Thursday, February 21, 2013

To Send Out Workers

Let's take a look at Matthew 9:35-10:15, in which Jesus sends the disciples on a little mission trip.

Image source.

So first, Matthew tells us what Jesus is up to. Matthew 9:35 says he was traveling around, healing, and teaching about the kingdom of God. Great!

But then verse 36 says, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." So what does that mean, "harassed and helpless"?

Hold that thought while we read the rest of the passage to get some context.

Then Jesus says, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."

And then he sends them out. He gets the 12 disciples together, pairs them up, and sends them off with a ton of instructions. They are to go to the Israelite towns, heal the sick, and preach the kingdom of God (pretty much what Jesus was doing a minute ago). They aren't supposed to take anything with them, but instead find someone to stay with once they get there.

And at this point I stop and go, "What?" because I don't remember the story happening that way. Oh sure I've read this passage before- I memorized that verse about "the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few" long ago, and I've read about Jesus sending his disciples out. But I didn't realize those two events were, you know, related. Because there's a chapter break in here.

See usually when I read the bible, I read 1 chapter at a time. Today read chapter 9, tomorrow read chapter 10. And reading the bible that way for my entire life has solidified these artificial divisions in my mind. Yes, I know Jesus said "the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few" but I didn't realize anything ever came of it. I guess I thought it was just an observation about the world.

I've even heard people say, while studying just the end of Matthew 9, "Isn't it interesting how Jesus said they should pray that people get sent out- rather than taking it upon themselves to go?" As if Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Well, nothing we can really do about it- better just pray that God sends somebody." Oops.

So yeah. Chapter divisions in the bible are a necessary evil.

Chapter breaks: more annoying than this. Image source.

But anyway, let's talk about what's going on in this passage:

Jesus sends the disciples to do pretty much the same thing he had been doing. (Pretty cool that the disciples were given power to heal people.)

So why did Jesus send them out like this? Maybe because he couldn't cover enough ground alone? Maybe that's what he meant when he said "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few."

Or maybe to train them. To give them a chance to practice preaching, and to experience God's power working through them.

So now can we talk about what "harassed and helpless" means?

Jesus saw that the crowds were "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." He addresses this by sending out the disciples to "proclaim this message: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near'," and "heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons."

So perhaps "harassed and helpless" meant they were in need of Jesus' teaching and physical healing.

And here's Jesus' method: Dependence on those we are trying to reach.

The disciples weren't supposed to take any supplies or money. Just find someone nice and stay at their house, and eat what they provide. Personally, I really like this approach because it places the missionary where they have no power and they need help from those who are "harassed and helpless."

(Okay but let me throw in the caveat that the disciples were not going to people of a different culture. So you can debate whether or not it's valid for me to call this a "mission trip.")

A lot of American Christians seem to view missions as us who have all the answers and money and awesomeness going to help the poor sad people in other countries who need our help.

And this is A PROBLEM. This is dehumanizing. This view of missions is WRONG. Because hey, doesn't Christianity teach that all people are made in the image of God? And, like, respect for other people?

It's way too easy for missionaries (especially short-term missionaries) to go to another country, bring suitcases full of stuff we think we can't live without, stay sort of isolated from the culture and people there, do some kind of service project, and think we're quite literally God's gift to the world.

And seriously, how does this come across to the people there? For one thing, when you go to a different culture, you're not going to have a clue about a lot of things. So if you come in arrogant, condemning the differences as wrong, then everyone who lives there and thinks things are completely normal is going to think you're the crazy one. Why should they listen to you?

So I'm sort of getting off-topic here. But the point is: Every person has something to teach you. Every culture has something to teach you. And if that's missing from your mission trip, then YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

But no worries, Jesus has his disciples DO IT RIGHT. Rather than acting like they have all the answers and other people need their help, they're showing up empty-handed, counting on the kindness of strangers.

The purpose of the disciples' "mission trip" is definitely to help others. To heal, to teach- these are things that the "harassed and helpless" people need. So it's not arrogant and wrong to acknowledge the existence of a need. But they're also respecting the people they have been sent to, trusting them to know how to host guests, appreciating their culture and lifestyle as valid.

There has to be a balance. Have a realistic view of the world's needs and what you can do to help- which includes a realistic view of how other cultures exist and are AWESOME and have a lot to teach us. A realistic view which values others' intelligence and dreams, and doesn't see their physical or spiritual needs as their entire identity.

So... let's get back to what Jesus and the disciples are doing here in Matthew 10. I see principles of love and respect and care for others' needs. Totally essential when thinking about missions and the way to treat people in general. As for the specifics that Jesus gives- don't take any money, meet a stranger and stay at their house- those will be effective in certain settings and won't apply in other settings. This particular method would work in a culture that very much values hospitality toward strangers, where hosting random people was seen as a very normal thing to do. For missions in cultures that don't fit those criteria, you'll have to find another way to adapt those principles of love and respect.

In this passage Jesus gives a model for missions, sending his disciples out to preach and the help others, and also to live among them with an attitude of respect and even dependence.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Don't get your theology from Mickey Mouse (Matthew 9:27-34)

Next post: The Scary Part (Matthew 10:16-42)

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