Proclaiming a new empire

Second Sunday after Pentecost; 14 June 2020; Proper 6A (RCL); Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:23.

Jesus sees the crowds and has compassion on them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew is quoting the book of Numbers (27:17), when Moses worries that, after his death, the people will be like sheep without a shepherd, so God appoints Joshua (Jesus in Greek) to lead the congregation. In this passage, Jesus passes that commission on the the apostles.

Jesus gives them authority over unclean spirits, and power to cure every disease and sickness, and tells them to proclaim that a new empire has come near. Matthew wants us to think of Joshua entering the land, and the promises that went with that entry. The apostles are to stay within the limits of that land, not going to the Samaritans or Gentiles, but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

They are wandering, itinerant philosophers, like the Cynics. Life is even more constrained for them than the Cynics. Cynics could carry a bag, for the food which they begged for the following day. The Christians could only beg their bread for this day. The Cynics could carry a stick for beating off the dogs, and an extra tunic, in case they had to sleep outside. Not so the Christians. They were absolutely dependent on the hospitality of others.

And the new empire looks like the healing of disease. The ancient world was much more alive to the social dimension of disease than we are. That doesn’t it isn’t there — we just don’t see it. Think of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. People were completely cut off from their social support structures, many dying alone. COVID-19 is doing the same thing for many.

The healing of disease could look like bringing people back into sociality, bringing them back to the table. That’s why, after Jesus has healed someone, he often instructs those standing by to give the person something to eat. In Luke’s Gospel, those sent out are instructed to convene a kind of stone-soup meal — eat whatever is set before you — and then declare that the empire has come near.

Abraham’s hospitality says something similar. Without hospitality, travelers would have faced grave difficulties, so the obligation was absolute. Abraham sets quite a meal before these three travelers, and is rewarded with a promise.

Watching the protests on our streets these last two weeks, I have been impressed by the variety among the protesters. In Ferguson, the protests were predominantly black. This time around, we’re seeing much greater diversity. Something has shifted. A great wound, or division, is being acknowledged — the first step toward healing. And many are being brought to the table. A new empire is being proclaimed.

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