The Mission Sermon by Canon Jim Foley
The Mission Sermon by Canon Jim Foley
To view this Reflection in PDF format click here.
A YEAR WITH SAINT MATTHEW
(2014 / 2017 / 2020 / 2023 / 2026)
Reflections on the Gospel of Saint Matthew
The Mission Sermon:
The second sermon stands in marked contrast to the Sermon on the Mount in a number of ways. The previous sermon was a manifesto that was deeply indebted to the past traditions of Israel: Jewish law, Jewish piety, and Jewish customs. Jesus stands in the shadow of Moses and in the company of the great prophets of Israel. His words resonate with the spirit of Israel of old. Past and present tenses abound: You have heard it said…but I say…That sermon might well imply a conflict of interests. Loyalty to the past was one thing but it carried the risk of a lack of awareness of present concerns and even of failure to plan for the future. With the Mission Sermon, present opportunities and future challenges are given pride of place.
The mission Sermon begins within the confines of Israel and within the limited company of twelve men. Gradually, horizons are raised beyond these limitations to address the vocation of the Christian disciple to the world with no restrictions of time or place.
Two social images introduce the Sermon, the harvest and the sheepfold. Before this moment Matthew had been concerned to put on record what might well be called a series of personal and quite isolated encounters. There are stories of the vocations of four fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John (4.18-22), of a tax-collector called Matthew (9.9-13), of two unnamed candidates (8.18-22). There are descriptions of miracles of healing involving individual suppliants, likewise unassociated: a leper, a Roman officer’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two possessed men, a paralysed man, the daughter of a synagogue official, a woman in the crowd, two blind men, a dumb man. These episodes are the burden of the previous chapters (Mt 8-9). There is, as yet, no suggestion that they enjoy any corporate identity or are promised some future fellowship. Most arrive out of the blue and disappear over the horizon to go their separate ways.
However, we now hear of a harvest and a sheepfold. These are images that suggest a sense of belonging and gathering together. They also imply an element of danger. The harvest is at risk for want of labourers, the sheep for want of a shepherd. These images and everything that follows in chapter 10 leave no doubt that Jesus’ purpose included a sense of belonging, and gave them an enhanced sense of identity, supported and guaranteed by labourers and shepherds, by competent and sympathetic leadership. The provision of such leadership was in God’s hands as the ‘Lord of the harvest’. The Lawgiver of the Sermon on the Mount now gives way to the compassionate shepherd of the flock.
If the introduction to the Mission Sermon seems detached from the day to day lives of those previously encountered, this detachment ends as we are introduced to twelve men whom Matthew is careful to identify as ‘his twelve disciples’. He had already hinted that these men would share a common bond as ‘fishers of men’. He now gives a complete role-call of their names, their parentage, their occupations, and, for one of them, his tragic destiny.
This extended introduction leads on to the mission of the Twelve. The Mission Charge which now follows takes up and develops the instruction presented briefly by the evangelist Mark (6.7-13). If the Sermon on the Mount could be described as a Manifesto of Christian doctrine, this sermon could be defined as a Christian Mission Statement. Matthew presents the instructions under five headings:
The Mission of the Twelve 10.5-15
Future persecutions 10.16-25
Do not be afraid 10.26-33
Not peace but a sword 10.34-39
The final reward 10.40-42
The Mission of the Twelve 10.5-15):
This first mission is to be limited in many ways. Priority is given to those nearest home, to the lost sheep of Israel to the exclusion of all others. The Samaritans, meantime, could be safely left in their role as professional misfits and, in time, others would look to the conversion of the Gentile world. Likewise, their preaching should be measured. Seven words would do – five in the Greek text of Matthew and three in the Aramaic original! The kingdom of heaven is at hand (10.7). They were to engage in a ministry of healing exactly as Jesus himself had done and to do so with no prospect of financial gain. No gold, no silver, no copper in their purse. Like an army on the march they were to live off the land. Mark had allowed a staff to help them on their way (Mk 6.8). Not so Matthew. Nothing short of total detachment was called for. Luke would imply that they could claim a salary (10.7). Matthew is careful to gainsay even this. The labourer can lay claim to food and drink alone. They must resist the temptation to search out the most comfortable lodgings during their mission or any inclination to cultivate a better class of people. Nor should they be mealy-mouthed when faced with a hostile reception. They must call a spade a spade.
Future persecutions (10.16-25):
Horizons are now raised and with them a new and intense hostility threatens. They will be like sheep confronted by ravenous wolves. There will be arrests and false accusations at home and abroad. That is when they must learn to be ‘wise as serpents and simple as doves’ (10.17). In other words, their wisdom must never degenerate into deviousness nor must their innocence fall victim to duplicity.
It is surely significant that the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the setting of the first mission of the disciples. They have nothing to fear: ‘The Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you’ (10.20). Even family life will be threatened by divided loyalties. They must address these tragic divisions in society with a sense of urgency and in the knowledge that they will have to give an account of their ministry to the Son of Man. Their zeal will bring its share of pain and suffering into their lives. But then the pupil is not greater than his master.
