Sunday, June 11, 2023

Indiscriminate wishing Boundaries

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 9:35-10:8, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. I am entitling this entry as “Indiscriminate within Boundaries” because of two contrasting directions taking place in the reading. On the one hand, Jesus is quite clear that he is sending the twelve only to the lost/harassed sheep of the house of Israel, not in the way of Gentiles or the city of the Samaritans. Those are the boundaries to which I refer. On the other hand, Jesus sends them to heal, raise, cleanse, release, and so forth indiscriminately, giving as freely as they have received. From my present context where so many people want to discriminate ministry to, for example, “the deserving poor,” this final command is a profound exhibition of grace. I suspect that one way of reading Matthew’s delineation of the names of the twelve is to appreciate how Jesus had called persons to send who themselves were not perfect. Matthew’s readers would know that Simon Peter would deny him. They are told immediately that Judas Iscariot would betray him. And who knows what other kinds of imperfections might have been well known in the late first century about the others who are named so carefully here. Still, they received the power to proclaim the nearness of heaven’s reign and to perform compassionate acts of liberation.

35 Καὶ περιῆγεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὰς πόλεις πάσας καὶ τὰς κώμας, διδάσκων ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς αὐτῶν καὶ κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς βασιλείας καὶ θεραπεύων πᾶσαν νόσον καὶ πᾶσαν μαλακίαν. 
And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the reign and healing every disease and every illness. 
περιῆγεν: IAI 3s, περιάγω, 1) to lead around, to lead about with one's self  2) to go about, walk about
διδάσκων: PAPart nsm, διδάσκω, 1) to teach 
κηρύσσων: PAPart nsm, κηρύσσω, 1) to be a herald, to officiate as a herald 
θεραπεύων: PAPart nsm, θεραπεύω, 1) to serve, do service  2) to heal, cure, restore to health
1. Matthew uses νόσον (disease) on four other occasions. Two of them describe the work of Jesus (Mt. 4:23-24), and the last time arises later in our pericope (10:1 below). The other one, in 8:17, is from a quote from Isaiah that Jesus was fulfilling, which says, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (NRSV)
2. Matthew uses μαλακίαν (illness) also in 4:23 and 10:1 and nowhere else. The word literally means “softness.”
3. It is a little curious as to what makes some translators use “proclaiming” for κηρύσσω here and “preaching” for it elsewhere. Young’s Literal Translation rather consistently uses “proclaim,” while others seem to prefer “preach” when there is no object to the verb and “proclaim” when there is. I’m just thinking that it’s bad enough when people say to me, “Hey, Preacher!“ that I’m thankful they don’t say, “Hey, Proclaimer!”
4. Teaching, preaching, healing. That’s the same summation that we find in 4:23.
5. As far as I can tell, this is the only time the phrase “good news of the reign” appears without the modifier, “… of God.”  Talk amongst yourselves.

36 Ἰδὼν δὲ τοὺς ὄχλους ἐσπλαγχνίσθη περὶ αὐτῶν ὅτι ἦσαν ἐσκυλμένοι καὶ ἐρριμμένοι ὡσεὶ πρόβατα μὴ ἔχοντα ποιμένα. 
Yet having seen the crowd he was wrenched with compassion about them that they were having been harassed and tossed aside like sheep not having a shepherd.
Ἰδὼν: AAPart nsm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know
ἐσπλαγχνίσθη: API 3s, σπλαγχνίζομαι,1) to be moved as to one's bowels, hence to be moved with compassion,  have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of  love and pity).
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐσκυλμένοι: PerfPPart npm, σκύλλω, 1) to skin, flay  2) to rend, mangle  2a) to vex, trouble, annoy  2b) to give one's self trouble, trouble one's self 
ἐρριμμένοι: PerfPPart npm, ῥίπτω, 1) to throw or cast, with a sudden motion, to hurl, jerk; to cast forth, throw apart, scatter. 2) Here, passive participle perfect, cast forth, thrown down.
ἔχοντα: PAPart npm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
1. This verse is chock full of strong language. Jesus’ reaction is not just a sweet feeling of kindness, as if he just saw a flock of cute baby lambs. It is a visceral reaction, as the definition of σπλαγχνίζομαι suggests. I think it reads best as a gut reaction, something like “furious compassion.”
2. Likewise, the description of the people is very deliberate and full. This is the only use in Matthew of either σκύλλω or ῥίπτω, which I have called “harassed and tossed aside.” The important thing is that they are not simply wandering for want of a leader, or people following the wrong religion or an errant philosophy of life, where they need a pastor to feed them some good theology. They are harassed and jerked about. That is to say, someone, some system, some way of life – yet undefined – is oppressing them. My guess is that one generation of biblical interpreters would assume that this is a reference to the Jewish leadership; a next generation would assume that it is a reference to the Roman Empire. Wherever the harassment or exploitation originates, teaching, preaching the reign, and healing are ways of countering the ill-effects.
3. I like how the verse is set up with Jesus “having seen the crowd.” I wonder how many preachers would look out on a particularly crowded congregation and see the anxiety and pain that has drawn them there, instead of imagining that her/his own charisma is the effective agent that brings them near.

