While last Sunday’s readings stress the gifts of God that guide Christian life, the readings today stress the need to reach out to others. The passage from Exodus introduces the whole sojourn of the wandering people at Sinai, where God announces that they are to remember God’s saving deeds and be faithful to the covenant. They are commissioned to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (19:6), a description that in the New Testament is applied to the whole Christian people (1 Pt. 2:5, 9).
The Gospel falls into three parts: the picture of Jesus as the compassionate shepherd, his choice and empowering of twelve disciples and his commission to them to participate in his mission. Each element is important. Compassion, in both Greek and Hebrew, is related to the word used for womb and suggests deep inner feeling, where life unfolds. Jesus’ compassion is stirred over the sheep who are literally harassed and lying on the ground. His actions (Mt. 9:35) and attitude contrast with that of the bad shepherds (leaders) of Ez. 34:4, who did not strengthen the weak, nor heal the sick, nor bind up the injured, [nor] bring back the strayed nor seek the lost [see Mt. 18], but you lorded over them harshly and brutally.
Out of compassion Jesus then summons 12 disciples and commissions them with the same power that he possesses. The Twelve represent an institution that goes back to the historical Jesus and most likely reflects his self-understanding as one who will restore the 12 tribes of Israel (see Mt. 19:28), especially since the names vary while the number remains constant. As an institution, the Twelve do not continue in early Christianity, though their mission of imitating Christ through service to the suffering continues in the church’s pastoral (shepherding) ministry.
After calling the Twelve, Jesus sends them out as itinerant missionaries who are to continue his mission with reliance on God rather than on human acceptance. Unlike Mark, in Matthew, Jesus and the disciples are not to enter non-Jewish territory. In Matthew, the mission to the nations, which was anticipated by the visit of the Magi, is the task of the post-resurrection church, summoned now to make disciples of all peoples.
The outreach to all people emerges strongly in the reading from Romans, which is the very heart of Pauline theology. Last week Jesus stated that he did not come to call the just, but sinners. Paul says that Christ died for the ungodly and for sinners, who are reconciled to God by Christ’s death and are now saved by his lifethat is, the enduring presence of Jesus of Nazareth as the risen one. The motif of imitation implicit in Matthew becomes, as Paul told the Galatians, clothing yourself in Christ (3:27).
For preaching and reflection we might think of the church as a community always in mission, confronting with compassion those who suffer and are in the thralls of evil. As Christ died for the godless, the church has a mission to those who have not experienced God’s love. Pastoral ministry in the church should reflect the compassion of Jesus, not the quest for power of Ezekiel’s leaders.