one billion Christians in the world today and that seems like a huge number. Even so we only account for one fifth of the world’s population. Eighty percent still do not know Christ! And, even among many of those who carry the name Christian and have been baptised he is, to a large extent, a stranger.

However, there are many hundreds of millions who fervently belong to other faiths: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Undoubtedly these religions have profound insights into the meaning of life and they produce their own saints, prophets and mystics. It is wrong to refer, as we did in the past, to such people as ‘pagans’ and ‘infidels’. If we really want to find pagans and infidels, that is, people who live a totally secular life, in our own time we should rather look at our own wealthy, post-Christian western societies.

Where are the labourers?
The harvest is indeed plentiful, right on our own doorstep. Undoubtedly, the labourers, too, are few. That does not just mean that we do not have enough priests, brothers and sisters. The call to be a harvester is being made to every single follower of Christ. It is being made to every single person here. The way each one of us does harvesting depends on the circumstances of our life: our family situation, work situation, education, personality and temperament, and so on.

One way we can ask the Lord to send labourers into his harvest is for each one of us to say to him: “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” So often we pray for “vocations” but we do so in a very narrow way as if the only vocation was to be a priest or religious. And somehow we always seem to be thinking of other people, people we do not know, certainly not people in our own family or our own children. Today, let us hear the call made to ourselves and reflect on how we can answer.

The first harvesters
In today’s Gospel Jesus begins by calling his first harvesters. He picked out twelve of his disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to liberate people from them and to heal every disease and sickness. Notice that the mandate is not just ‘religious’. It is for both spiritual and physical healing, the making whole of the complete person at every level.
These disciples are called “apostles”. It may surprise us that this is the only time this word is used in Matthew’s gospel. A disciple is basically a follower, someone who learns from a master and becomes more and more like him. The word ‘apostle’ is a more active word. It implies someone who is entrusted by his lord and master with carrying an important message to others. Obviously, of course, one has first to be a good disciple before becoming a reliable apostle.

Why twelve? Because in the old Israel there were the twelve sons of Jacob, who became the patriarchs and the heads of the twelve tribes into which Israel was divided. These twelve men are the leaders of the new Israel, the new Kingdom being established through Jesus.

A mixed bunch
They are certainly a mixed bunch of people. Some of them were probably illiterate, which was not such a serious handicap in those days when there were hardly any books. One of them was a former tax collector, one of a class much despised for its venality and corruption. Another seems to have been some kind of anti-government rebel or subversive. And one, of course, turned out to be a traitor.

It does not give us much reason to say, as sometimes people do, that “I am not good enough to do the Lord’s work”. When we look at the Church today in all its vastness and complexity and in the extraordinary cultural richness it has given to the world we are amazed that this was all begun by people of such limited competence. If Jesus could use them, he can certainly use me. Can I say to him today, “Here I am, Lord; use me”?

At first, these apostles are told only to go to the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel and to avoid the Samaritans and Gentiles. God’s message is first for his own people and, in general, Jesus’ own work is almost entirely confined to the Jewish community. Later, of course, the mandate is extended to people everywhere. And what are these missionary apostles to do? They are to proclaim that “The kingdom of heaven is near!”

Kingdom of God, or heaven?
This does not mean, as we mentioned on another occasion, that people are all going to die in the next day or two and go to “heaven”. Matthew always goes out of his way to avoid using the name of God and ‘heaven’ is one of his favourite substitutes. So we are talking about the kingdom of God. And that kingdom is not a place. It might be better to speak of the reign, the kingship of God. The kingship of God is close because of the presence of Jesus Christ. We enter the kingdom not by going somewhere but by aligning ourselves totally with the Way of Jesus, when his thoughts become our thoughts, when his ways become our ways.

The apostles are to show the nearness of the Kingdom by curing the sick, the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out demons. These are all signs of God’s loving power reaching deep into people’s lives.

A programme for our own time
In modern terms that could mean:
Bringing healing into people’s lives. People can be sick in many ways, and not just physically. We can all be agents for bringing healing and wholeness back into people’s lives, especially those we come in contact with.
We cannot literally raise people from the dead. We can, however, help people to recover an interest and zest for living. People can be physically alive but dead in many other respects.
Cleanse lepers. For us, that is to rehabilitate and bring back fully into our communities all those who, for one reason or another, are marginalised, rejected, despised, ostracised on the basis of race, nationality, marital status, religion, gender, sexual orientation…
Cast out demons. In our day demons are all those suffocating and enslaving forces which dominate, manipulate and restrict our freedom to live in truth and love. They include many elements of our contemporary lifestyle, the pressures to conform to what is in fashion, whether it be clothes, food, drugs of all kinds – prescribed and non-prescribed, the tendencies to hedonism, extreme individualism, violence of all kinds. Our abortion culture is simply one of the symptoms and effects of all this. We have to start by casting out these demons from our own hearts first before helping others to true liberation.

Finally, says Jesus, “You received without payment; give without payment.” Yes, all that we have are God’s gift to us. God’s gifts to us are literally price-less. They are meant to be used freely and liberally for the benefit of all. We are not in the business of sharing our faith for the money or the kudos it brings. To paraphrase President John Kennedy: “Ask not what others can do for you; but what you can do for others.”

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