Fourth Sunday in Pentecost
Matthew 9:35-10:8 [9-23]
Freely ye received, freely give.
We are getting ready to take a journey. Monday morning we will leave for several weeks of driving cross country and visits with family, friends and tourist sights. Since we will have irregular access to the computer, I will be taking a vacation from this devotional as well as "A WORD FOR TODAY". Both will return by the second week of July.
Getting ready for a trip is always fun but difficult. The plans began with time and place – when will we leave and where will we stay. We've called hotels to make reservations, informed family of our intentions and worked out dates for special gatherings. We have planned our route, gotten information we might need for the trip. Planning ahead helps make the trip go more smoothly. We have to decide what clothes we will need taking into consideration the fact that we will be moving through different climate zones. It is important to consider how much we can afford to do and plan accordingly. Can we eat out or do we need to pack a picnic basket? Should we ship gifts ahead or is there room in the trunk? The answers to these questions affect the amount of luggage we can take. We've been planning for months.
The Hebrews did not have that long to plan for their journey out of Egypt. The decision to move happened almost overnight, yet they did not go with nothing. In the story of the Exodus, we learn that the Egyptians showed favor to the Hebrews and gave them great wealth to carry with them on their journey. The Hebrews took their livestock and everything they could carry. They had carts and other conveyances, so they were able to take everything they could gather. Though some of their possessions and livestock may have gotten lost along the way, they had plenty. The reason for this, of course, is because they were going to start a new life. God made it possible for them to go into the Promised Land with enough wealth to survive and build an independent nation. Yet, as I plan for our own short trip in our automobile, I can imagine that all that stuff could become a real burden, especially since they were walking through a wilderness without rest areas or McDonald's to meet their basic needs.
Our Old Testament lesson for today finds us at the end of that journey – or at least at the end of the first leg of the journey. The Hebrews had just arrived at the base of Mount Sinai, to meet finally the God that had redeemed them out of Egypt. He was the God of their forefathers, but they had lost touch with Him. They had nothing to instruct them in the way they should go, only the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even Joseph's memory had been lost to the people after four hundred years of living in that foreign land.
Moses went up on the mountain to speak with the LORD. He answered, "Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be mine own possession from among all peoples: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation."
This is what is called a "suzerain-vassal covenant." It is a promise by the greater party that is dependent on the actions of the lesser party. In other words, it is an "if, then" covenant. If Israel will be obedient to the Law, then they will live under the guardianship of their King. Many of the ancient kingdoms were like this – the king owned the land and the fortress. If the vassals wished to be protected in time of war and danger, they had to be welcome in the walls of that castle. Since all was owned by the king, the people even needed him for their daily bread. They had to obey the law of the land, the law established by the king to have food to eat and a place to sleep. This is the type of covenant that was established between God and Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
The rule of law was the Ten Commandments as well as the other laws prescribed on that mountain. These laws, though many seem out dated and ridiculous to our modern mind, were designed to protect the people of Israel. The hygiene and nutrition guides have been proven scientifically to be the part of a healthy lifestyle. The social and justice rules were given to help the people establish a society of mercy and order. When God said, "If you obey these rules you will be my possession," He was not only referring to the covenant promise, but also that these rules would keep them safe. They could perish if they ate pork that was not well cooked and disease is passed through blood.
So, Moses took the message of God to the people. "If you obey, you will be His people and He will care for you." They eagerly agreed. "All that Jehovah hath spoken we will do." Yet, as we continue through the story of God's people, we know that they could not keep that covenant. They often turned from God – even did so while Moses was getting the Law! They turned to their material possessions and formed a golden calf, bowing down in worship to a god that could never have taken them out of Egypt. They thought Moses was dead and did what they knew. Following the LORD is not easy because it often means we have to wait, to trust, to suffer. It is much easier to take control of our own situation and use our own power even though we are really powerless.
In those ancient kingdoms there were invariably some vassals that wanted freedom – freedom from the rules and from the control of the king. There were, most certainly, kings that were unjust and wicked. However, many of the rulers were compassionate and concerned about the welfare of their vassals. Even still, there were some in those kingdoms who wanted control of their own lives. They may have found freedom from the rules, but they were burdened by an even greater taskmaster – poverty, hunger, fear, illness and death – because they could not take care of themselves.
The Law was not a burden, it was a gift because it guided the people into a right relationship with God and it helped them to live well in the blessings of God. And when the people did face the difficult times – the times of poverty, hunger, fear, illness and death which would come because we live in an imperfect world – they could trust that God was with them and would see them through. God would never abandon His people or turn His back on them, but they could by walking away from the gift they'd been given – His Word, His Law.
