These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
Matthew 10:5-15 (NRSV)
Having given the Twelve his own authority, Jesus now plans to release them into the wild to scale up the operation of liberating Israel.
You can see the focus on Israel right from the get-go. Jesus specifically forbids them to go to any Gentile villages. The intent is to recover the lost sheep of Israel.
It may throw us off, living on this side of Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, to see such a narrowly focused mission, but this is an important theme in the biblical story that often gets overlooked: the initial mission is to Israel, and it is in the context of what God is doing with and for Israel that Gentiles end up getting included. Recall the proclamation of the angel at the beginning of Matthew, that Jesus would save his people from their sins. Jews, not everybody.
It is this mission of saving Israel that will result in the inclusion and salvation of Gentiles. At the end of Matthew, Jesus will send his disciples into all nations. At this point in the story, however, we’re focused on what will become of Israel. Gentiles will certainly be mentioned in the gospels, but they are singular events, worthy of mention due to their irregularity. The focus of Jesus’ work, at this point, is Israel. He is going to save them from the plight their sins have landed them in – the curse of the Law.
When the first Star Wars movies came out, it was easy to see that the movies were about Luke Skywalker. But when the prequel trilogy came out, and we saw the whole scope of it, we realized that the movies were actually about Anakin Skywalker. He was the prophesied one. He was the one who brought balance to the Force. The whole series is the story of his rise, fall, and redemption. Luke Skywalker is a very important part of that story, but it’s actually not about him. He is in the story only because the story is about Anakin Skywalker.
I sometimes feel modern Christians need to get out of their own heads a bit when looking at the biblical story. If all you see is the New Testament, you might get the idea that the Bible is the story of God and humanity in general. But when we incorporate the Old Testament and see the whole thing, together, we see that the Bible is predominantly the story of God and Israel. The rest of humanity gets included as part of Israel’s story.
If we come at Matthew’s gospel from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry being about all mankind throughout space and time, then Jesus’ instructions to his apostles are jarring. They are a weird problem to be solved. But if we understand that this is predominantly the story of God’s relationship with Israel, it makes a lot more sense. We know the Gentiles will be included in all of this, but in this scene, the Gentiles are just not relevant. Israel has sinned, grievously and repeatedly, and has fallen under the curse of her covenant with God. Jesus, and now his apostles, are about the work of overturning that condition. Gentiles aren’t even on the radar right now. They will be, but that’s a later movie. Theologically, we may note that God knows the future and this was always His plan and such, and that’s fine, but let’s not let that obscure what Matthew’s gospel is telling us right now.
The Twelve are to go from village to village, announcing to Israel that the kingdom of heaven – a concept of Old Testament hope and Jewish eschatology – has now come near. And how will they know? Because the sick will be cured, demons will be cast out, and even the dead will be raised. The apocalypse, in other words, but pretty much the good stuff.
The Twelve are not to worry about provisions for food and shelter. Someone providing these things for them is their sign that this is a village worth saving. If someone won’t, or if perhaps they do out of a sense of obligation but will not listen to the message, the apostles are to leave the village and shake the dust off their sandals.
Ironically, the Gentiles now come into this passage, because shaking the dust off your sandals is what you do when you’re a pious Jew leaving a Gentile dwelling. You shake all that nasty, unclean, Gentile dust off your shoes before you return to your Jewish dwellings. Here, Jesus is instructing them to do this when leaving the dwellings of other Jews. Why? Because it is faith in Christ that is drawing new dividing lines in Israel. “Clean” and “unclean” are on their way to becoming categories that are no longer defined by the Law; they are defined by trust in Jesus. This redrawing of the boundaries will be instrumental in including the Gentiles down the road, as Paul will forcefully argue in Galatians and Romans.
And what will become of such people? They will fall in the coming judgement. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their immorality in the Old Testament. Jesus says that those lands will be better off than unfaithful Israel when God’s judgement falls on their village. The apocalypse, in other words, but the bad stuff.
This brings into focus the polarities that have been with us all through Matthew’s gospel – the outwardly pious law-abiding Jews who want nothing to do with what God is doing for Israel in Jesus, and the sinful, dirty, lost Jews who rejoice to see it.
One of these groups will go home justified.
- What does the biblical focus on Israel mean for how Jews and Gentiles should see each other, today? How does this play out for some of Paul’s concerns for the early churches?
- Is the concept of salvation in this passage a purely spiritual matter, or does it have a more holistic connotation? How does this influence how we understand what it means to be “saved?”