OVER the past two weeks, we have seen how Jesus calls and sends out his twelve apostles. They have no worldly status and security: Jesus tells them that they are to go out like “sheep into the midst of wolves”. Their ministry will be a source of disturbance and conflict, as they are “maligned” and rejected in his name.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks about those who will receive the twelve as they go from town to town proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Their welcome — or, indeed, rejection — of Jesus’s disciples as they come in poverty will reveal the state of their own hearts.
Jesus tells his disciples that “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In Christ, we discover that humility and poverty are “God’s sign” (Benedict XVI). The way people receive these disciples who bear that divine “sign” will reveal their attitude to God himself.
As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis explains, “if Christ himself were seen walking the earth, there is little chance any one of us would treat him any differently than we do those among us who are saying and doing what Christ taught and who nevertheless do not correspond in appearance to our own mental construct of what Christ ought to look like” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).
Jesus’s words present today’s readers with a twofold challenge. First, they invite us to re-examine our own “mental construct” of Jesus Christ. We must learn to recognise him in the very places our world overlooks and dismisses — and to acknowledge how deeply this world’s values have affected our own attitudes and judgements.
Second, they invite us to re-imagine our Christian mission. The temptation is always to seek security and status, and to shy away from messages that will alienate or scandalise. As we see in Matthew 10, Jesus sends the apostles out in poverty and vulnerability. Moreover, he gives them a message to proclaim that makes enemies as well as converts.
Such conflict is foreshadowed in the ministry of Jeremiah. In our first reading, he alienates his audience by disputing the prophecies of Hananiah (who is predicting the return of the temple vessels and exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem). Jeremiah wishes that this prophecy were true, saying “Amen! May the Lord do so,” but declares that it is, in fact, a message of false comfort.
Faithfulness to God requires a willingness to forego popularity, and to unmask realities that many audiences would prefer should remained veiled. Jeremiah’s unsparing message is echoed in the words of Martin Luther King, when he preached against the “obnoxious peace” of an escapism which “fails to confront the real issues of life” but takes refuge in “stagnant complacency”.
In our epistle, Paul calls his readers to this same courageous witness. They are no longer to be “slaves of sin”, captive to desires whose “end” is “death”. Instead, they are to become “instruments of righteousness”, submitting their lives to a very different authority and power, and desiring those things which are of true and lasting value.
There is a twofold paradox in Paul’s message. To find freedom, we must submit to the true source or authority and power. And to find true life, we must lose our fear of death. Both Jeremiah and the disciples in the New Testament have an inner freedom, which enables them to bear witness to the truth even when it leads to violent opposition. They overcome their fear of this world’s powers and principalities, because they prophesy and minister in the power of God’s Spirit.
Evelyn Underhill warns that the Christian life involves a “stern choice”: it is not a “consoling retreat from the difficulties of existence”, but, rather, “an invitation to enter fully into that difficult existence, and there apply the Charity of God and bear the cost” (The School of Charity).
Paul invites his readers into this “difficult existence”, but reminds us that the “Charity of God” is not something we can apply in our own strength. To live “not under law but under grace” is to recognise that it is only in union with Christ that we can follow his first disciples, in proclaiming the gospel both in word and in deeds of power.