Throughout his presidency and teaching career at Wartburg Seminary, Roger Fjeld has exhibited a passion for the church's mission and its primary task of evangelism. This article about the mission discourse in Mt 9:36-10:39 (1) is a tangible way to express my genuine affection and esteem for Roger as a person of integrity with a deep concern for the life of the church.
For most contemporary Christians, the "great commission" in 28:18-20 represents the preeminent evangelizing text in the Gospel of Matthew. We miss, or even distort, Matthew's full perspective on mission and evangelism, however, if we do not consider his carefully designed mission discourse in 9:36-10:39. In fact, Jesus' final commission in the Gospel implies as much. His followers are to go and make disciples of all peoples; this process involves not only baptism but also teaching-teaching them "to pay attention to" (2) all the things that Jesus has commanded his disciples (28:20a). Hence, the "great commission" itself invites attention to Jesus' instructions regarding discipleship throughout the entire Gospel, including the mission discourse.
Joining the "God movement"
Most people today, if they think of the church at all, view it as a building that they can enter or an institution they might join primarily to meet their own needs and those of their family. They do not understand church more expansively as consisting of assemblies of people called and gathered by God to be part of a movement. In Matthew, Jesus never speaks of the church (3) as an end in itself. Rather, from the outset of his public ministry (4:17) Jesus announces and enacts God's sovereign reign in fresh ways. Jesus' words and actions embody God's gracious and reconciling rule on earth, and he bids his followers to do the same. Thus, for Matthew's day, the ecclesial assembly's mission is also to announce as good news the nearness of God's reign and to undertake its healing and restorative ministry (see 10:7-8).
Contemporary Christians are to view themselves as participants in what Clarence Jordan named "the God movement." It makes a huge difference if a critical mass of assembled Christians in any place catches this expansive vision of the church' s role--not merely as serving the needs of those gathered but also as showing concern for the world. Joining the church means joining the movement--God' s humanizing movement in and for the world.
Participating in Christ's compassion
The mission discourse begins "When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (9:36). The strong words used to describe the crowds picture weary and dejected people whose pitiful plight was a direct consequence of having no leader ("as sheep without a shepherd"). (4) Professor Dan Olson, a colleague at Wartburg Seminary, maintains that "a crowd is not a community." In Matthew's narrative, the crowds are depicted as needy in search of food and healing; in contrast, the discipleship community is enabled to move beyond its own needs to be in ministry for others. For Matthew, the church exists to identify with needy people (all people). In responding to this mission, Christians experience their own healing and real life.
Whenever a Christian congregation takes a close look at the geographical neighborhood in which it exists (which we designate as "parish"), (5) it discovers weary and dejected people with neither direction nor help from leaders. The challenge is: Will a congregation allow itself to be drawn into Jesus' compassionate care for the people in its parish? When Jesus saw the needy crowds, he was moved with compassion. The Greek word translated "compassion" implies a visceral response to the plight of others, allowing one to connect with their pain. If identification with others' pain leads to concrete action on their behalf, then Christians are drawn into Christ's compassion for needy crowds.
In 9:37-38, Jesus' saying portrays the harvest as plentiful and the laborers as few. He directs his hearers to pray "the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." In Scripture, harvest is an end-time image that suggests not only God' s final saving activity but also the possibility of divine judgment (10: 13-15). (6) This harvest involves God' s mysterious work, in which the church participates (see 19:28). Faced with a seemingly overwhelming mission, the church is to initiate its involvement through prayer. Mission begins with prayer to "the Lord of the harvest" to send workers into "the Lord's harvest." Christians must petition and trust God to disclose workers and resources for the congregation's missionary endeavor, and finally they remember that their outreach ministry is nothing less than Christ's urgent mission of bringing healing and hope to hapless crowds, a ministry that represents divine mercy.
Focusing evangelical outreach
Straightway in 10:1-5, Matthew reveals the answer to the implied prayer for workers--Jesus summons his twelve disciples and grants them authority to cast out unclean spirits and to heal diseases. Those who petition the Lord of the harvest become the answer to their own prayer. By specifying the twelve disciples as the twelve named apostles (only here does he use apostolos), Matthew is likely suggesting their transformation from...