Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions:“Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Matthew 9:35 – 10:1, 5-8
Where Jesus started is not where he ended up. Jesus began his ministry teaching in synagogues and healing the poor and afflicted among his own. And so, in this gospel passage appointed for today, he tells his disciples to “go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Also remembered in the Gospel according to Matthew is Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman who has a sick child. She asks for his help and he refuses because she and those like her are “dogs.” Jesus actually says “dogs,” and he’s not talking about pets; he’s talking about critters that are stray.[i] But then Jesus relents. The Gospels show a conversion in Jesus, and where he eventually tells his disciples to “go into all the world.” Jesus ends up spending time with reprobate people of every sort. He enters graveyards “defiled” by mentally-ill people, i.e., demon-possessed people. He eats with anyone who will share their food – most any kind of drink and food – and for that reason he is called a drunkard and glutton. He didn’t just talk about forgiveness; he was forgiving… and so he had a reputation of being “a friend of sinners,” because he was always with the wrong kind of people. Jesus goes beyond relating to the poor, needy, and outcast, he even comes to identify with them. And so, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” “…Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[ii]
Jesus’ story is our own. All of us begin with our own people, with our values engrained by our own family and our own culture. We call this “normal,” and we have every reason to presume that all would be right in the world if the world would take our own norms as its own. And then we are confronted by the other, as was Jesus. Not only do we discover that there is another way, other ways, to live and to believe, we also may be humbled into having to admit that at least some of these “other” people have got it right, or at least that they’ve got their right to be and believe very differently than do we. This was Jesus’ discovery, and it turned his own life upside down: his norms, his values, his calling. Jesus crosses too many people, people with power, and he ends up on a cross with his arms stretched wide, his heart broken open for the whole world. And so for us.
Jesus calls us and empowers us for the same, for our own arms to be opened wide for all people. “As we do it to the least, we do it to him.” This is our invitation to a life-long conversion to love as Jesus did, whom Jesus did: everyone. Ironically, the greatest challenge to this “inclusivity” is not the people we meet on the streets, not those who speak a different language, or live in a different class, or embrace a different religion. No. The hardest for us to embrace will be those who are closest to us, our own family, friends, co-workers, community members – the people we are most likely to be arguing with. (Jesus was continually asking his disciples, “What were you arguing about?”)
Where our own conversion is mostly to take place will be at home, among our own. Who are you most inclined to see as poor and pathetic? Who are you most inclined to see as blind and clueless? Who do you see as “lame”? Who are you most inclined to see as hungry, maybe starved for certain kinds of attention? Who is imprisoned, maybe imprisoned by you, because you would not allow them to change? These are the people whom Jesus brings into our life, and for our own ongoing conversion. The world is full of them; however most of them are probably under our own roof. In them we see Jesus – poor Jesus – and in them we serve Jesus.
[i] Jesus makes reference to some people as “dogs” at Matthew 7:1-11 and Matthew 15:21-31, and then, before our eyes, he has a conversion.
[ii] Matthew 25:35-45.
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