Readings: Exodus 19:1-6; Romans 5:6-11; Matthew 9:36-10:8
The Gospel of today opens with the passage where Jesus looking over the crowds of people with a feeling of compassion for them. They are “harassed and helpless” like sheep without a shepherd. They have no one to care for them. Things do not seem to have changed much even today. So many people are harassed by various forces and are helpless, drifting without any real direction in their lives. “Do you know where you’re going to?” Diana Ross and the Supremes sang the classical song some years ago. How many of us can really answer that question as to which direction we are moving? So Jesus tells 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 baptized he is, to a large extent, a stranger.
One way we can ask the Lord to send laborers 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.
These disciples are called “apostles”. The apostle is on who is sent on behalf of another. They are called by name, all the twelve of them. It may surprise us that this is the only time this word is used in Matthew’s gospel. They are the disciples and a disciple is 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. They were 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 the greed 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. Some were ordinary fishermen. Therefore it does not give us much reason to say 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 any one. Can we say to him today, “Here I am, Lord; use me”?
The twelve are chosen from the many that were called. The calling of the apostles is important. In Prophet Isaiah we read that the person is called by name because he is God’s own person. The Jews believed that to call some one by name was to take possession of the person and only God could do it. They could not utter God’s name and in the Bible they substituted it with Adonai, the Lord. Some of the names do not come again in the Gospels but they are important because Jesus has called them on a mission. Secondly, twelve was an important number we read 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. 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!”
The apostles are to show the nearness of the Kingdom by curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out demons. These are all signs of God’s loving power reaching deep into people’s lives. 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 marginalized, rejected, despised, ostracized 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. 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.”
However, we must remember that kingdom of God is not a place. It might be better to speak of the reign, the kingship of God. The kingship of God is a situation 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.