Go out to the Whole World

Go out to the Whole World

Thirteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Fergus Kerr admires the sacrificial lives of Christian missionaries.

The Gospel is addressed to the church as a whole. In chapter 10 of his Gospel, however, Matthew sets out the instruction that Jesus gave to his twelve disciples and makes it very clear that he was speaking to them on their own. Chapter 10 is sometimes labelled the Mission Discourse.

This does not mean that the instruction cannot be extended to all of us. Yet, in the first place, it is addressed to the twelve and, by anticipation, to those in the Church who have inherited their particular role: the successors of the apostles, so to speak.

In today’s reading Jesus make two basic points. The apostles have to subordinate and sacrifice their love for their parents and children in order to put serving Jesus first. This is what it will mean for them to take up the cross and follow him (Matt 10:37-39). On the other hand, they can count on being well received by a significant number of sympathisers. Those who give them even a cup of cold water share in the blessings that the Gospel promises (Matt 10:40-42).

None of the other evangelists gives us Jesus’s instruction to the Twelve in this form. Indeed, the warning to put following Christ before family loyalties is addressed elsewhere quite explicitly to the crowds as a whole (Lk 14:25-33). Moreover, the blessing on those who do not follow Christ yet support his work is placed by Mark in the context of Jesus’s rebuke to the disciples who want to stop some one from casting out demons in his name because he is not one of their company (Mk 9:41).

As set out by Matthew, however, the call to put the service of the Gospel before family loyalties, and the promise that the missionary will have a wider circle of supporters, are addressed to the Twelve. By anticipation, we may say, Jesus is speaking here, primarily if not exclusively, to those within the community of the church who are called to be missionaries.

Generation after generation, Christian men and women have given up family, home and country to take the Gospel abroad — from Peter and Paul onwards. From the missionary monks so characteristic of the early Irish church to the priests, religious men and women, teachers, doctors and nurses, who went in their thousands, from Europe and North America, especially in the last two centuries, to spend their lives in India, Africa, the Far East and elsewhere.

Many returned home, to enjoy a well earned retirement. Many more died in the service of Christ in far-off places, often without ever seeing their native land again. Many, including some of the most remarkable Protestant missionaries, settled for good in the mission field, giving up their native language and culture to become one with the people whom they were called to serve.

Often enough, missionaries have encountered rejection, hostility, persecution and hatred, as Jesus warns, earlier in the Mission Discourse (Matt 10:16-23). But sometimes, so he promises, there will be people who receive them, and, in receiving them, these people will be receiving him. It is not clear that these people always themselves become Christians. In the episode recorded by Mark Jesus obviously envisages a wider circle, sympathetic enough with his mission to be regarded as co-workers: ‘He who is not against us is on our side’ (Mk 9:40).

Many missionaries, after a life time, agree that they have made very few ‘converts’. That does not mean, however, that their presence has meant nothing. On the contrary, even without invoking the truth that God’s ways will always be more mysterious than we can comprehend, there will often be evidence which indicates, convincingly enough, that Christ has been received, in all sorts of ways. People do not always — or even often — become Christians, but they receive Christ in receiving those who come in his name: they welcome what they bring, they co-operate in their work.

These days, according to the statistics, far fewer men and women from Europe and North America leave home and family to take the Gospel to faraway places; and, anyway, there is debate and even some confusion over what counts as receiving Christ in a non-Christian culture. But there are still missionaries who are received in Christ’s name (Mother Theresa comes to mind!); and some who serve at the cost of their lives (like Sister Dorothy Stang, aged 74, the American-born missionary of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, shot dead on 12 February 2005, to put an end to her work over twenty years in defence of subsistence farmers in the Amazon rainforest).

What Jesus says to the Twelve, here in the Mission Discourse, reminds us of the indispensable place of missionaries in the Church, of the sacrifices that they make and of the risks that they run, especially today when they take a stand in favour of justice for the poor.

Readings: 2 Kings 4:8-11,14-16 | Rom 6:3-4,8-11 | Matt 10:37-42

fr. Fergus Kerr is a member of the Dominican community in Edinburgh, where he teaches theology. He is the editor of New Blackfriars, the theological and philosophical review of the English Dominicans.