Do not be afraid 10.26-31:
With insistence Matthew repeats Jesus’ reassurance that his disciples have nothing to fear from those who threaten to persecute them. If, at present, they seem to fall victim to the hidden treachery of enemies, one day their deeds will be seen for what they are. By the same token, the ideals they have been privileged to learn from Jesus will be proclaimed unashamedly from the rooftops.
If there is to be any fear in their hearts let it be fear that they should abandon their faith when faced with the threat of a martyr’s death. Were this to happen they would place themselves under the final judgement of God. Martyrdom may well bring their earthly lives to an end but it will also guarantee their eternal destiny with God. They must never forget how much God loves each one of them. Their lives are entirely in his hands.
This group of sayings concludes with the ultimate reward for those who are faithful to their vocation to follow Jesus. He will acknowledge them before his Father in heaven.
Not peace but a sword 10.34-39:
The radical sayings in this passage can only be fully understood against the very strong Old Testament tradition of the suffering of the innocent. A dark side to human nature shows itself in the world’s distrust of those who aspire to lead good lives. The Book of Wisdom offers an explanation which was taken up in the New Testament:
‘Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us and opposes our way of life, reproaches us for our breaches of the law and accuses us of playing false to our upbringing’. (Wisdom 2.10ff)
A series of powerful paradoxes from family life illustrates just how deep these divisions can penetrate into society and even family life. For some, their loyalties will be tested to the limit.
The final reward 10.40-42:
The gift of the Holy Spirit brings a new identity to those who are called to be ambassadors of Christ. They identify with him as he does with his heavenly Father:
‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me’. 10.40
Elsewhere in the Gospel we hear of a presence of Jesus in the world beyond the historical. ‘Where two or three are gathered in his name he is present among them’. They cease to be the separate and often selfish individuals they once were and take on a new corporate identity. They have put on Christ. The same thought lies behind the sayings of Jesus about the poor and destitute. The parable of the sheep and the goats points us in the same direction. ‘In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me’ (Mt 25.40). The Mission Sermon is a sustained meditation on this new missionary identity which inspires the entire Christian community.
From the Mission Charge to the Sacrament of Confirmation:
The reference to ‘The Spirit of your Father’ in the Mission Charge (Mt 10.20) invites further reflection on the role of the Spirit in this first mission of the disciples and in the subsequent mission of the Church. There is abundant evidence in the Acts of the Apostles for the practice of formally communicating the Holy Spirit in the primitive Church. There is also the explicit gift of the Spirit by Jesus when he breathed on the Apostles and commissioned them to continue his mission of reconciliation.
‘He breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained’. (John 20.22f).
With the Mission Charge there is an awareness of the role of the Spirit in inspiring fearless witness to the Gospel. ‘Don’t be anxious about what you are to say the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.’ (Mt 10.18 10.20 10.27 10.32). Akin to witness is militancy. The disciples are presented as an army on the march entering hostile territory, travelling light and living off the land (10.9-10).
A further distinguishing feature of this Sermon is its dynamism. It shows itself in a number of ways. On a purely literary level the sequence of short commands follow each other at an almost breathless pace. There are some twenty-five imperatives which likewise suggest the supreme urgency of the situations to be addressed. Many of the sayings which make up the Sermon are concerned with detachment from anything that might delay or compromise the task entrusted to them.
The success of their mission is placed entirely under the guidance of ‘the Spirit of your Father’ (10.20). It is not surprising that the vigour and thrust of the Church should be traced to the Spirit of the Father and the Son. The dynamism of the inner life of the Trinity has its counterpart in the mission of the Church to the world. The Spirit proceeds from the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father. So also the Church proceeds from the love of the Father towards his adoptive sons and from the response of love from the adoptive sons to their Father. In this sense, the Church in her mission might well be defined as the sacrament of the procession of the Spirit, just as the Son can be defined as the sacrament of the redeeming love of the Father. As the community of believers extends the presence of Christ throughout the world they are transformed into the children of God and the love of God continues to reach them and others through their ministry (Rom 5.5).
Together with this pervading presence of the Spirit in the mission of the church and His prompting of the disciples in their profession of faith, there is an overall coordination of energies which can also be traced to the Spirit. A sense of direction is given to the separate endeavours of the members of the faithful and this contributes to the building up of the Church on earth.
The institution of the Sacrament of Confirmation is traced traditionally to Pentecost and, as such, is a gesture of the Risen Christ. However, Our Lord already prepared his disciples for this moment by the guidance he gave them on their mission to Israel. In the mission of the Church, winning souls from perdition and building up the kingdom of God, they are to recognise, not the success of human efforts, but the work of the Spirit of their Father, changing frightened men into intrepid witnesses to Christ, prepared to face hostility at home and abroad, displaying virtues of prudence and fortitude beyond what, humanly speaking, is possible. The Mission Sermon begins with the formal communication of the authority and power of Christ to the Twelve, indicating that they, in a special way, are to enjoy the gifts of the Spirit as they set out to edify the church.
A short distance separates the Mission Sermon of Matthew’s Gospel from the Sacrament of Confirmation. If we are looking for a treatise on the Sacrament of Confirmation we need look no further than the Mission Sermon of Matthew 9.25 – 10.42.
To engage further with an active missionary order click here to open a new screen for the homepage of Our Lady of the Missions.
To view this Reflection in PDF format click here.