At the foot of Mt. Sinai, the people were preparing for an even greater journey, the journey into the Promised Land. It would be a difficult time because it would take them many years to arrive at their destination. God would test them, they would fail, He would lift them up again and again. Through it all, they would see that He was with them always. They did not always believe, but He was always faithful.
The disciples were preparing for a much different kind of journey in today's Gospel lesson. This time they needed not time to prepare because Jesus sent them off with nothing. They had no burdens, no maps, no money. They had only faith, the authority Jesus gave them and His instructions.
Can you imagine what it would be like if we go into our car next Monday morning without any idea where we would end up? We are lucky because the route we plan to travel is littered with plenty of hotels. We could go forth and hope we might find a room. However, we know what it is like to find no room at the inn. It is terrible to be exhausted, to pull up to the first hotel you see and have them turn you away. The disciples couldn't rely on hotels or motels; they had to trust that there would be a family waiting to take them in for the evening. Hospitality was different than it is today – you could knock on someone's door and you would find a warm fire and a hearty meal. Yet, not every homeowner was hospitable.
The disciples could expect some compassion on the road, but they would not always be welcome. Not only might they face people who don't follow the cultural norm for the day, but they would also face those who would not receive their message. The world does not want to hear the truth and their journey would not be easy. They would face hate, betrayal, persecution and doubt. Though they would take the power of God to heal bodies, hearts and minds, they would be cast out of villages and left without proper food and shelter. Yet, if they walked forth in faith, God would provide all they needed.
Jesus tells the disciples, "Freely ye received, freely give." They were never to expect payment for the gift they were given. Jesus gave them the Gospel message and the power of God without concern for his salary. So, too, the disciples were to give freely. Yet, only a few verses later He tells them that the worker is worth his keep. It is not up to the laborer to set his price, but rather up to the receiver to give according to the blessing they have received. I wonder how many ministers have demanded a certain salary for their work, not truly trusting in God's provision for their welfare but taking control so that they can live according to their desires.
I suppose it has gotten this way not because people in ministry have become greedy or distrustful, but because the members of the church have forgotten the value of their time and the message they bring. All too often, I fear, I have been guilty of using the thoughts and ideas of another without giving proper credit. How many of us read multiple devotionals and studies on the lessons for each Sunday and never quite remember where we saw a piece of information or a quote and we use it anyway without even a word of thanks? I know I have found my own work posted on other websites without proper credit given.
I learned long ago, however, that this ministry is not about what I can get out of it, but rather about giving freely that which has been given. I once belonged to an organization that often quoted the well worn adage "You only get out of 'it' what you put into 'it'." While this is true, we are not to be motivated by the blessings we will receive, but rather motivated by the blessings we have received. God has given freely; we receive and pass on the blessings. Any payment we receive is to be received with thanksgiving and joy, but never expected.
The bottom line is that we would be nowhere if it were not for the authority and the power Jesus Christ first gave to us. There would be no message to share if He had not died on the cross. The Kingdom of God would still be under that covenant given at Mt. Sinai, a covenant dependent on our obedience to His Law. Paul tells us that our peace with God is not based on our ability to walk rightly, but rather it comes because we are justified – made righteous – through faith in Jesus Christ.
While faith in Christ might not mean an easy journey – the disciples faced hate, betrayal, persecution and doubt – it also means incredible blessings. Paul writes, "And not only so, but we also rejoice in our tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh stedfastness; and stedfastness, approvedness; and approvedness, hope: and hope putteth not to shame; because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us."
One of the reasons the Israelites wandered through the wilderness for forty years was because they had to learn how to trust in God's mercy and His grace. The same is true of the disciples. Trusting in God's mercy will not mean smooth sailing – suffering will happen. However, all our suffering will lead to greater strength even in the midst of our weakness, because we will learn that our strength is living in the care of our King. In that strength – His strength – we will persevere and He will build up our character. Through it all, we will live in the hope that is real and true – the hope that does not disappoint.
Hope in God is not fanciful wishes and dreams. Hope in God is expecting that which He has promised. He is faithful. He will be with us whether we experience suffering or not. Unfortunately, we often do not see Him in the midst of our prosperity. We only look to Him when we need Him. So, He asks us to live in want, to not expect payment for His free grace, because when we become wealthy on His great blessings, we forget from whence they came. So, He sends us out empty handed with the faith that He will provide through caring people who receive our message in joy and thanksgiving.
It is not hard to see the appropriateness of today's Psalm, since it is a song of thanksgiving and joy. It is the song we should sing each day, no matter what we face in our journey of life. When we travel in our world today, we do prepare – we plan our trip, decide what to pack and reserve a place to stay before we get there – but we do this because we live in a different sort of world than those early disciples. Yet, when it comes to matters of faith, when it comes to sharing the Gospel, we are called to live as they did – to give freely as we have freely received. We do this while singing praises to the LORD our God. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page