Friday, January 22, 2010

Sheep, Wolves, Serpents & Doves


See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Matthew 10:16

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus sends out his disciples to spread his campaign message: "The reign of heaven is at hand!" In addition, he exhorts them to do what he had been doing: to liberate humanity from the counterfeit powers that were binding them (disease, demons, death). Jesus calls them to be "sheep" in a world of "wolves," the descriptive term he used to describe the "false prophets"--who dress up like sheep--earlier in the story (7:15). Jesus specifies that the disciples make his audience their audience, which in Matthew is to seek out the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" {10:6; 15:24). The disciples, like Jesus, are building a coalition of rare sheep who do the will of God in a world of wolves:

If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?
(18:12)

What separates the sheep (those who join Jesus' campaign) from the goats (the false prophets who use God's name but fail to live out God's will)?

To answer, Jesus tells a story:

‘When the Truly Human One comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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.”
(25:31-36)

The "Truly Human One" (the preferred translation of the late theologian James McClendon) was an apocalyptic figure from the book of Daniel, the One who would enact judgment upon the nation of Israel and the entire world. It is also the name that Jesus uses to refer to himself throughout the book of Matthew (ie, 8:20, 9:6). But how would Matthew's intended audience, communities of the crucified and risen Jesus living 5 decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, have received this word from the "Truly Human One?" How would they be actually giving Jesus himself food, drink, hospitality, clothing and health care? Jesus continues:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
(25:37-40)

We are the real "sheep" and we actually experience the risen Jesus only when we do these things. This is hard, rugged, thankless work, but it is the real, tangible filter that separates the sheep from the goats. Like Jesus, this vocation will not necessarily equate with success and it might even get us killed. Jesus cites (26:31) a prophetic passage in light of his own pending murder:

“I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” (Zechariah 13:7)

Jesus continues the legacy of the "prophetic script," the story that got recycled over and over in the Hebrew Bible about the great prophets of Israel who spoke truth to power, condemning greed, idolatry and oppression.

Contemporary followers of Jesus also proclaim the message about the reign of heaven, embodying and teaching this way-of-life creatively and strategically:

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. As you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (28:18-20)

At the end of Matthew's story, Jesus extends the kingdom invitation to "all nations," not limiting it to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel." As we continue the Jesus story, we are energized by Jesus' call for wisdom (like a serpent) and innocence (like a dove). Truly, what kind of skills are demanded for this pilgrimage of discipleship? This rare breed is empowered to abundantly lavish (food, drink, hospitality, clothing and health care) on those in need while we embrace the simple living of the first disciples ('Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff...'--10:9-10), embarking on our own missionary journey through life. No doubt, this wisdom and innocence will lead us to speak out prophetically against the greed, idolatry and oppression systemically playing out in our society.

Lord, let us be sheep among wolves with the strategic sincerity of a diverse breed of your animal kingdom.

--Theological Autopilot

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