37 τότε λέγει τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ,  μὲν θερισμὸς πολύς, οἱ δὲ ἐργάται ὀλίγοι: 
Then he says to his disciples, “The harvest plentiful, but the workers few;
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
1. The μὲν is part of a μὲν … δὲ construction, to show contrast. It can be left out (as long as the sentence captures the contrast), as I have done. Or, it could be something like “indeed” or “truly” as YLT and KJV have done.
2. Most translations supply a verb or two to Jesus’ words, saying “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” It works to add the verb “to be,” because that verb can take the nominative case as it predicate (‘plentiful’ and ‘few’ are both nominative). However, it could also be translated “The plentiful harvest, the few workers.” Either way, the contrast between the size of the harvest and the supply of the workers is clear. Since the next sentence begins with a “therefore,” it seems best to make this a complete sentence by adding the implied verb.

38 δεήθητε οὖν τοῦ κυρίου τοῦ θερισμοῦ ὅπως ἐκβάλῃ ἐργάτας εἰς τὸν θερισμὸν αὐτοῦ. 
Therefore beg the lord of the harvest so that he might cast out workers into his harvest.
δεήθητε: APImpv 2p, δέομαι, 1) to need, to want; then, to make known one's need, urgently request, supplicate, beseech.
ἐκβάλῃ: AASubj 3s,ἐκβάλλω, 1) to cast out, drive out, to send out  1a) with notion of violence  1a1) to drive out (cast out)
1. Most translations will opt for “send forth workers into the harvest,” but the verb ἐκβάλλω here is exactly the same as the verb used to “cast out” demons in the following verses. The root, βάλλω, means “to throw.”
2. The etymology of ἐκβάλλω seems to indicate that the Lord of the Harvest does not simply need to give directions, but to force the issue. Merging the metaphors of sheep and agriculture, this plentiful harvest is filled with those who are harassed and jerked around. There is more urgency here than a simple work order request. It also suggests – if we want to take this text in the direction of a calling to ministry, ordination, or installation into a position – that there should be as much urgency as solemnity to the whole process.
3. Perhaps, then, that is why Jesus says to “Beg” the lord of the harvest to throw out workers. A look at the various definitions of δέομαι show that to translate it simply as to “pray” or even to “pray earnestly” is weaker than what seems intended. There are more common words for “pray.”
4. And, of course, it seems that this curious reference to “the lord of the harvest” is universally assumed to be God. That may be why so many translations opt for “pray.” But, is it God? The only other use of that phrase is in a parallel verse in Luke 10:2.

