Fourteen years ago, I moved to Louisiana to serve as the Associate Pastor in a progressive Christian congregation. I loved the seven years I spent there, but I have now been away from Louisiana for exactly the same number of years that I was here. That passage of time was in my mind as I reflected on the lectionary passage which inspired this post (Matthew 10:5-16), and I would like to share with you some of how I interpret this piece of Christian scripture differently today than I might have previously.
In summer 2003, I was twenty-five years old and fresh out of seminary. I was thirty-two when I preach my last sermon from that pulpit in Louisiana. Today, I’m pushing forty. I suspect some of you can relate to seeing the world differently now than you once did. And from the perspective of midlife, I hope to continue seeing things differently for quite a few decades to come!
But more than merely acquiring new perspectives over the years, developmental theorists postulate that there is often at least one significant turning point that can happen in midlife. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) called this transition the “second half of life.” He said, “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening become a lie.”
With that paradigm shift in mind, I invite you to consider if Jesus’s ‘standard operating procedure’ could be seen in some sense as emerging from what Jung called the “first half of life.” After all, most historians speculate that Jesus would have been around age twenty-seven to thirty when he was killed. He was a young man. And it was to other radical young men—likely teenagers—that he gave these instructions, now recorded in Matthew 10:
As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.
There was a time in my life when I was much more open to such a radical call than I am today. But, to be honest, that time may have already passed by the time I answered my first call to be a full-time pastor. After all, I didn’t come to Louisiana as a seminary graduate proclaiming the good news for free. We negotiated a contract. I was paid a salary.
Indeed, after two years, I bought a house. But that’s not how Jesus’s standing operating procedure imagined it. Rather, he said:
Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.
For those of us who have a permanent address, how are we to reconcile that fact with Jesus’s original vision that his followers would—like him—be homeless, itinerant peasants? Most of us do not spend our time wandering between towns and villages, proclaiming the good news and hoping to earn our daily bread by curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons.
If we skip ahead nine chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, we come across the related story of the Rich Young Ruler:
21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
There was a time when I wanted to be perfect—at least that’s what I thought I wanted. These days I feel like being perfect might be a goal that better fits with the first half of life. These days, I’m trying to be gentler with myself and others, more honest about my shortcomings, and more open to being imperfect—to being human.
There is also the important twist that Jesus’s standard operating procedure assumes that not everyone is a homeless peasant. If Jesus’s young disciples are going to follow his instructions, then there need be some householders out there for them to visit. Otherwise, there would be no homes for the disciples to deem worthy or unworthy, no houses on which they might leave their peace or to shake off the dust from their feet, no hearths at which they might eat in exchange for all that curing of the sick, raising of the dead, cleansing of the lepers, and casting out of demons.
I should also note that Jesus adds near the end of this passage, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” Modern biblical debates about homosexuality have gotten many of us confused about Sodom and Gomorrah. But if you read Genesis 18 in its full context, you will see that the sin in this infamous “clobber passage”—a passage people use to beat each other up with—the sin is not same-sex acts, but inhospitality to strangers. Abraham’s debate with God concerns the lack of “righteousness” in Sodom, not the presence of same-sex relationships. Ezekiel 16:49 explicitly confirms this view: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
And so for those of us unable or unwilling to enact what we might consider Jesus’s Plan A (“be perfect, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus), consider “Plan B” in light of that passage from Ezekiel:
- Instead of “be perfect,” be humble.
- Instead of “sell everything,” share with those who have less than you. If you have excess food, give some to those who do not have enough. If you have more money than time, support the local Food Bank financially. If you have more time than money, volunteer at a soup kitchen.
- If you are in a state of prosperous ease, be hospitable to those who are poor and needy.
From a householder perspective, the challenge is not whether we are willing to sell everything and be perfect, but whether we are willing to be humble, generous, hospitable.
Importantly, I am not the first person to flip the script on Jesus’s instructions to his disciples. Early Christians wrote not only Gospels about the life and teachings of Jesus, but also many other documents. Perhaps the most famous of these first-century documents from a householder perspective is called the Didache, which literally means “The Teaching,” related to our English word didactic. This ancient book is dated to about the same time that Paul was writing his letters or a little afterward: the 50s of the first century, about twenty years after the life of the historical Jesus. It was thought lost, only to be surprisingly rediscovered in a church library in Turkey in 1873. (Jones 4-5). As late as the fourth-century, some prominent early Christian writers, such as Eusebius (c. 263–339 C.E.) and Athanasius (c. 296-373 C.E.), “even considered it to be on the fringe of the New Testament canon,” but it was ultimately influential in too few areas geographically to make the final cut of the most universally recognized collection of early Christian writings that we know today as the New Testament (Metzger 49).
