Ex. 19. 2-8a; Ps. 100; Rms. 5. 1-8; Mt. 9.35-10.8
Theme: ‘Out and About’
Our readings for today speak to us about what it means to be ‘Out and About’ with Jesus. Obviously, for the Israelites, they did not know Jesus as we do after his life on earth, but what they did know of God, they knew through the Covenant made between God and the people of Israel. They learned about God through their journey out of Egypt and towards the promised land under the leadership of Moses. Often, during their journeys, like all nomadic people, even today, they had to set up camp. That is the episode which we hear about in our first reading today from the book of Exodus. Journeying through the wilderness of Sinai, they make their camp at the base of the mountain.
Typically, as in much ancient literature, such as the writings of the Old Testament, in order to speak with the divine, the representative of the people goes up the mountain. And, so it is with Moses, he ascends the mountain and God speaks with him and asks him to tell the people that as they have experienced the protection of God from the Egyptians (as God had done through dividing the sea so that the Israelites could escape the pursuing Egyptians, and their feeding with manna and quails in the desert), so God will make them his ‘treasured possession’. The deal, so to speak, for this to happen is known as the ‘Covenant’. This is the agreement made between God and the Israelites through Abraham in the Book of Genesis and now transformed into the daily life of the Israelites, their ‘Out and About’, if you will, by God through Moses in the form of the Law.
This Covenant is not an automatic agreement, the Israelites are to be ‘obedient to the voice of God’ and to ‘keep God’s Covenant’, then God will bless them. In other words, whilst God is always faithful to his side of the deal, humans cannot expect to receive this grace of God if they are not receptive to it. It is not magic. The grace of God is freely given, but not always properly received. Our sin and our hard-heartedness gets in the way and we are often closed to receiving the free gift of God, which is what grace means, in our lives. And, this is pretty much the story of Israel in a nutshell. The Covenant is made and time and time again, the people of Israel go their own way, are disobedient to God, and so lose the plot. But, God is always faithful and through the prophets and leaders of Israel, God continues to call the people back to faithfulness, back to the living out of the Covenant.
The section that we have for our first reading from the Book of Exodus is probably part of a liturgical ceremony that the Israelites used to recall the dealings of God with them during the exodus. It is meant to remind the people of the faithfulness of God, the stubbornness of the people, and the eventual reconciliation between the two in a liturgical act of celebration. If this sounds familiar, well this should not be surprising to us because this is why the Christian liturgy that we celebrate each Sunday has this pattern to it. The structure of the Christian liturgy, beginning with our penitential rite, following by the Bible readings and then the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist follows this pattern of the liturgical celebrations of ancient Israel.
The Gospel for today tells the story of Jesus’s and the disciples’ ‘out and about’ in the Palestinian territories depicted in the New Testament. Jesus goes out and about in cities and villages, ‘teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness’. Jesus notices in his mixing with the people that they seemed ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. So, the Gospel is teaching us here what the role of the disciple is, namely, to look after the sheep, to look after the people. But not in any way. The specific instructions that Jesus gives the disciples are, ‘to cast out unclean spirits, and to cure every disease and every sickness’. ‘To proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near’. This is a kind of mission statement, if you will, of what a disciple of Jesus is called to do. But, in order to be a disciple of Jesus, to be able to be ‘out and about’ with him, it is first necessary to sit at the feet of Jesus, in other words, to be a student.
Typically, in the ancient world, students sat at the feet of the master in order to learn the wisdom of the master, so that they themselves in time could become teachers in this lineage. You find this today particularly in oriental traditions which still use this system of passing on the wisdom of the teacher to the students. One needs to sit at the feet of the master in order to learn. Then one is able to go out and to share the wisdom of the teacher with others.
This is the mindset of our Gospel passage from St Matthew. The disciples had spent time with Jesus and had begun to know him and his message. So, now is the time for Jesus to go on the road with them, to go ‘out and about’ in order to proclaim the message of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. It is, for St Matthew, first to be proclaimed to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. These were the people, mentioned in Ezekiel 34. 2-6 as the ‘lost tribes’, those who had been divorced from the history of Israel, through the splintering of the community over its journey and those who had become marginalized because they could not fit in with all the rules and the regulations that were imposed on people to remain pure in Jewish terms.
How close to our own situation these readings seem to us today. There are so many people who have been brought up Christians, but the twists and turns, the ups and downs of life have separated them from the Christian community and they feel and indeed are alienated from the community of the church. This is why as disciples in our goings and comings, in our ‘out and about’ with Jesus, we should be particularly attentive to these ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’.
Each one of us is called by Jesus through our baptisms to be a disciple in the places where we live. But for us to be a disciple, we must first sit at the feet of the master and learn about Jesus, about who he is, and what his message of the kingdom of heaven is about. Only when we do this are we able to go ‘out and about’ with Jesus and share in his ministry to restore the ‘lost tribes of Israel’ to the community.
So, never think that in setting time aside for prayer and reading the Bible that you are wasting your time. No, every disciple of Jesus needs to do this, so that they are able to go ‘out and about’ with Jesus. It is the necessary training and preparation required to be a disciple and should always be viewed as such.
Once we do this, it is amazing how many people come across our path to receive our help, or to give us support, or simply to encourage us on the way. The mission of Jesus carried on by his disciples is what we as the members of the church are called to be. We are not simply called to be a member’s club who have a nice time on Sundays. Our coming together with one another on Sundays is an important part of our time of sitting at the feet of Jesus, so that he can teach us who he is and what it is that he is called us to do as his disciples. Nobody can do this for us. Each one is responsible for themselves in this charge as Jesus calls us personally by name, as he did the 12 apostles. But though he calls us personally as individuals, he also calls us to work collaboratively as a team, as a church, as we would say today, so that the efforts of each are magnified by the collective work of the whole community.
Let us pray then that we may never lose our desire to sit at the feet of Jesus and so to be empowered to go out with him, to be ‘out and about’ with Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.