Like sheep without a shepherd they gathered. More and more, they gathered. Which way would they go? What would they do next? Their purpose, though, was clear. Just read the signs: “Black Lives Matter; No Justice, No Peace; I Can’t Breathe, Veterans for Peace; Don’t Hurt People; Ignorance = Fear.”
Here are a few excerpts from an op-ed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the LA Times: “Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer.
“Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.
“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be killed by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”
One of the points Kareem and others make is that for racism to end in this country (and probably other places, too), white people need to do the work. Jesus is looking at the protesters and has compassion for them, just as he did for the crowds that followed him.
Matthew 9:35 begins with a summary of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was an itinerant preacher and healer. The way Matthew phases it, Jesus left no town or village in the Galilee region unvisited.
And in every place, Jesus healed everybody. Jesus was very inclusive. It should be noted that not everyone who lived in this region were Jews. In fact, Jews were relatively new to the area. The Romans allowed Herod the Great to settle Jews in the Galilee region. Jesus cured “every disease and every sickness.” (Matthew 9:35b)
Jesus had compassion on the people who crowded around to see him. They seemed lost. They were harassed, presumably by Roman soldiers. It was as if they were sheep left to fend for themselves wandering around the country-side with no clue what tomorrow will bring.
Then Jesus spoke to his disciples in a curious way. Using an agriculture metaphor as he often does, Jesus says that the harvest is really big, but there are few workers to bring in the harvest. It was as if there were 5,000 acres of vines and five people to pick the grape clusters. That would mean a lot of dropped fruit.
So, Jesus asked the disciples to ask the “Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37b) It is assumed that Jesus is not speaking literally. Who is the Lord of the harvest? If it is supposed to be Jesus, then why would Jesus ask them to ask him to send out laborers? Is Jesus referring to God? If so, then what purpose does Jesus have?
The conventional wisdom is that the disciples upon hearing Jesus say this believe Jesus is referring to them as the laborers. It is like the commercial where a meeting is being run by Amy Poehler and she says everyone gets a corner office, but the building must be changed. Then she says, “Chad.” And Chad realizes he has been tasked to do the impossible of giving everyone a corner office.
Jesus decided that he can’t do all this healing, curing, and exorcisms all by himself. So, he shares his authority with the apostles. Then Matthew names them. The gospel writers are not on the same page when it comes to the names of the twelve. Only in Matthew do we see the name of Matthew, the tax collector, as an apostle.
These twelve are to go out only to Jews. In fact, they are to avoid any place where there are gentiles. It is the Jews who are “the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matthew 10:6b) In addition to all that curing and cleansing and casting out, they are to proclaim the good news. And the good news is, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 10:7b)
What did Jesus mean by that? A better translation might be, the kingdom of heaven approaches. It is not a location thing. It is a timing thing. Jesus believes that the end of the earth is nigh.
That was 2,000 years ago and here we are with a COVID-19 pandemic and trying deal with systemic racism. Where is the kingdom of heaven? There is no cure, yet, for COVID-19. We have spent centuries dealing with racism in this country and our country is not alone with this problem. The awful thing is that people demonstrating in the streets are risking a COVID-19 death, because it is that important to them.
In the current discussions about race, there is an important point that was made. It is not enough to declare oneself as not racist. One must be anti-racist. The distinction is that the former is passive and the latter is active. It is not enough for black people to make a stand against racism. White people must take a stand. That is the only way things will change.
Where is the kingdom of heaven? It can be here. The kingdom of heaven is a place where racism has no definition because it is unknown. Jesus went out to all the people of Galilee, regardless of who they were. Jesus commissioned the apostles to go the Jews. As much as the Jews could be the establishment in Roman occupied Galilee, it was Jews who had to change the Jews and proclaim the kingdom of heaven. We are challenged to follow in the apostle’s footsteps and be anti-racist.
There was and continues to be a sense of the kingdom of heaven in the Middle East. The culture of that area has, for centuries, had a strong sense of hospitality. It was and is an obligation to take care of whoever arrives at your door step.
When Jesus sends the apostles out with no money and instructions accept no money, to go out with minimal clothing, they are to rely on the hospitality of strangers. They need not worry about eating, because they will be fed.
When our ears hear this leap of faith that the apostles are being asked to do, we might wonder if we could ever do this. In the United States in the twenty-first century, it would be scary. But in the Middle East, it would be expected that you would be taken care of. So this is not that big a leap of faith as we might think it is.
But just in case they are not welcomed somewhere, which would be a serious break in the culture, they are to leave that town and not even carry its dust with them. This is a Jewish custom so that in case the dust is unclean it can be left behind.
Then instead of the house of Israel being the sheep, the apostles are the sheep. Snakes must have possessed wisdom, because the disciples are to be as wise as serpents.
However, there is danger. Preaching what Jesus preaches will make some people angry. Jesus is rocking the boat. The kingdom of heaven is not the status quo and people in power like the status quo.
The nice thing is that they will not need lawyers when they are dragged before governors and kings. Their words will come from the Holy Spirit.
How will people respond to the message of the kingdom of heaven? Not well. Brothers will betray one another as will parents and children and some will be put to death. They will be persecuted. They will not even be able to finish traveling to all of the towns before the Son of Man comes.
Jesus is not clear who the Son of Man is and neither is Matthew. That might be because Matthew doesn’t know or it is to be kept a secret. We may assume it is Jesus but Jesus does not say so. Besides, it wouldn’t make any sense because Jesus is standing right in front of them. So, it must be somebody else. There is a sense that the Son of Man is going to show up in a very short time, maybe a month or two.
We still wait for a supernatural cleansing. Of course, maybe, the Son of Man has already come and we are the ones who are tasked to take the apostles’ place. The demons of violence, hatred, and division seem to be gaining strength all around us. We are called to name them and cast them out. While we may not have the gift of raising the dead, literally, we can raise people out of despair, grief, racism, and helplessness. Afterall, it must be easier than giving everyone a corner office.
What does the kingdom of heaven look like? It does not look like protesters calling for social justice. It does not look like empty streets for fear of infection. It looks like love. There was song sung by Martha and the Vandellas called Dancing in the Streets. Dancing in the streets is what the kingdom of heaven looks like.