The Didache is, in many ways, a manual for adapting the way of Jesus to the duties and concerns “of family, of occupation, of home—the very things that Jesus and his wandering apostles had left behind” (Milavec, x). Written only a few decades after the life of Jesus, the Didache attests that charismatic followers of Jesus’ way are continuing to circulate and claim to speak prophetically for God in exchange for temporary room and board. As we heard in our reading this morning from Chapter 11 of the Didache, the need is clear for householders to practice hospitality. It says, “Welcome the teacher when he comes to instruct you” (11:1).
But whereas Jesus’s instructions focus on whether a house or town is worthy of receiving peace, the Didache’s instructions are written from the opposite perspective. Their question is whether yet-another traveling disciple is a legitimate or illegitimate follower of Jesus’s way. In the tradition of all those throughout history who have been fooled in the past by hucksters, charlatans, and con men—offering false hope of healing that turns out to be snake oil—the Didache is interested in a litmus test for distinguishing true prophets from false prophets. Whereas Jesus says, “Be perfect,” the Didache is pragmatic: “For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able, then at least do what you can” (6:2). There is a similar pragmatism regarding prophets: “by their fruit you will know them” (Didache 11:8; Matthew 7:16).
And although the Didache contains some brief descriptions of true prophets—they “teach so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord…and have the ways of the Lord about [them]” (11:2, 8)— there is a much longer list of how to identify false prophets. One of my favorites is “If the prophet stays three days, the prophet is false.” We can see here that the Didache community seemed to be familiar with Jesus’ commission for his followers to travel itinerantly without food, possessions, or money. If someone stayed in one place too long, they risk exploiting the gift of hospitality.
Also in line with Jesus’ charge to his followers, the Didache cautions, “When the apostle goes away, let the apostle take nothing but bread to last until the next night of lodging,” and “If the prophet asks for money, the prophet is a false one” (11:6). The Didache continues, “If he wants to stay with you, and is an [artisan], let him work for his living. But if he has no trade, use your judgment in providing for him; for a Christian should not live idle in your midst” (12:3-4). And I love that the text warns further that, “If he is dissatisfied with this sort of an arrangement, he is a Christ-peddler. Watch that you keep away from such people” (12:5). Perhaps we need to bring the term “Christ-peddler” back into circulation for those who claim to be God’s prophets, but are truly interested only in their own profit.
As I move toward my conclusion, I would like to share one other early Christian model for distinguishing prophets from charlatans. As I shared earlier, the Didache was not canonized into the New Testament because it was known only in some regions. Another relatively popular early Christian document, written around the same time as the Gospel of John, that could have made it into the New Testament is called the Shepherd of Hermas (90-135 CE). Chapter 11 of this book also depicts early Christians wrestling with a steady stream of traveling prophets.
The Shepherd of Hermas says that a prophet “has the Spirit” if she or he is “meek, peaceable, humble, refrains from all iniquity and the vain desire of this world, and contents himself with fewer wants than others.” In contrast, a false prophet merely “seems to have the Spirit, exalts self, wishes to have the first seat, bold and imprudent and talkative, lives in the midst of many luxuries and many other delusions, and takes rewards for prophecy.”
Similar standards would be whether the person displays what the apostle Paul called the “fruit of the spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23), as well as whether their life and teaching result in an increase in the love of God and neighbor, which were Jesus’ two Greatest Commandments for all people, itinerant prophets and householders alike. So, whatever our situation in life—householder, homeless, or anywhere in between—and whatever our age, may we use the resources at our disposal to add to the world:
- more humility
- more generosity
- more hospitality
- more love
- more joy
- more peace
- more patience
- more kindness
- more goodness
- more faithfulness
- more gentleness,
- more self-control
- more love of God
- more love of neighbor.
May it be so. And blessed be.
For further Study
- Tony Jones, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community.
- Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.
- Aaron Milavec’s The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary is an accessible, condensed version of his massive tome The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E.
- Read the text of the Didache free online at paracletepress.com/didache.html.
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles