Exodus 9:2-8a Matthew 9:36-10:33
And God said to Moses, “The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites."
We all know the story of the Exodus, and many, if not all, of us have seen either the film “The Ten Commandments”, made in 1956 and starring Charlton Heston, or “The Prince of Egypt”, an animated film made in 1998 by DreamWorks. Both films tell the same story, about the children of Israel living under Pharaoh’s cruel yoke, and liberated by God through His prophet Moses. In both films we see the Israelites building the pyramids and raising the ancient Egyptian monuments. Interestingly, there’s no historic proof that the Children if Israel had anything to do with Pharaoh’s building projects, the one thing we really know about their time in Egypt is that they were slaves.
No one wants to be a slave. No one wants to be a thing that has no individual rights and freedoms, a piece of property owned by another person. Undoubtedly, many of the Israelites were house slaves, and their lives weren’t all that bad. There’s even some support to the theory that some of the Children of Israel had managed to buy their freedom and were perhaps small merchants. We know that life wasn’t all that bad, because once the Children of Israel had left Egypt, and after they’d been on their way in the wilderness for a while, they began a great deal of bellyaching. They missed, among other things, all the good food to which they had grown accustomed in Egypt.
Moses had a difficult job, and it wasn’t just freeing the Israelites from the Egyptians. The movies always show, with great special effects, all the plagues that Moses had to call down on Egypt, ending with the liberation of the slaves and the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. That’s where the films end. Up to that point, Moses’ problems have been with the slave holders and not with the slaves. Once all the miracles have been accomplished, every Jew who wanted to leave Egypt followed Moses to freedom.
But that’s where the trouble begins, because for all those many years they’d been slaves, the Israelites had lost much of their identity as a people. They were accustomed to the food the clothing the good living conditions in Egypt. They were no longer a cohesive group, and so it fell to Moses to take these various individuals, bound loosely by their faith, and pull them back together as a nation, a new people. It was a job that would take generations.
In today’s lesson we come to the moment when God at last wants it made clear that these former slaves have a new identity. Hardship and time have stripped from them their desire for the comforts of the flesh pots of Egypt, and made of them a strong and vital people. With great power and tenderness God tells Moses to remind them that they have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Then God declares the Children of Israel are to become a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
The Israelites who first left Egypt would not have been ready for this commission, but their descendants are. Suffering and struggle have prepared them for this day, and they respond by shouting their acceptance, "Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do."
In this day and age, suffering has acquired a “bad name”. No one ever wants to suffer, but, like the wandering Children of Israel before them, generations of Christians understood that suffering, while unpleasant, was part of God’s plan. It is hard to grasp that suffering can be a gift of love, and therefore we in today’s society have chosen to forget that accepted as a gift, and worked through with patience and faith, suffering produces holiness.
The long and painful 40 years in the wilderness made of the disorganized and discouraged Israelites a nation powerful and positive enough to defeat the Canaanites and claim the Promised Land for their own. The kind of endurance that God asked of the Children of Israel is something that is also expected of us today.
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.
By Jesus’ time, the Jewish people have become a sprawling, no longer cohesive nation. The Romans have appeared on the scene, and life isn’t good. In today’s Gospel Jesus looks around Him at a hillside filled with people that have given up trying. Holiness has been replaced by Hopelessness as the mantra of even those who believe. Brokenness is the “given”. These people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and looking at this crowd Jesus says to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
What, exactly, the disciple made of Jesus prayer request isn’t recorded, but it is doubtful they expected what came next. Having given up their families and their livelihoods, having left behind everything they had known, and having established new lives following Jesus, the disciples must have assumed their time of personal sacrifice was behind them.
True, while traveling from town to town they were forced to deal with the disadvantages and discomforts of having no permanent residence and no specific source of income, yet the disciples also enjoyed the perks of being Jesus closest companions. They were the ones who got to hear the parables explained, who got to see all the miracles performed, to hear all the teachings. For this privilege, they did some crowd control, and sought out places to stay in each new town they visited. No doubt they thought this was all that would be required of them.
And how do we, Jesus present day followers, feel about it? Do we anticipate that what we have given and are giving is all that will be required of us? Are we comfortable with our lives as Christians? If the answer to that last question is yes, then it should serve as a warning, because comfort isn’t the gift Jesus gives to those who are doing His work. Doing His work well, always involves suffering.
Needing laborers to send out into the harvest, Jesus turns to His followers. It is time for the real work to begin. To prepare them for what they must do, Jesus gives the disciples detailed instructions, but unlike the sort of pep talk workers might receive today, there are no words of comfort, and no reassurances that everything will go smoothly. Jesus doesn’t mince words. "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He even tells them, “for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me,”
How did the disciples manage, and how are we supposed to manage, when what Jesus asks of us means striving beyond our limits and giving until it hurts? How can we not see in Jesus the strict and unswerving task master? How do we see instead the personification of all kindness and holiness? If indeed we must suffer, and we must, then what raises us above the level of slaves? The answer is – Love.
St. Thomas a Kempis wrote in his work The Imitation of Christ, “Love feels no burden, values no labours, would willingly do more than it can, complains not of impossibility because it conceives that it may and can do all things; when weary is not tired; when straightened is not constrained; when frightened is not disturbed; but like a lively flam and a torch on fire, it mounts upwards and securely passes through all opposition.”
The question for each of us today and every day is not, how much will Jesus ask of us, nor how much will it cost, nor how much will it hurt? The question for us is, how much do I love Jesus and how much am I willing to do for Him through that love? Like a parent, who would without thinking sacrifice their life for their child, we are called to love Jesus totally, to be willing to sacrifice everything for Him.
Love has a hem to her garment that reaches the very dust.
It sweeps the stains
From the streets and lane,
And because it can – it must!
Much is required of each of us, so every painful sacrifice you make, do for the love of Jesus. The next time someone asks you, “Why do you bother with this; no one appreciates it?” or “How can you do that? That person is so ungrateful.” You’ll know the answer. We do not work for recognition, or thanks, or vain glory. We work for love. We do it all for Jesus.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, we, your unworthy children, love You, but not with our whole hearts. We desire to do the work you are calling us to do, but stumble like the Children of Israel in the wilderness, trying to tear ourselves away from the pleasures of the world. Dear Lord, grant us the strength to let go, the grace to accept the Love you offer, and the courage to love you completely no matter what the cost. All this we ask, for your love and mercy’s sake. Amen.