Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 9:36 to 10:8. This is a decisive moment in our Lord’s ministry when Jesus sends the Twelve out on mission to continue His works and announce the Kingdom. There are several elements of this passage that are meant to be informational for us as disciples who continue to carry on the mission of Jesus today.
When Jesus looked out at the crowds, we are told that our Lord had compassion on them for three reasons: they were harassed, distressed (or torn apart), and like sheep without a shepherd. All of these elements are important. First, we should note that Jesus’ response was one of compassion. There are certainly lots of other responses our Lord could have had when He looked out and saw the crowds. The description implies that the crowds were difficult at best and errant at worst. Our Lord could have expressed frustration, anger, antagonism, or a range of other reactions toward such a group but His noted response was that of compassion. That’s because Jesus saw in the crowds not occasions of error, but potential for greatness. Our Lord wanted to see the crowds as potential disciples and wanted to help them develop and grow rather than wither and waste away their lives. In order to accomplish this growth, they would need direction (shepherding), and so Jesus is moved to satisfy that need. Our Lord could have been motivated to send His disciples on mission out of a desire to confront the bad leadership that was misguiding the crowds, or to correct their errant ways, or to fill a power vacuum in the society of that time. While any of those motivations would have resulted in the same action, it is clearly stated that Jesus’ ministry was motivated by compassion. That motivation implies a heartfelt empathy for the plight of others and the willingness to help alleviate their suffering. The compassion of Jesus should challenge us to consider how we respond to difficult moments with other people and whether we can see in those moments an opportunity to invite someone to discipleship or just a chance to correct a wrong situation. Second, when we are told that the crowds were harassed and torn apart, we must wonder what the origin was of those destructive influences. In the Old Testament, Israel is oftentimes described with the image of lost sheep when their religious and political leaders led them into error resulting in destruction or calamity (Num 27:17, 1 Kg 22:17, 2 Chr 18:16, Ez 34:5, Zec 13:7). Certainly the people of Jerusalem were scattered during the time Matthew was writing his Gospel because of the Roman military campaign to suppress the Jewish revolt of AD 70. This distressed state is presented as the natural consequence of inadequate or unfaithful leadership. In such a setting of poor leadership, the common crowds are the ones who suffer. Jesus sends His disciples on mission to provide that leadership, which will care for the people’s needs and lead them to God. How do you typically respond when you see someone who is harassed by the circumstances of their life, torn apart by the malice of others, or lacking clear guidance?Who has helped you develop your potential as a disciple and become great in some way and what motivated their influence in your life?Who is someone God has placed in your life and who has the potential for greatness of faith? How can you be an instrument to help that person become a better disciple?What circumstances typically harass disciples today?How can members of the Church be torn apart from their commitment of faith?In what ways do people today pay the price for the bad decisions of their leaders?
Jesus then describes the leadership (shepherding) He will provide as being part of a great harvest. The image of the harvest is both powerful and deeply rooted in the prophetic books of the Old Testament (Is 18:4, Is 27:12, Jer 51:53, Hos 6:11, Joel 3:13). In the writings of Joel 3:13 and Micah 4:11–14, the harvest was a metaphor for the time of judgment. Jesus uses the harvest in this passage to describe the work of the Gospel and the mission of the Church. By using the image of the harvest, Jesus is communicating a sense of urgency and the need for everyone to do their best. The harvest waits for no one, and the magnitude of the work is seemingly greater than the workers can ever handle. It requires the committed efforts of those involved, each in their own capacity, for the harvest to be successful. If we delay or if we choose to not take advantage of opportunities, then the ripe harvest will be in jeopardy and what was intended to be a bumper crop could become a lost crop. The harvest requires commitment, but sometimes we find it easy to dismiss ourselves from the task while waiting for others to step forward in which case the opportunity of the harvest is oftentimes lost. What are some of the “harvest” moments you run across in your daily life (family, profession, and other social encounters) when situations are ripe for a message of faith or an expression of Christian compassion?What are some of the excuses we use to exempt ourselves from working in the harvest?By using the image of the harvest, Jesus is stressing that there are opportune moments of faith that do not last forever in people’s lives. What is the harvest the Church is missing out on today, and who are the workers the Lord wants to send into that harvest?
In the face of such great need, it would have been easy for the disciples to think their first action should be that of organizing, planning, and travel. However, Jesus is very clear about what their first action should be. After explaining the huge work they have to do, the Lord simply commands them to Pray. Prayer is essential in the life of a disciple and is necessary before we begin any effort of ministry so that whatever work we do may be in accord with God’s will and guided by the Holy Spirit. It does not matter what we accomplish if it is not in accord with God’s will. In fact, disciples sometimes act with good intentions but can end up working against the Gospel rather than for it. Prayer keeps us focused on our purpose, open to the Lord’s inspiration, and aware of the sacredness of our efforts. Without prayer, we risk doing our own will rather than God’s will. Jesus sent the disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and in order to do that, the disciples had to know clearly what the Lord wanted to occur in every situation they faced. What prayer do you use to start your day so you can be guided by the will of God and responsive to the harvest you will encounter?Reflect on the following prayer, “Lord, may everything we do begin with Your inspiration, continue with Your saving help, and come to completion in Your Kingdom.” How does this prayer speak to you? What happens when we begin doing something without first praying about it?
