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This Sunday's readings: 4th Sunday after Trinity

by John Pridmore

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Proper 6:
Exodus 19.2-8a;
Romans 5.1-8;
Matthew 9.35-10.8 [9-23]

HE WAS in the army and out in the field on manoeuvres. To make the best use of any spare time, he had packed a Greek New Testament into his haversack. During a pause in one of the exercises, he turned to the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. There he read words of Jesus which we hear on Sunday.

Jesus sends out his 12 disciples to teach and to heal. He warns them that they will experience intense persecution. Then he tells them: “You will not have gone through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

The young soldier — he was only 19 — was Albert Schweitzer. He had already been studying theology at Strasbourg University, where he had been taught that the sayings of Jesus about the future coming of the Son of Man were made up by the early Church. As Schweitzer read Matthew’s Greek text, he found himself coming to a different conclusion about these strange words.

Schweitzer realised that a prediction on the lips of Jesus that did not come true could not have been invented. We are hearing, rather, the Jesus of history. According to Schweitzer, Jesus was convinced that, before his disciples had completed their missionary tour, he would be revealed as the coming Son of Man.

But it did not turn out like that. So, Schweitzer famously argued, Jesus then set out for Jerusalem to suffer and die with the intention of thereby “forcing the hand of God” to make his Messianic identity known, to bring history to a close, and to usher in his Kingdom.

Jesus’s announcement that the “coming of the Son of Man” is imminent is just one of a number of his “hard sayings” that we shall hear on Sunday — if, as it should be, the longer Gospel reading is used.

Jesus also instructs the Twelve to “go nowhere among the Gentiles and to enter no town of the Samaritans”. Instead, they are to confine their mission to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. The hardest saying of all — if, that is, we think that Jesus is talking to us, too — is Jesus’s terse and peremptory “raise the dead”.

Such sayings — Schweitzer was right; they could not have been made up — anchor us in history. We believe that Jesus was — and is — much more than the leader of a dissident movement within first-century Judaism, but he was at least that. Such a figure he was and thus he spoke.

If some of Jesus’s sayings do not easily fit — that the end of the world was weeks away, that his mission was to his own people and not to foreigners, that his followers must bring the dead back to life — then we must not erase such awkward remarks from the record, any more than Matthew did. It is more important that we live with the hard sayings of Jesus than we explain them.

To be sure, Jesus was typical of the prophet in every age for whom what is certain is bound to be soon. To be sure, his charge to the Twelve to avoid the Gentiles and Samaritans was far from his last word about the recipients of his gospel. To be sure, the mission of Jesus’s disciples was — and remains — continuous with his: to “go about doing good” as he did (Acts 10.38).

But we smooth the edges of the hard sayings of the Gospels at our peril. To try to make the ways and words of Jesus conform to our prior understanding of him is an attempt to bring him under our control — and that is not at all a Christian thing to do. At my baptism, I submit to Christ. I am using my Bible in the wrong way if I try to make him submit to me.

Because I do not airbrush out the awkward texts, I have reason to cling the more confidently to those that bring me comfort. So I seize on Matthew’s cameo of the “harassed and helpless” crowd in which I am lost, one errant sheep among many.
 “Harassed” is a strong word. The big dictionaries say that it can mean being “flayed alive”. It feels like that sometimes, when the demands are multiple and incessant. It is the sensation, well-known to clergy, graphically described by Kierkegaard as “the sustained agony of being trampled to death by geese”. If I do not go under, it is because I hold to the lifeline that my Lord has compassion on me.

“Compassion” on the lips of Jesus is a rich word. As the theologian, the Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth, who is soon to be the Bishop of Coventry, has written recently: “Behind the gentle word of our translation is a much stronger original that’s about guts being stirred and wills being activated for the long haul of love.”

Love is indeed a long haul — which is one reason why, like the Twelve, we are told to travel light.

Text of readings

Exodus 19.2-8a

2The Israelites had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’

7So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.’

Romans 5.1-8

1Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Matthew 9.35 - 10.8(9-23)

35Then 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 labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

1Then 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.

5These 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. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.

16See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’


 

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