1 Καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος τοὺς δώδεκα μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐξουσίαν πνευμάτων ἀκαθάρτων ὥστε ἐκβάλλειν αὐτὰ καὶ θεραπεύειν πᾶσαν νόσον καὶ πᾶσαν μαλακίαν. 
And having called to himself his twelve disciples he gave to them power over unclean spirits to cast them out and to heal every disease and every illness.
προσκαλεσάμενος: AMPart nsm, προσκαλέομαι, 1) to call to  2) to call to one's self
ἔδωκεν: AAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give
ἐκβάλλειν: PAInf, ἐκβάλλω, 1) to cast out, drive out, to send out
θεραπεύειν: PAInf, θεραπεύω, 1) to serve, do service  2) to heal, cure, restore to health
1. The reference to healing “every disease and every illness” is exactly the way Jesus’ ministry is described in 8:35 above.
2. My mind rambling, feel free to ignore:
I wonder what a modern preacher ought to do with this reference to the power over unclean spirits, which is directly connected to healing diseases and illnesses. I’m fairly sure that taking this reference literally – like a Hollywood horror flick – is a bad idea. I’m also fairly sure that to dismiss it entirely – as the vestige of a simple-minded pre-modern way of thinking – is likewise a bad idea. If I had to choose, I think I would opt for dismissing the language, because of the way I’ve seen ‘demonization’ language abused so horribly and the way that it can add a layer of guilt to someone who is already suffering.
However, I think both options are shortsighted. The ancients may have used language that we cannot take literally, but I’m not convinced that they took it literally either. I am convinced that they were trying to name something that we are no better at naming today: That strange atmospheric compulsion that causes us to live in a self- or otherly-destructive mentality, whether as victims, victors, addicts, greedy, or even that curious ability to sleep easily even when knowing that there are homeless persons in our community sleeping under a bridge. There are blinding forces that take the shape of habits, assumptions, temperament, etc. that become normalized simply because there is no prevailing voice of conscience that cries out against them. How do we name such things? And, in what way are they related to disease and illness? For example, healing every disease in Flint, Michigan might mean going from house to house and restoring each person who has been afflicted by unsanitary drinking water. Or, it might mean fixing the water purification system. Or, it might mean radically changing the hearts of those who found it perfectly acceptable for this avoidable catastrophe to happen, through neglect, through spending priorities, etc. HOW CAN WE NAME IT? How do we name whatever the confluence of intention/happenstance, evil/ignorance, and compromises/choices that ultimately lead to such things? It strikes me that “unclean spirits” is a 1st century attempt to get at something that is deeper and more vexing than simple human agency, but also not apart from human agency. It may name who we are, but not who we are called to be or who we are essentially. [End of ramble.]

2 Τῶν δὲ δώδεκα ἀποστόλων τὰ ὀνόματά ἐστιν ταῦτα: πρῶτος Σίμων ὁ λεγόμενος Πέτρος καὶ Ἀνδρέας ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ, καὶ Ἰάκωβος ὁ τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου καὶ Ἰωάννης ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ, 
Yet of the twelve sent ones the names are these: First Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, and James of Zebedee and John his brother,
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. I’m using “sent ones” for ἀποστόλων (which transliterates into “apostles”) because I want to keep the etymological connection between this noun and the verb ἀποστέλλω (sent) in v.5. This is the only occasion when Matthew uses the noun ἀποστόλων, and he uses the verb ἀποστέλλω very often. I think if we use “apostles” we start to sound like they were officials of the church, when really it’s all about the sending.

3 Φίλιππος καὶ Βαρθολομαῖος, Θωμᾶς καὶ Μαθθαῖος ὁ τελώνης, Ἰάκωβος ὁ τοῦ Ἁλφαίου καὶ Θαδδαῖος, 
Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthias the tax collector, James of Alpheaus and Thaddeus,
1. I don’t get exercised about transliterating the names precisely, but some of the ancient manuscripts – relied on by the KJV and YLT – name this last person “Lebbeus whose surname was Thaddeus.”

4 Σίμων ὁ Καναναῖος καὶ Ἰούδας ὁ Ἰσκαριώτης ὁ καὶ παραδοὺς αὐτόν. 
Simon the Canaanite and Judas the Iscariot who also betrayed him.
παραδοὺς: AAPart nsm, παραδίδωμι, 1) to give into the hands (of another)  2) to give over into (one's) power or use  2a) to deliver to one something to keep, use,  take care of, manage  2b) to deliver up one to custody, to be judged, condemned,  punished, scourged, tormented, put to death  2c) to deliver up treacherously

