Discipleship as Boundary Breaking: Reflecting on Matthew 8-9
Discipleship as Boundary-Breaking Ministry
One of my favorite sections in Matthew’s Gospel is the collection of miracle stories that Matthew arranges together in 8:1–9:35. This segment of the Gospel involves three sets of miracles (8:1-17; 8:23-9:8; 9:18-35) with two sections of teaching (8:18-22 and 9:9-17) on discipleship in the middle. Matthew 8:1-9:35 follows the first major section of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). In Matthew 8:1-9:35, Matthew portrays the healing ministry of Jesus, and at the same time, Matthew offers additional insight into the meaning of discipleship. One major aspect of discipleship is disciple as boundary breaker. This is a dimension that desperately needs to be recaptured in our present context as we seek to recover the missional focus of discipleship. Boundary breaking involves at least two aspects: radical outreach and empowerment of the new disciples.
Boundary Breaking as Radical Outreach
In the first of the three sections of miracles (8:1-17), Jesus in rapid succession heals a leper, the servant of a Roman centurion, and Peter’s mother-in-law. It is easy for us to miss the significance of Jesus’ action because these categories of persons are unlikely to stand out in the mind of the modern reader. Yet each of these persons, a unclean leper, a representative of a hated oppressive regime, and a woman were the types of individuals that were marginalized and shunned by institutional religion in the Judaisms of the 1st century. It is impressive that the bulk of those whom Jesus encounters positively in the Gospels tend to be marginalized persons, and it is ironic that Jesus receives the most conflict from the religious leaders of his day precisely for his outreach to the lost and hurting of the world. Yet, Jesus reaches out and forms a community of the desperate – Jesus heals and delivers those who come simply with a faith that Jesus can help them in their time of need. These are persons desperate for the sorts of things that God alone can provide.
How would our ideas about discipleship be different if we reached out to the marginalized of our communities today? What if instead of treating outsiders as threats we practiced radical outreach in love?
Boundary Breaking and Empowerment
The practice of radical outreach is only a beginning. The true challenge comes at the point of entry and inclusion in the community of faith. The story of Jesus’ calling of Matthew, the tax collector, is illustrative and profound. In the call of Matthew in 9:9-13, Jesus makes a bold and daring addition to his band of disciples. He calls a hated tax collector, i.e., a collaborator with the Roman occupational government. Matthew, as a tax collector, represented the agent of the transfer of Jewish wealth and capital from Israel to Rome and also became wealth at the expense of the tax payers.
It is one thing for communities of faith to enter into patron – client relationships with marginalized persons and groups. We take “mission” trips into blighted neighborhoods or perhaps find a “sister” church with a different demographic than our own. But we can keep such encounters at arm’s length and our own communities are not disrupted by those whom we “help.” This is what makes the calling of Mathew so bold. Jesus does not merely heal or help a person and then go on his way. He invites an outsider into his closest circle of followers. He elevates Matthew the tax collector from hated outsider to a member of the twelve. Look at the list of disciples in Matthew 10:2-4. There smack dab in the middle is the name Matthew with the descriptive title “tax collector.” This is boundary breaking in a way that truly empowers an outsider to the position of colleague rather than client. If we want to lead our communities of faith into radical outreach that will lead to growth of our communities, then we need to be willing to empower the newcomers by giving them authority in our communities to act and engage in ministry as partners. Jesus’ willingness to associate with persons such as Matthew brought the abuse and criticism of the Pharisees. Jesus’ response is classic and worthy of deep reflection. Jesus calls upon the words of the ancient prophet Hosea in replying, “Go and learn what this means ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’ for I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” In the chapter ten, Jesus will send out his disciples to do similar sorts of ministry with the injunction, “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6).
If we desire to be faithful disciples of Jesus, we need to lead our communities of faith into radical outreach. There are multitudes of persons hungry, even desperate, for what God alone can provide. Who among us will go to them? Who among us will empower them to be full members of our own communities?
1) Who in your present context would represent a shunned or marginalized person or group?
2) What would it take to reach out to such persons in the name of Jesus Christ/
3) How good am I at “power-sharing”? What would have to change in my life if I began to include fully newcomers into my community of faith?
© 2011 Brian D. Russell