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.”Matthew 10:5-6 (NRSV)
I’ve written on this passage before, but Google tells me that there are people searching around my site for the answer to this question, so I thought I’d address it a little more directly.
This passage and passages like it where Jesus seems to be excluding Gentiles (and/or Samaritans) can seem jarring to us in the context of our contemporary theology. Jesus’ mission, so the story goes, is to save the souls of humanity from Hell. It is a worldwide mission of cosmic significance, so excluding groups of people seems very un-Jesus-like.
Against such a context, phrases like “lost” connote someone who hasn’t “accepted Christ,” just as the phrase “good news” (or gospel) in verse 7 of Matthew 10 becomes shorthand for the offer to be saved from hell. We read other parables and teachings of Jesus against this backdrop. The shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the lost one is an illustration of Jesus’ missional love for the unsaved. The parable of the prodigal son is about the joy of God over sinners who convert.
If this context were accurate, then Jesus’ instructions here are a little difficult to understand. If Jesus’ mission is to reach as many people as possible with the offer to be saved from Hell if they accept him as their savior, and if “the lost” means everyone who hasn’t accepted Jesus as their savior, then what’s this about? Aren’t Samaritans and Gentiles “lost” as well? Why doesn’t Jesus want his disciples bringing the good news to them?
My answer is that the theological context is wrong.
The story of the Old Testament is the story of Israel and her God. Yes, on occasion, another nation may get pulled on stage for this or that reason, but the main storyline is what is happening to the Israelites. There are times of faithfulness, times of immorality, wisdom, foolishness, righteousness, sinfulness, forgiveness, and judgement.
From the Old Testament perspective, this storyline culminates in a world where Israel has been exiled from the land that was promised to them. Under the dominion of pagan empires, some Israelites have somewhat sort of returned to the land, but she is also scattered. While Jerusalem is still the center of her identity, she is all over the place. Israel does not rule the land and in most cases is not in possession of it, either. By the time Jesus comes on the scene, even the High Priest in the Temple was appointed by the Roman government.
Israel has been in this total exile to quasi-exile stage for centuries by the time Jesus is born. During this time, different people have adapted to the situation in different ways.
Some of them remain patiently faithful. This group is not presented as very numerous, but they do show up in the gospels. Even some among those groups who opposed Jesus fall into this category. These are people who continue to hope in the promise of God for the restoration of Israel’s fortunes. They have an eschatological faith despite the circumstances around them that motivates them to continue to worship, keep the Law, and minister. These people are not without their flaws, but they seem to be doing the best they can in hope.
Some of them have decided to make the best of the situation and cozy up to the new power structure. We see this primarily in the power structures of Jesus’ day: the Temple, the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees, the Pharisees and scribes, the tax collectors. These people are continuing the trajectory of Israel’s leaders that got them into trouble in the first place. They make themselves wealthy while their own people suffer. They use their power as a way to secure their estate rather than using their power to sacrificially and faithfully minister to God’s people. In many ways, the things Jesus was doing among the people was what Israel’s leaders should have been doing the entire time.
Most people, however, just seem to have lost hope. God has left them. They live hard lives of toil and poverty on land that has been taken from them and then they die. While potentially a cultural form of their faith might still be practiced, it’s the cares of the world that have their focus as well as what small pleasures they might occupy themselves with.
These people once belonged to God, and He to them. But now the nation that supposed to be a shining beacon to all the others, showing to the nations of the earth what it looks like to be a new creation people serving the God who made the heavens and the earth, had become just like everyone else. God’s treasured possession had been lost.
The image of the common people of Israel as lost sheep is a big part of Old Testament prophetic indictment. The image is especially common in Jeremiah, reaching a fever pitch in Jeremiah 23:
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.Jeremiah 23:1-4 (NRSV)
The leaders of Israel are shepherds that have led the people straight into dispersion. God Himself will bring his sheep back to Himself and their land.
This is what is meant by the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus is not talking about “saved” versus “unsaved” Israelites; he’s talking about the people of Israel more or less as a whole. Israel as a people have been exiled and dispersed due to the sinfulness of their leaders, but Jesus in the name of God will restore them. This message is not lost on Israel’s leadership at all.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ Israel-restoring mission is what takes the foreground. We could debate about whether or not other Gospels have quite the same emphasis, but Matthew’s Gospel definitely makes Jesus primarily about this task. I would say the other Synoptics do as well, with John somewhat less so.
Against this context, Jesus’ instructions make sense. His intention is to recover Israel first, then the rest of the nations. This episode where Jesus sends his disciples into their own towns stands in a bit of tonal contrast to the Great Commission we see at the end of Matthew, where the disciples are now sent to “the nations,” and this stage of the plan seems to occupy much of apostolic ministry.
This primacy and sequence seem to resonate throughout the New Testament.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.Romans 1:16 (NRSV)
We live long after these events. The news of Jesus has spread throughout the world. Today’s believers in Jesus are predominantly Gentile by an overwhelming amount. It is very easy for us to take our present circumstances and read those back into the Bible.
But neither the story nor history worked out that way. In Jesus’ mind, the people of Israel are lost coins, lost sheep, and prodigal sons sought after by the Father who will rejoice at their return. That is his primary missional focus in the Synoptics, and it is only as news of what Jesus has done spreads that we begin to see the unfolding of the rest of the nations being included in the people of God.