5 Τούτους τοὺς δώδεκα ἀπέστειλεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς παραγγείλας αὐτοῖς λέγων, Εἰς ὁδὸν ἐθνῶν μὴ ἀπέλθητε, καὶ εἰς πόλιν Σαμαριτῶν μὴ εἰσέλθητε
These twelve Jesus sent having charged to them saying, “Into the way of the Gentiles you may not go and into the city of Samaritans you may not enter;
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  2) to send away, dismiss  2a) to allow one to depart, that he may be in a state of  liberty  2b) to order one to depart, send off  2c) to drive away   
παραγγείλας: AAPart nsm, παραγγέλλω, 1) to transmit a message along from one to another, to declare, announce 2) to command, order, charge
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀπέλθητε: AASubj 2p, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart 
εἰσέλθητε: AASubj 2p, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 
1. This excursion is limited by these boundaries not to enter the way of the Gentiles or the city of the Samaritans. That’s going to be a hard boundary to hear so soon after the story of Pentecost two weeks ago, where such boundaries were broken down, or the end of Matthew’s gospel last week, when the eleven were sent to disciple the nations.

6 πορεύεσθε δὲ μᾶλλον πρὸς τὰ πρόβατα τὰ ἀπολωλότα οἴκου Ἰσραήλ.
but journey rather to the sheep of the house of Israel who have been devastated.
πορεύεσθε: PMImpv 2p, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer  1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on  one's journey
ἀπολωλότα: PerfAPart apn, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy 1a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin  1b) render useless  1c) to kill  1d) to declare that one must be put to death  1e) metaph. to devote or give over to eternal misery in hell  1f) to perish, to be lost, ruined, destroyed  2) to destroy  2a) to lose
1. It is quite possible, as most translations demonstrate, to render ἀπόλλυμι as “lost.” However, there are lots of other options, as the lexicon information I have cut and pasted above shows. I think, given the description of the people like harassed and tossed about sheep above, we ought to go with much stronger language than “lost.” They are imperiled.

7 πορευόμενοι δὲ κηρύσσετε λέγοντες ὅτι Ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. 
Yet while going preach saying, "The Reign of the heavens has drawn near.”
πορευόμενοι: PMPart npm, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer 1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on  one's journey
κηρύσσετε: PAImpv, κηρύσσω, 1) to be a herald, to officiate as a herald 
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἤγγικεν: PerfAI 3s, ἐγγίζω, 1) to bring near, to join one thing to another 2) to draw or come near to, to approach 
1. Back to last week’s rant: Why is it that most translations can treat this participial construction of πορεύομαι like a participle (“As you go”), but cannot keep from magically transforming it into an imperative (“Go”) in Matthew 28:19?
2. Unlike 9:35 above, this time “the reign” is modified by “of the heavens.”

8 ἀσθενοῦντας θεραπεύετε, νεκροὺς ἐγείρετε, λεπροὺς καθαρίζετε, δαιμόνια ἐκβάλλετε: δωρεὰν ἐλάβετε, δωρεὰν δότε
Heal those who are enfeebled, raise dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons; you received freely, give freely.
ἀσθενοῦντας: PAPart apm, ἀσθενέω, 1) to be weak, feeble, to be without strength, powerless  2) to be weak in means, needy, poor  3) to be feeble, sick
θεραπεύετε: PAImpv 2p, θεραπεύω, 1) to serve, do service  2) to heal, cure, restore to health
ἐγείρετε: PAImpv 2p, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake  1b) to arouse from the sleep of death, to recall the dead to life
καθαρίζετε: PAImpv 2p, καθαρίζω,1) to make clean, cleanse  1a) from physical stains and dirt 
ἐκβάλλετε: PAImpv 2p, ἐκβάλλω, 1) to cast out, drive out, to send out
ἐλάβετε: AAI 2p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take 
δότε: AAImpv 2p, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone
1. The participle ἀσθενέω returns in Mt 25, in the story of the sheep and goats.
2. While ἀσθενοῦντας is a participle, the rest of the objects of the verbs are nouns with no definite article. The list also has the noun prior to the verb, but that just sounds too much like Yoda for an English translation.
3. The last phrase, “You received freely, freely give” seems like an echo of the often-repeated reminder, “I am the God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt, therefore you …” followed by imperatives. That’s how the Ten Commandments begins and it is a way of grounding human activity in God’s prior activity.

