James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)
Matthew 10: 1-23
Parallels Mark 3: 13-19a; 6: 6-11; 13: 9-13; Luke 9: 1; 6: 12-16; 9: 2-5; 12: 11-12; 6: 40
Highlighted words will have comment on translation below
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 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. 15 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.
16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
The narrative in Matthew pushes us into these moments where the words of Jesus are used to reveal what the nature of discipleship will be for those called to follow (or in this case be sent by) Jesus. This block of teaching, sometimes called the ‘missionary discourse’ or the ‘apostolic discourse’ forms a cohesive unit of instruction for Matthew while Mark and Luke scatter these words throughout their gospels. Matthew remains a skilled editor, bringing together units in a way that is easy to remember and in sections that can easily be used to instruct future generations of those entrusted to proclaim the message of the kingdom of heaven’s presence among the earth. While this portion of the story is directed towards the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ it will continue to resonate for those who read this passage post-resurrection where apostles are sent beyond Israel to Samaria, the surrounding region of the Gentiles and to all the nations with the message and authority of the risen Christ.
The number twelve is symbolic in Israel, representing the twelve tribes named for the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel). In summoning twelve disciples Jesus symbolically has chosen one person to represent each of the lost tribes of Israel. The authority Jesus shares with them has been demonstrated in the previous two chapters of healings and exorcisms by Jesus and now the disciples are to exercise the same authority. The naming of the twelve disciples/apostles has a few interesting notes: we are introduced to the two sets of brothers in Matthew 4: 18-22, and unlike Mark and Luke we learn that Matthew is noted to be the tax collector introduced in Matthew 9: 9-13. Even though the ministry is to the lost sheep of Israel, the second Simon is noted as ‘the Cananaean’ (Luke titles presumably the same Simon as Simon the Zealot) and finally there is the oft discussed title of Judas, Judas Iscariot. We often think of people having last names, but when someone is given a second addition to their name in ancient times it is a way of linking either to family (typically proceeded by son of…) or some other descriptor. Iscariot could be a linkage to the Sicarii, a group of Jewish Zealots prior to the fall of the temple in 70 CE who strongly opposed Rome’s rule in Judea (the name comes from the daggers they concealed under their cloaks). If Judas is linked to the Zealots then it could explain his later betrayal of Jesus and would make this group that Jesus called a diverse group: uniting fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and perhaps even a non-Jew. Regardless of origins, the twelve disciples will be instrumental in the continued witness of Jesus’ ministry and meaning in the time after the resurrection.
These twelve apostles (apostle means ‘one sent out’) are now joined to this continued reconstitution of the people of God. The title ‘lost sheep’ echoes Jeremiah:
My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, “We are not guilty, because they have sinned against the LORD, the true pasture, the LORD, the hope of their ancestors. Jeremiah 50: 6-7, see also the language of Ezekiel 34 (although the term lost sheep is not used)
The Greek term for lost, apollumi, is a word that normally means destroyed, killed, or perished (the Hebrew term in Jeremiah can also have these meanings in addition to lost). In combination with the later message about being lambs going among the wolves, those who have devoured, the language poetically evokes, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both a God who can bring new life out of death, can re-gather a decimated flock and whose presence makes new realities possible, but also that these activities will be resisted. Yet, the sending is a message of hope, not judgment. As Richard B. Hays can state:
Matthew 10, however, show no interest in pronouncing judgment on the people for straying from the fold. Rather, Jesus is portrayed as sending the disciples out to rescue and regather them, because “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (10:7). (Hays, 2016, p. 129)
The proclamation that the ‘kingdom of heaven has come near’ is identical to the gospel that Jesus proclaims in Matthew 4: 23 but the word euangellion which is translated gospel or good news is not present in the Greek. Regardless the apostles are sent as heralds of the approaching kingdom of God in both words and actions which are identical to those already demonstrated by Jesus. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” evokes the healing narratives in Matthew 8-9 which those reading the gospel, or hearing it read, have just encountered. They are to do this not for financial gain, they are not to use these powers entrusted to them to accumulate wealth or power, but instead (in the order the Greek renders it) “without cost you received, without cost give.”
The word translated take in verse 9 is ktaomai which is better translated acquire, and probably has less to do with what the disciples may take for their journey than continuing to emphasize that they received without cost and they are to give without cost. Laborers deserve their food, but they are not to accumulate precious metals, additional clothing or items for their journey. They are to rely on the hospitality of the people to be provided for during their stay with them, but they are not to use this commissioning as a means to accumulate. They are to find a worthy person to receive their message and to be their host, they are to offer their blessing of peace to that home so long as the home is worthy and shows them hospitality. They are the heralds of the message, but they cannot ensure its reception and if they are not received with hospitality then they are to depart without even the dust of the town or home that wouldn’t receive them. Those places are guilty of the same violation that Sodom made when the angels visited their town and Lot’s home in Genesis 19, they did not extend hospitality and they were hostile to the emissaries of God’s kingdom. While the apostles carry a message of hope, Jesus’ words point to the necessity of receiving this message for the approach of the kingdom of heaven is joyous for those who receive it with joy but judgment for those aligned against it.
Just as verse seven looked back to chapters eight and nine with the apostles now doing the very things that Jesus did, now in verses 16-23 the persecutions that those sent out with the message entrusted to them by Jesus will encounter the same reception that Jesus receives. Being handed over to councils and synagogues (26: 1-5; 26: 57-68), dragged before governors and kings (27: 1-2, 11-26), being betrayed by brothers (which can also reference not only physical connection but also may reference being betrayed by other believers as with Judas 26: 47-51). (Allen, 2013, p. 105) They are sent out to the lost sheep of Israel as sheep themselves, subject to the same dangers from those who have previously devoured the flock. They are called on to be shrewd and at the same time not to adopt the practices of those who have left the flock in such a decimated state. They will receive the same treatment that Jesus did, and though Matthew doesn’t share the gospel of John’s imagery of Jesus being the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ these sheep, like Jesus will be handed over to death for the sake of the world.
Those carrying this proclamation will be hated because they represent a challenge to those who have been the shepherd, both political and religious, to the flock and have fattened themselves off the flock. The shepherd have turned out to be wolves, brothers may become betrayers and in the acidic words of Johnathan Swift these wolves or shepherds or brothers have “just enough religion to make us hate one another—but not enough to make us love one another” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 159) The disciples are to be something different, to have enough ‘religion’ or faith to make us love one another, to perceive the advance of the kingdom of heaven against the forces that keep people enslaved, possessed, sick and injured. They are not to practice the ways of the shepherds who became wolves by accumulating the possessions and wealth of the sheep they were to care for, but instead to trust that they have what they need for the ministry they are sent into. The world may be a dangerous place but there are worthy homes and people who are willing to practice hospitality and to hear their proclamation. These apostles have no time for places unreceptive to their message and resistant to the kingdom of heaven. They merely are to shake off the dust and walk (or flee) to the next town, for there are more towns in Israel than they can cover. The harvest is indeed plentiful, but the laborers are relatively few.