Matthew 28:16-20, Matthew 9:35-10:4
I don’t like this text (Matthew 28:16-20), and I almost didn’t preach on it because I dislike it so much. Called “the Great Commission,” it’s one of the three main Biblical “texts of terror” used to justify colonization, not to mention really bad missionary theology. It appears to be — or has been used as — a mandate to conquer the world for Christ. Judge Ted Strong of the Yakama Nation speaks powerfully to the evil of this interpretation in the documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery that the Coalition I helped found made several years ago. The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of church doctrines issued in the 15th century that laid the legal and theology foundations for colonization. And yes, this is our church signing at the very beginning of this clip (play 14:28-15:45).
“The church taught that.” Three hundred years after Jesus, a Jewish prophet from a colony brutally occupied by the Roman Empire, 300 years later the community founded around his teachings became the state religion of the Roman Empire. After that, it was the “state religion” of the Holy Roman Empire, of Christendom – which refers to Christian empires or countries in which Christianity dominates. And that Christendom lasted for centuries. Some people say Christendom ended with the first world war, but Christian dominance, Christian hegemony, Christian alignment with dominating power is still very much alive. That means that, for 1700 years, the Bible has predominantly been interpreted through the lens of the religion of empire. Biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brook introduces this concept of the religion of empire in contrast to the religion of creation, which is what Jesus or Yeshua taught, in this clip (play 17:57-19:36).
So, let’s turn to the passage for today and try to read it through the lens of the religion of creation, rather than through the lens of the religion of empire.
The passage is called the Great Commission, which can sound — and has been interpreted — as quite triumphalist. But let’s see what’ really happening. As one Biblical scholar said, “Jesus says, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,’ but nothing in the surroundings seems to support such a claim” — if you are looking at it through the lens of the religion of empire. “If Jesus had been speaking to vast multitudes, rank upon rank stretching to the horizon on as far as the eye could see, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir humming the hallelujah chorus in the background, perhaps such a claim might seem plausible.” (From Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3). From the perspective of the religion of empire, Jesus is “on an unnamed mountain in backwater Galilee, with a congregation of 11 — down from 12 the week before. “ But from the perspective of the religion of creation, Jesus and the disciples are on a sacred mountain, a place where many others of their people before them have had experienced of the Holy, of God. It’s a place of encounter.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for the presence of doubt. The religion of empire brooks no doubt, no suspicion of its ironclad truth. In the religion of empire, there is space for human emotions. In fact, some scholars say that a more accurate translation of the Greek here should have this verse read as: “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.” Not like some of the disciples were all in, and others weren’t. It’s like they all had some doubt — about what, we’re not told. And yet, they worshipped. Doubt and worship, doubt and reverence, doubt and great respect, weren’t mutually exclusive.
And then we have this word: authority. I think it’s so easy to understand that word though the lens of the religion of empire. In the religion of empire, authority is very much about power over. A power that dominates, subjugates.
I want to go to Matthew 9:35-10:4 for a different understanding of power. There’s a mini-commission that happens in Matthew before the Great Commission. We used this passage in lectio divina, or sacred reading of Scripture, this past Tuesday because I did not want to use the Great Commission passage.
Matthew 9:35-36: Here, Jesus is still very much alive, and he’s teaching the Good News of the kindom of God and he’s healing people. And he’s attracting a crowd. When we think of a crowd, we think of a kind of faceless horde of people. So many, they become a mass, which you then have to be worried about controlling or managing. But that’s not how Jesus is taking them in. The verse says simply: “And Jesus saw the crowds.” I don’t think this was a simple glance. Contemplation — “long, loving look at the real.” Really gazing upon them. Seeing the worry lines etched in their faces. Seeing the slump of their shoulders. Seeing the gnarled hands gnarled or the bent backs formed from decades of heavy labor. Seeing their exhaustion. Seeing the cautious hope in their eyes as they wait for him to speak. He sees they are harassed and helpless, or, perhaps even a better translation is that they are “harassed and tossed aside.” They are like sheep without a shepherd. There isn’t anyone in a position of authority who truly cares for them, cares about them. At least some of their key leaders are in cahoots with the Roman Empire to exploit them. And even more than that, it’s that there is this domination system called the Roman Empire that is actively harassing them, using them.
Jesus not only sees their plight, he feels it in his body, he is moved by it. The Greek word for compassion here means “to be moved in the inward parts.” Remember when you felt this kind of compassion? (pause) It’s in your bowels, it’s a gut response. Remember also when you’ve had the experience of someone who has compassion for you when you’ve been in pain (pause). You know that they are actually experiencing some of the pain you’re experiencing. They are moved in their inward parts by your pain. That’s how Jesus sees people, how he is moved by people.
Matthew 9:37-10:1: Jesus then acts from this compassion. He sees there’s not enough of him to go around to meet the needs of these people, so he commissions his disciples to go out and do what he’s doing — heal people. He gives them the authority to do this. So, there’s that word again. But what is the nature of this authority?
When we read this in lectio earlier this week, there’s a time when we imagine ourselves into the story, and experience it through our senses and our emotions. When I imagined myself as one of the disciples, receiving the authority, I had this block. I couldn’t feel it. I was still thinking of authority from a religion of empire perspective. Sort of like, now I was supposed to be one of those disciples who could go up to people and say: “I command thee demon to leave this person,” or “Sickness be gone.” I used to watch faith healers on TV in my my youth — and saw some of them in person — and they always healed in very showy kind of way that just seemed so not like something I was capable of or even wanted to be capable of. It felt dominating, like the religion of empire.
But then, as so often happens in lectio, someone sees something I don’t. And Karen said something like: “This its how I imagine Jesus healing. He goes up to a person, and he gets down to their level, face to face and he really sees them.” He sees them as part of a common human family, as Wes Howard Brooks said in that clip. He gazes upon them with the eyes of love, compassion. That seeing them is already liberating, because maybe they were used to feeling rejected, or outcast, or unwanted, or invisible. And so his gaze alone has the power to make them feel included again in the human family. And he really listens to them, hears their pain, hears their strength, hears their story. And that experience of being so seen, so heard, is healing for them.
That’s a healing power that is about power with, not power over. That’s the authority of compassion. And it is more powerful than the power of domination. I think sometimes we don’t think that’s true, but it is. Because this kind of authority can heal, not harm; it can create community, not destroy it; it can heal divisions, not incite them; it can repair the world, not wreck it. It’s the power of creation, not the power of death or de-creation. It’s the power of life. And it is powerfully in every one of us.
Matthew 10:2-4. These are the names of the apostles given the authority of compassion. And these are the names of the apostles given the authority of compassion… at the count of three, I want each of you to say your name out loud! Now go, teaching everything that Yeshua has commanded you. And that commandment is: Compassion. Amen.