There is a lovely sense of abundance at work when the feeble are healed, lepers cleansed, etc., by those who are freely distributing the power that was freely given to them. The fact that Matthew names these various ways of encountering diseases and illnesses besetting the harassed and tossed aside sheep of the house of Israel shows that there is no discrimination at work here.

But, of course, it is within the boundaries of not going the way of Gentiles or entering the city of the Samaritans. I’ll be spending time this week trying to hold together both of those parts of this story.


  1. I liked the ramble; nice contextual interpretation.

  2. I also liked the ramble. It was very thoughtful and potentially very helpful to me!

    Now, regarding the 'not Gentiles or Samaritans' bit. Would it be valid to suggest that this was a one-time instruction for those particular people at this particular time? Rather like we suggest the Early Church holding everything in common is not set as the pattern for the way we live now, just what they did at that time for a little while? The apostles here are still in their apprentice stage; they are journeymen; you don't test apprentices on the hardest bit of work straight away. Let them find their feet among people with whom they at least share a language and a culture before they go out to the antagonistic (Samaritans) and the downright foreign (Gentiles). Start with where you're at - and then be prepared be led further. I think that's what I'll be going with on Sunday. Something like that. Many thanks again (and again) for this wonderful blog.

    1. Hi Ruth,
      Thanks for the note and the kind words.
      I think it might be possible to read this as an occasion, rather than a blueprint - and certainly for those of us who have all four gospels Luke's two renditions of the great commission emphatically send the disciples into all the nations. But, if we do that with this text or with the Acts descriptions of the common holdings of the early church, we need to have some kind of principled way of making that claim; something other than our feeling that what a text seems to suggest is simply unworkable. (At least that is how I see some of the rationales for saying that the acts description is a one time moment and not prescriptive for believers generally.)
      I think there is some help in this regard among those who speak of a "canon within the canon," where one text would seem to be the norm by which other texts are evaluated. Some folks would say, for example, that the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, or the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, would serve that purpose, because of their deliberate didactic presentation.
      My approach is somewhat different. I tend to see the Scriptures as a whole as a series of faithful conversations about central topics of faith. Should believers share all things in common? One faithful answer is 'yes,' perhaps sensing that private ownership tends to bring out the worst in human greed and possessiveness. Other faithful answers allow for private ownership, but with a startling degree of disconnection, so that one can practice radical hospitality and radical liberality in giving.
      Likewise, there is an argument for which the early church might have felt that the gospel assumes a tremendous grounding in the Hebrew tradition, so that is where the initial focus of evangelism rightly starts. Other voices in the early church were much more captivated by how the gospel communicates a universal message, not necessarily tied to a previous commitment to the Hebrew Bible, even though the Christian faith undoubtedly arises from that tradition.
      So ... I would treat texts - even texts in apparent conflict - as I would treat voices in a conversation, each making their case faithfully but from differing points of view, with differing degrees of emphasis on what is ideal, what is realistic, etc.

      Wow ... talk about rambling!

  3. Question: Could ἦσαν ἐσκυλμένοι καὶ ἐρριμμένοι also be linked to 'to loose, unloose' (Strongs) and 'scattered' (also Strongs), in the sense of being cut loose from their moorings, directionless (i.e. sheep without a shepherd)? The loss of identity, security, hope and purpose?

  4. "I wonder what a modern preacher ought to do with this reference to the power over unclean spirits" - I'm reminded of one of the Twilight Zone episodes, with the ending: The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices... to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill... and suspicion can destroy... and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone...
    A spirit of things is not a phantasm but the breath that invigorates a school, a community, a church. And that breath, that context, can enliven or corrupt. If we don't deal with the contextual challenges to a healthy life - the stigmas that assault some children, the idolization of weapons over people, the value of violence over compassion - medicines alone won't cure illness.

  5. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" is episode 22 on the Twilight Zone...

  6. Also - echoes of Ezek 34. And are we the shepherds?


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