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Sermon ~ “freely you have received, freely give”

Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
Geranium Uniting Church SA
18 June 2017

1.

When I first visited Australia — in 1992 — I was impressed by your hospitality. This is still true today: A barbecue at the house of my sister in law:  whenever I drop in there, sometimes unannounced and with visitors to show them true-blue Aussie life, there’ll be a cup of tea and, if possible, something to eat. For me, coming from crowded Germany where many people live in small apartments, a meal in the backyard is just something special. Even more so as it offers the opportunity to sit and talk and get to know each other.

There is something fascinating having people visiting you, even strangers from other places: All of a sudden, the world is coming to you, and you can sit on your porch and learn something new. It is like an unexpected gift that the visitors leave behind.

2.

In our sermon text for today, Matthew takes us into the early days of the preaching and healing life of Jesus. He relates to us the second long speech delivered by Jesus, just a short while after his Sermon on the Mount. He tells us many of the stories of Jesus’ encounters with the locals, the peasants of Galilee, the farmers, and the poor and the ill. Many of them had heard about Jesus the Rabbi, had seen him preaching, debating, and healing. Many followed him around, and in whatever village or town he turned up, there was this crowd of people gathered around. They placed high hopes in him, really believing in his miracles as Matthew tells us in earlier chapters.

Naturally, Matthew is quite interested in Jesus the teaching. But he not only sees the teacher, preacher and healer — more importantly, he sees Jesus in the midst and in the context of the people of his time to whom Jesus speaks, with whom he stays, and who follow him around.

They had made up their mind: In the chapter before we read that after seeing all the healing miracles, the crowd of people around Jesus were amazed and said: Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel! (9,33a).

It is interesting to remain for a moment with these people. Actually, I would like to ask you to change the perspective and try to look at the events around Jesus through their eyes. Being people from Galilee, the north of today’s state of Israel, they had always been looked on by the Jerusalem people as their poorer siblings with no access to the ways and means of the city people in Jerusalem. I can imagine that in those days Jesus — and other such radical preachers like John the Baptist — would have made the day of their mundane life. And it was certainly more exciting than a mob of soldiers coming through! It would be interesting to tell some of the Gospel stories through these people’s eyes.

Matthew indicates the plight of these people by using a special term, which we normally translate as “crowd”. The Greek word is “ochlos”, and it has a very particular connotation in ancient Greek history: In more recent British English we would call them the “plebs”, beggars, underclass, or potential revolutionaries. These are the people

It is an irony today, that in the current political climate we are facing quite similar developments: The so-called “upper class”, the “one percent” ruling the world with their money and power, look down to and try to control, those 99% percent of the mass population they so much despise …

Matthew places Jesus in the midst of these “ochloi”. In English Bible translations you’ll hardly ever notice this particular reference to these crowds around Jesus. Most translations will use an innocent term as simple as “people”, the multitude or perhaps “masses”. But as this may sound just like the happy-clapping footie crowd, the real meaning is much more dramatic.

Matthew was fully aware of the drama playing out around Jesus. He contrasted the people’s amazement of Jesus’ healings and miracles with the dangerous judgement by the Pharisees:

“It is through the prince of devils that he drives out devils.” (9,34)

It is the ochloi, the people of Galilee (in today’s Palestine and Syria) who had recognised Jesus as the Messiah, while the establishment of the time accuses him of complicity with all evils.

3.

It is in this context Matthew places the story of our Bible text. Many theologians focus here on the sending of the twelve disciples of Jesus, clearly an emphasis of the text.

In our sermon today, I could have reflected on the challenges for apostles or missionaries in such a political climate, or today as a preacher of the Word of God, who has been given by Jesus

“authority over unclean spirits with the power to drive them out
and to cure all kinds of disease and all kind of illnesses” (10,1).

Another topic could have been the instructions Jesus gave these young men who were willing to stay with him and then became his messengers. Don’t bother to go to the heathen, Jesus tells them, but seek and preach to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. While on the road as an itinerant preacher, don’t take with you anything of value or comfort. Rely on the people at the place — they will look after you and care for you. And if not, turn around and walk away:

When you go to a home, give it your blessing of peace.
If the home is worthy, let your blessing remain with them.
But if the home is not worthy,
take back your blessing of peace. (Matthew 10,13-14)

We have also heard how Jesus felt sorry for the lost sheep, these people around him, the ochloi from Gallilee because “… they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd” (9,36). Remember, this was a country occupied by the Roman superpower. Matthew was not talking about a peaceful pastoral scene and he quotes later in this reading how Jesus hints at the possible fate of these scattered sheep, in persecution and torture, hatred and even death.

“See, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.
So be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16 ISV)

4.

Yet, what really fascinated me, however, when I first read this text was this one little line in Chapter 10, Verse 8:

Freely you received, freely give!.

This line sits in the middle of our sermon text like a thorn in the wrong place. It stings, it hurts, it’s almost like a slap in the face.

“Freely” is another of these “innocent” translations that has a much stronger meaning in the Biblical Greek. It refers to a gift given to you, yes, freely — without payment, no entitlement, undeservedly, unexpected, a gift that comes wholly out of the generosity of the giver.

Matthew’s fellow church members amongst the early Christians, still living with an awareness of the Hebrew Bible, may have recalled a reference to the old prophet Isaiah (55,1-3 ISV):

“Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters!
Also, you that have no money, come, buy, and eat!
Come! Buy wine and milk — without money and without price.

Pay attention to me, come to me; and listen, so that you may live;
then I’ll make an everlasting covenant with you …

Others may have remembered the first conversions, after the crowd had heard the Apostle Peter’s preaching on Pentecost Day in Jerusalem, as reported in Acts 2(v37-41 ISV):

When the crowd … asked Peter and the other apostles,
“Brothers, what should we do?”

Peter answered them,
“Every one of you must repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah
for the forgiveness of your sins.
Then you will receive the Holy Spirit as a gift.
For, this promise belongs to you and your children …”

… At that day about 3,000 people were baptised and added to their number.

 

From our angle as listeners to Matthew’s Gospel story today — yes, it was as bland as it sounds: Jesus picked up on an issue that was discussed in his times by other Jewish teachers of the Tora, that we now call the Old Testament. The Rabbi Hillel the Older, for instance, warned his fellow teachers not to use the Tora for their own gains. Other rabbis commented that the Tora was no spade for digging or a tool to make money. If you demand payment for teaching the Tora you’ll destroy the entire world order, they said, because God has given the Tora freely, like water free to the world.1 ])

However, I believe this reference to money diverts us far away from the true meaning of this short line in our sermon text.

Jesus addressed his disciples directly, while surrounded by a crowd of people. It’s them to whom he is sending his apostles to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, and heal every disease and illness. There are no valuable goods given to them, not even a special status as messengers of Jesus. No, only one thing has been given to them freely: The grace of God through Jesus Christ. You have received the peace of God through me, says Jesus, so pass on this peace freely to those who need it most desperately: The poor, the ill — these people around you, without a shepherd.

The apostle Peter would later recount his experiences with Jesus to the congregation in Jerusalem. And he summarised his speech with this affirmation: “I believe that we are saved … through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

About 1,500 years later, a young monk in Germany, Martin Luther, made the same discovery when translating the Bible: “Through Grace alone”, or “sola gratia”. It is not works that give us peace of mind, no, only the grace of God. In these weeks in Germany we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s discoveries and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation in which our church participates today.

As Jesus said to his disciples:

“Freely you received, freely give!”

Amen.

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Footnotes

  1. Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum NT, Vol, 1, 1922 (zu Mt 10,8 [top]

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