Missionary Instructions

The readings for Sunday, July 2, 2017, Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a; Romans 6:3-4, 8-11; and Matthew 10:37-42.

Today’s gospel selection is a continuation of last Sunday’s Gospel — instructions for Christian missionaries in the eighties of the first century of Christianity. The author of the Gospel according to Matthew gradually moved his catechesis from specific instructions for missionaries to general instructions for all Christians. This gospel reading is part of those general instructions. Matthew like most Christians of his day knew of the persecution launched against the Christians of Rome by the Emperor Nero in the mid–sixties. The most graphic report of this persecution is from the writings of a Roman historian named Tacitus — no friend of Christianity — and therefore no exaggeration in favor of Christians. He writes in approximately 110 A.D. The Christians were tortured by fire, by crucifixion, and as game for wild beasts in the arena. Nero’s treatment of Christians was so horrendous that even the Roman mobs were moved to pity for the victims.

About the same time as the report of Tacitus, a Roman official named Pliny was governor in what is today NW Turkey. He wrote to Emperor Trajan in Rome about the problems he has with Christians. They were so numerous in Pliny’s jurisdiction that the temples of the heathen gods were empty. After questioning them, accompanied by threats of execution, if they adhered to their beliefs, he had them executed. He notes that they at least deserved to be executed for the inflexible stubbornness. There were others who actually were Christians, but under pressure they called upon the Roman gods, offered incense to the image of the emperor, “and cursed Christ.” Others admitted that they had been Christians but ceased to be so for over three years. All of these, according to Pliny to the emperor, “worshipped your image and the images of our gods. These also cursed Christ.” Thus we have evidence from two non-Christian writers, and evidence from one of them that some Christians under threat of death abandoned their faith.

Such is the background to some of Matthew’s collection of Jesus-sayings in today’s Gospel: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow behind me is not worthy of me,” and “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We know from our Gospels that Christian members of families were sometimes betrayed to Roman authorities by their own families through some kind of public denunciation designating them as Christians. See Matthew 10:21, 35-36. In the latter citation from Matthew we read, “A man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Such is the background to the opening words of today’s Gospel, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” If these sayings are put into a context of normal living and not into a context of persecution, they still have validity as expressing an important principle — that God, in this case Jesus, is first in the love and the life of Christians. Families are not rejected, but are put into the proper order — second to Jesus.

Matthew returns to specific instructions for traveling missionaries, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” This Jesus-saying is a repetition of earlier missionary instructions but Matthew recasts them in more positive language. See Matthew 10:14 for the negative expression of the same thought. In that punitive expression of 10:4, one may see not so much the sentiments of Jesus, but those of Matthew, angry, as he often is, at competition from Jewish missionaries and angry at false Christians whom he calls “wolves among lambs.”

Matthew continues: “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive the reward of a prophet.” We know that this pertains especially to Christian missionaries because a common name for them was “prophet.” This is not so different from Matthew 25, where Jesus as final judge rewards those who fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, etc., because when they did these deeds of justice and mercy they did them not just to the needy but to Jesus himself. Then Matthew switches back to Christians in general, “Whoever receives a righteous person, because he is a righteous person, will receive the reward of the righteous.” Hospitality toward other Christians, especially when traveling, was a major work of charity in Christianity for many centuries.