Ordinary Time – Cycle A
The unifying theme of the readings of this Sunday revolves around the two great community realities in the Bible: the community of the old covenant at the foot of Sinai (first reading) and the group of the Twelve, chosen and sent by Jesus to continue his work as foundation of the community of the new covenant (gospel). In both cases the saving and gratuitous action of God constitutes the initiative that provokes and generates human response: Yahweh has liberated Israel from slavery and now he invites them to make a covenant with him. Jesus, who has begun the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, sends his disciples to continue his work.
The first reading (Ex 19,2-6a) is the solemn text that serves as prologue to the account of the Sinai covenant (Ex 19-24). The Lord calls Moses from the mountain and this goes up to meet God. Two moments in the historic experience of Israel can be distinguished clearly: the past (v. 4) and the future (vv. 5-6).
In remembering the past, the more relevant subject is Yahweh, who recalls the great deeds which he has realized in favour of Israel: “You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle’s wings and brought you here to myself” (v. 4). The history which has led the people to the mountain is not a mere fact that happened by chance; rather, it is the time when God has revealed his saving power in favour of Israel. In order to enter into the covenant, it is necessary to have “seen” the action of God in one’s own history. Only Israel that has “seen” the powerful hand of Yahweh, who has liberated it from fear and oppression, will then be able to adhere itself to him with faith. The phrase “brought you here to myself” emphasizes the personal aspect of the covenant and indicates the real end of the great Israelite pilgrimage and of all human pilgrimages.
In vv. 5-6, the future prospect for the people is opened. Here the more relevant subject is Israel, called to “listen” to the voice of God. The historical action of Yahweh (v. 4) starts an open dialogue: “Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant…” (v. 5). The people, who have “seen” the action of God, is now invited to “listen” to his voice. In this way, the response of faith and the way that Israel will have to traverse to become and to live as people of God are described. The statute of the new community bound to Yahweh through the covenant is described: “You shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (vv. 5-6).
The three expressions (“special possession”, “kingdom of priests”, “holy nation”) describe one and the same reality: Israel belongs totally to God. The expression “special possession” (Hebrew: segulá) designates the economic allocation that corresponds to a determined person and which would constitute his private wealth (cf. Ecl 2,8; 1 Chr 29,3; it is applied to Israel in Dt 7,6; 14,2; 26,18; Psalm 135,4). The phrase “kingdom of priests” (Hebrew: mamléjet kojanim) brings to mind the privileges that the priests had of approaching God and dealing familiarly with him in the temple, while for other men this represented a grave danger (cf. Nm 4,15.20; Dt 5,24.26; 2Sm 6,6-7). Finally, the collective name “holy nation” (Hebrew: goy kadosh), construed from the contrast existing between goy (nation), which designates a group of human beings that possesses a common territory, language, government, rights, etc., and the adjective qadosh (holy, separated for God) which indicates the total consecration of Israel to God.
Israel will be a nation like the others, but at the same time, it will be different: it lives in history, but carrying within it a mystery of communion, reciprocal knowledge and obedience in relation with God, until the point of being “his special possession”, a real “priestly” people whose existence develops in their closeness and service to Yahweh.
The second reading (Rom 5,6-11) extols the sacrifice of Christ, whose death is first of all the revelation of the infinite, gratuitous and unconditional love of God for men and women. A love that is not a consequence of the person’s upright behaviour, but on the contrary: “when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son” (v. 10). And so the believer does not boast of his own works, but exclusively in God: “we go so far as to make God our boast through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (v. 11).
The gospel (Mt 9,36 – 10,8) describes a people, tired and disoriented (9,36), before whom Jesus is moved and in whose favour exhorts his disciples to pray with urgency. This situation justifies and explains the new missionary plan described in Chapter 10, in which the messianic activity of Jesus is extended to the disciples.
The people is described as “sheep without a shepherd” (9,36), a phrase taken from the Old Testament. When Moses came to know the announcement of his death, he asked God that he place at the head of the people “a man who shall act as their leader in all things, to guide them… that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep without a shepherd (Nm 27,17). In the same way that Joshua succeeded Moses in his mission at the head of the people, the disciples will continue the work of Jesus, the messianic shepherd who guides and protects the tired and dejected community because of the irresponsibility and ambition of their religious leaders (Ez 34,5: “So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts”).
The more profound motivation of the “pastoral” activity of Jesus, who “continued his tour of all the towns and villages, taught in their synagogues, proclaimed the good news of God’s reign, and cured every sickness and disease” (9,35), is his compassion. The Greek verb used, splagnízomai, indicates a trembling from within, from the womb. It evokes, therefore, the gratuitous, active and generous love of the one who feels as part of the other and suffers with the other. For Matthew, the deeper root of the mission of Jesus is found in his compassion for the people.
Jesus contemplates the situation of poverty, disorientation and religious ignorance of the people with a sense of urgency, as the biblical image of the “harvest” shows. The harvest, in fact, recalls the time of final judgment, when the grains will be separated from the chaff (cf. Mt 3,12) and the wheat from the weeds (Mt 13,30.39). The abundance of the harvest highlights the fulfilment of the hope and urgency of the commitment of those who are called to prepare men and women for the final judgment. However, the initiative always corresponds to God. The work of the harvesters is subjected to the sovereign action of the “lord of the harvest”. That is why the first and most urgent action of the disciples, associated to the saving mission of the Messiah, is that of praying so that the necessary workers that mission demands may be sent. The prayer of the disciples expresses their syntony, availability and commitment to the saving plan revealed and inaugurated by Jesus. This messianic plan of liberation is the privileged object of the prayer of the disciples, who pray day after day asking the Father: “may your Kingdom come”.
In this way the first apostolic plan of Jesus, who chooses the “Twelve” from among the disciples to continue his work, is born. The number twelve refers us to the twelve tribes of Israel. In the messianic plan of Jesus, the “Twelve” represent the ideal origin of the entire people of God and the foundation of the community of the new covenant.
The mission is originally destined to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10,6). Starting from Israel, the mission will progressively make its way to all the nations. The Twelve are sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel with the mission of calling the believers in the final messianic assembly. Their missionary program, described and structured after the image of the historic mission of Jesus, comprises two moments: the announcement of the Kingdom and the realization of the messianic signs. Word and action.
They should announce with words and works that “the reign of God is at hand” (10,7). For this Jesus makes them sharers of the fullness of his messianic “power”: “He gave them authority to expel unclean spirits and to cure sickness and disease of every kind” (10,1). The proclamation of the kingdom of God is founded on the gratuitousness of God. The mission of the community follows the same style: “The gift you have received, give as a gift” (v. 8).