Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Exodus 19:2-6a; Response: Psalm 100:1-2, 3, 5; Second Reading: Romans 5:6-11; Gospel: Matthew 9:36-10:8

The Israelite migration from Egypt headed southward toward the Wilderness of Sinai. One would have expected them to head north toward what is today called the Gaza Strip, where the Philistines lived, as the closest route to the Land of Promise. The Lord, however, had other plans, as we read in Exodus 13:17-18: “God did not let them take the road to the land of the Philistines, although that was the nearest way. He thought that the prospect of fighting would cause the people to lose heart and turn back to Egypt. Instead, God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds.” Pursued by the Egyptians, they crossed the Sea of Reeds dry shod and camped on the other side. Next, they moved southward into the Wilderness of Shur, and from there southward again to the Sinai Wilderness, where they pitched camp facing Mt. Sinai.

That brings us to the beginning of this Sunday’s first reading. It sets the stage for the cutting of the Sinai covenant between the Lord God and the Israelites enroute to the Promised Land. Why cutting? The covenant between God and Abram in Genesis 15 may provide an answer. There, the Lord directed Abram to select certain animals; cut them in half; and lay them out on opposite sides, facing each other, with a path through the center. Abram, in a trance, saw a flaming torch pass between the cut sacrificed animal pieces. The narrative ends with these words, “On that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram.” The flaming torch passing between the pieces symbolized the Lord pledging that, if he did not live up to the covenant, Abram could cut or do to him what was done to the sacrificed animals. Supposedly this was a customary ratification of treaties.

That being said, our reading sets the stage for the cutting of the Sinai Covenant. To get things going, the Lord calls Moses up “the mountain of God.” The Lord tells Moses to remind the Israelites what he had recently done for them by delivering them out of Egyptian slavery. That should prove that he would do what he says he would do. “How I bore you up on eagle wings, and brought you here to myself.” Moses was directed to tell his people that if they listen to the Lord’s voice and keep, that is, live up to the stipulations of this agreement, they would be the Lord’s special possession, “dearer to me than all other people, though the whole earth is mine.” The final verse in our reading is important for New Testament theology: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” The First Letter of St. Peter, 2:9, applies these words to all Christians. Thus, Christians become what St. Paul calls them in Galatians 6:16, “the Israel of God.”

With that thought in mind, Psalm 100 invites Christians to sing joyfully to the Lord because, in the words of the people’s response, “We are his people, the sheep of his flock.” The final verse of the response psalm picks up on the theme of God’s faithfulness noted in the first reading, “His kindness endures forever. His faithfulness to all generations.”

The second reading is part of St. Paul’s claim that, by faith, we are made acceptable to God; at peace with God through Jesus; and looking forward to God’s glory. How did Jesus achieve this for us? Not because we earned it, but “while we were still helpless, dying for the ungodly (us).” Paul points out that a person might bring himself to die for a good person, but hardly for a bad person. But that is exactly how God proved his love for us; Christ died for us while we were still sinners. We were reconciled to God while we were enemies of God. If God did that through the death of Jesus, then surely God will save us through Jesus’ resurrected life.

Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing drew huge crowds. His reaction: “Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them, because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” In that sentence, Matthew displays his knowledge of the Scriptures; but only the Scriptures called “The Old Testament.” He did not know that he was contributing to and helping to form Scriptures we call “The New Testament.” What was Matthew thinking of when he attributed to Jesus the above sentence 50-or-more years after the event? In Numbers 27:16-17, Moses prays, “Let the Lord … appoint a man over the congregation (Israelites) … who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” That prayer resulted in the appointment of Joshua to share in the authority of Moses. In our gospel reading, Jesus will share his authority with the 12 apostles (See also Exodus 18:24-26, and Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25, for Moses choosing his helpers). Matthew quotes Jesus: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” At this moment, Jesus shares his authority with his first laborers — the 12.

What share in his authority did Jesus bestow on them? “Authority over unclean spirits (demons), to drive them out, and to cure every disease and illness.” Matthew gives us a list of the 12. They were ordinary people before Jesus called them. After lengthy instructions, he sends them out into their first mission. Strangely, he says, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” Their mission is restricted to Israelites (Jews) only. Thus, Matthew divides salvation history into three ages - the Old Testament up to and including John the Baptizer; the time of Jesus; and the time of the Church. Nor have the disciples, at this point, been given authority to teach. They will receive that authority at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to them. Then, the whole world will be their mission (See Matthew 28:16-20). The final instruction to the disciples in today’s gospel: “Without cost you have received, without cost you are to give.” Does this mean that those who work in and for Jesus’ mission should do so without pay? St. Paul says, “No!” To prove it, he quotes from animal-rights legislation from the Old Testament: “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” (See 1 Corinthians 9:9 and Deuteronomy 25:4).