When Jesus sends the disciples on mission, He tells them to basically do three things: communicate the Good News (the Kingdom of Heaven), alleviate suffering (works of healing), and confront evil (cast out demons). These actions summarize the basic ministry of Jesus Himself and show that the disciples were sent to continue that ministry. For this reason Jesus shared with them His own authority and power. These are the actions that are intended to provide guidance to the crowds and protect them from undue distress and errant distractions. These actions continue to be essential elements of the mission of the Church today. First, the message of the Gospel forms the heart and soul of our ministry as much as it did when Jesus first sent the disciples on mission. Individual disciples, and the Church in general, must never lose sight of this mission. Christianity is not a self-help organization whose mission is to esteem the power of the human person to determine their own individual life. Christianity is the unwavering committed belief that the world, created inherently good by God, is wounded by sin but that God sent His Son as our Savior to restore us to grace and reveal to us the divine plan for our lives. That is the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. No matter what else the Church proclaims, or individual disciples communicate, if we are not telling the story of salvation through the message of Jesus (kerygma
), we are not fulfilling our mission. In fact, we can actually begin to lead people astray from God rather than leading them to God and end up becoming bad shepherds.
Second, the mission of the Church and individual Christian disciples must always include works of charity that seek to alleviate human suffering. Jesus stressed this important work by healing the sick, raising the dead, and cleansing lepers. Human suffering is not limited to physical illness but can also extend to social exclusion and destitute poverty. Just as Jesus manifested His compassion by caring for those whom He met, so too He sends us as His disciples to continue His compassionate ministry in the world today. Disciples who are not actively involved in alleviating human suffering on any and all levels are failing to fulfill an essential part of their mission in Christ. The charitable works of the Church are actually another way in which we are called to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and mercy to the world. A maxim commonly attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi says, “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.” There is an authentic evangelization that takes place anytime the love and mercy of God is shown in the world. Jesus did not want His disciples, or us, to ever lose sight of the importance of this witness.
Lastly, Jesus commanded the disciples to cast out demons. This is a way of saying that they are to confront the presence of evil and never become complacent or tolerant with it. Indeed, there is no place for evil in the Kingdom of Heaven. The work of confronting evil happens on personal, communal, and societal levels. It can mean everything from helping disciples grow in freedom from oppressive and sinful attachments to addressing systemic prejudice, poverty, or indifference on societal and communal levels. It can also mean addressing cultural values that oppose the Gospel or the dignity of the human person. The confrontation with evil is a necessary part of the Church’s mission (and every individual disciple’s mission) because the Kingdom of Heaven cannot coexist with evil. If you were to summarize the basic message being communicated by the Church today, what would be that message?What messages can actually be in contradiction to the kerygma (story of salvation) of the Gospel?What part of the kerygma is most overlooked in communication by Christians today?Why do you think Jesus included works of mercy and compassion (alleviating human suffering) as an essential part of the disciples’ mission?What situations of human suffering do you encounter every day?What evils most threaten marriages and families today?What evils most threaten a disciple’s individual moral integrity?What societal evils most need to be addressed, and how can a faith community be part of that confrontation?
The last part of our Lord’s instruction is the simple command to give without cost. This teaching on the necessity of gratuitous ministry was present in rabbinic writings of the ancient world. Saint Paul reiterates this same principle when he reminds the Corinthians that he preached the Gospel to them “without cost” (2 Cor 11:7). Jesus preached the Gospel, healed the sick, and cast out demons without charging for His services, and legitimate disciples will do the same. The reward for a true disciple is the joy and honor of sharing in God’s work in the world. Other miracle healers in the ancient world did make a personal profit from their healing ministries. This teaching of Jesus was meant to distinguish the Christian disciple from those miracle workers. It is challenging to realize that every gift God shares with us still belongs to the Lord. As Christian stewards of God’s gifts, we are responsible and accountable for how we use the Lord’s blessings according to His will. This is true both with the authority for ministry and the resources of ministry. Jesus has given us the tools we need to continue the ministry of the Gospel in our time. It is up to us to use those tools to build the Kingdom of Heaven and not only to build our own personal kingdoms. After having given the disciples so much power and authority, it was important that Jesus also remind them of the great responsibility they receive along with those gifts. This command, too, is one of the ways in which we effectively preach the Kingdom of Heaven. When we use our gifts, talents, and resources freely and generously for the mission of the Gospel (proclaiming faith, alleviating suffering and confronting evil), we become more authentic witnesses of Jesus. Sacrificial generosity and good stewardship will always be distinguishing characteristics of a true disciple. In what way does this reflection challenge you?How can disciples be tempted to use their God-given gifts and talents for their own gain rather than for the Kingdom of God?How does a disciple’s witness of generosity and selflessness render credibility and authenticity to the Gospel?In what ways can the mission of the Gospel be impeded by the self-seeking actions of Christian leaders?
For those who teach the faith the Church prays with these words: We thank you and bless you, Lord our God. In times past you spoke in many varied ways through the prophets, but in this, the final age, you have spoken through your Son to reveal to all nations the riches of your grace. May we who have met to ponder the Scriptures be filled with the knowledge of your will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, and, pleasing you as we should in all things, may we bear fruit in every good work. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
USCCB Liturgy Committee, “Order of Blessing for a Catechetical Meeting” in Book of Blessings,
Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 171.