The lost sheep of the House of Israel
(Readings: Exodus 19:2-6; Romans 5:6-11; Matthew 9:36-10:8)
Introduction to Mass
Last week, in the gospel reading, Jesus said that he had come for the sinners, not for the virtuous, and in the gospel passage for today's mass, he carries on that theme, that priority, this time sending out the disciples to the sections of the community that he calls the lost sheep - the people in the poorest and most depressed areas of the country, which were furthest away from the centres of religious life in Israel and Judah, and hardly ever had any message about God brought to them.
As always, we begin mass by owning-up to our own lack of conviction and commitment and faithfulness to the priorities of Jesus' mission, and we ask God for his forgiveness and for the grace to change.
This passage from Saint Matthew's gospel - the end of chapter nine and the start of chapter ten – comes about half way through Matthew's gospel and it describes a kind of turning-point, or a new departure in Jesus' ministry.
Up to this point, Jesus has been going around the country, preaching, healing people, exorcising evil spirits, in all of which he's breaking the power of the devil and extending the Kingdom of God. Now, at this point, he gives the disciples the job of doing the same thing. He summons them to join him in his efforts because while he's been touring around he's noticed two things, or experienced two things.
One is that in some areas, as Matthew says here, the crowds of people are harassed and dejected and they're like sheep without a shepherd. In other words, in some areas, Jesus notices that the people are suffering from a lack of spiritual leadership. The harvest is rich, he says, but labourers are few: the spiritual need of the people, their capacity for God, is great, but no one has thought them important enough to come and supply their need or develop their capacity.
There hasn't been anyone to open up the horizon of salvation to them, and in fact that's what Jesus is talking about when he talks about the lost sheep of the House of Israel. He doesn't mean “lapsed” Jews, although that would be part of it. The lost sheep of the House of Israel were the people who lived in the rural areas, for the most part, who were the furthest away, and the most alienated, from the main centres of religious leadership and religious activity. They were the people who were most deprived of whatever pastoral service was provided by the various scribes and rabbis and doctors of the law and so on.
The second thing that Jesus experienced when he saw these crowds was - as Matthew says - he felt sorry for them. He felt compassion for these communities who were marginal and abandoned, who weren't having any message about God preached to them.
During Christ's ministry, one of the things that got him into trouble with the authorities was his loving understanding of the poor. The truth is he showed favouritism towards the poor, and had a lot of sharp things to say to the wealthy and the comfortable. And it's this bias towards the poor, this closeness to the poor, that's at the root of his compassion in this case.
Jesus was very well aware of what we would now call social and economic conditions. He knew very well that Palestine was a Roman colony, and that some people were doing very well out of that state of affairs, while other people - especially those at the bottom of the social scale - were suffering the most.
He was well aware that there were groups of people in Israel at that time who were relatively privileged and well-educated and cultured so that their understanding of religion was well-developed and sophisticated. The gospels record several instances of Jesus’ discussions and disagreements with these educated people.
But in the neglected sections of the community there was a mirror image of that state of affairs: the harshness and the poverty of the material conditions was accompanied by other “poverties” – a coarseness of moral and spiritual outlook, an ignorance of the religious traditions, a cultural backwardness.
These were the crowds that Jesus could see were the most harassed and dejected, and these were the "lost sheep" that he made a special mission of, and sent his disciples to, to announce that God's Kingdom was close at hand if they wanted to belong to it.
But this decision of Christ’s to make a special approach to the "lost sheep" wasn't only for their benefit. Jesus was also trying to show the disciples what kind of spiritual leadership he wanted them to offer.
And the first thing, and the most important thing, was to show the same active compassion that Christ did himself - to share the burdens and the sufferings of these lost sheep, to practice solidarity with them.
Proclaiming God’s Kingdom - for the disciples, and for us now - doesn't mean solving everyone's problems or removing all their burdens. Most of the time, that's not possible. But it does mean sharing people's problems, helping to carry their burdens.
When the community that worships God goes out of its way to do that, rather than withdrawing into its own internal affairs and fostering a cosy, inward-looking atmosphere among its own members, then it starts to communicate the compassion of God, and that's what opens up the horizon of salvation to people who are the most dejected and lacking in spiritual input.
A few years after the end of the Second World War – and I’ll finish with this – the French philosopher Albert Camus, who was an atheist of course, was giving a lecture to some members of the Dominican Order, and he said that amongst all the cruelty and decadence of the modern world the Christian’s first duty as he saw it was to remain Christian.
Christianity as Camus saw it refuses to accept that human corruption, injustice, immorality has the last word, and holds out a vision of redeemed human nature instead. Even as an unbeliever, Camus saw the unique value of the Christian message and its ability to lift people out of the brutality and moral squalor that we’re always in danger of falling into.
“The world of today needs Christians who remain Christians,” he said; and that advice certainly doesn’t seem any less relevant now, sixty years later, than it was when he first offered it We still have the job of bringing our healing and liberating message to those who are lost and disorientated.
So those are the two lessons that I'd take from this short passage of Matthew's gospel. On the one hand Matthew's giving us very important information about the priorities in Jesus' own mission - and at the same time, he's giving his own community of Christians, and then us, a lesson on how we have a duty to carry on the same mission amidst the chaos and spiritual backwardness of our own time.