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Freedom to Follow Now

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. (Matt. 10:8)

At some point in one’s life, one is likely to be confronted with one’s mortality. Often one may ask: “Have I been all that I should have and could have been? Have I done all I could have done and should have done?” Often, one may find the answer to these questions uncomfortable. Yet as I contemplate the proclamation of Matthew in the midst of my own existential crisis, I experience a certain stillness and peace. The message of Matthew brings forth the assurance of now. Who am I now? That is the crucial question. We have spent the past eleven weeks looking at the many aspects of discipleship portrayed in the Gospels. Now is the time to answer the crucial question: Am I answering the call now?

In Matthew’s Gospel, there is urgency, but it is not urgency of the past or even of the future. It is an urgency of now. His genealogy, while it recapitulates Israel’s history as one of failure, declares that Israel’s history climaxes triumphantly in the presence of Jesus the Christ. This is clear in his summary of the genealogy: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ” (1:17). Because of Jesus, the failure of historical Israel is now cancelled in the triumph of spiritual Israel. Jesus is the new Israel who, as Matthew’s genealogy indicates, includes not only Jews, but also Gentiles.1

Matthew frequently cites passages from the Hebrew Scriptures to prove that Jesus is, indeed, the fulfillment of Israel’s history. Yet Matthew’s Gospel reveals the bitterness and anguish that came from historical Israel’s rejection of the gospel and its call to discipleship. The seven woes in Chapter 23 are a poignant and passionate rebuke that ends in a seemingly hopeless plea: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (23: 37).

Matthew’s Gospel is a call to discipleship. He prepares his readers for that call by depicting Jesus as the authoritative teacher of Israel, who, like Moses, goes up on the mountain to teach the Law (5–7). It is in this Sermon on the Mount that Matthew maps out the pattern of true discipleship. It is not so much about doing or not doing as it is about a deeply spiritual awareness in which one is not content to simply display deeds of righteousness, but to be righteous: “Be therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

In the context of the Sermon, this means to love the enemy, forgive as one is forgiven, and love others as you love yourself. This deeply spiritual condition works itself out in acts of righteousness. Thus, after recording the Sermon, Matthew records several healing miracles of Jesus before he writes down the call of the disciples in Chapter 10. In the midst of the call, Jesus says, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (10:8).

Thus, discipleship is not about a narcissistic obsession with one’s identity and accomplishments (or lack thereof), but about the absolutely freedom into which God calls us to enter: “freely you have received, freely give.” Whatever God gives to us we return to the process of God’s saving action in the world.

Matthew’s Gospel is eschatological: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (10:7). This is the reason for the urgency in Matthew. It is interesting to note that in the midst of the eschatological discourse in Chapters 24 and 25 Matthew is careful to point out that no one—not even Jesus himself—knows the day or the hour when Jesus will return (24: 36, ff.). Here Matthew means to deflect any concern with time setting to the actual spiritual condition of those who have been called to follow Jesus. He follows this saying with the parable of the ten virgins (25:1–13). This parable points out that readiness is about the urgency of now. What is my responsibility to the other now? This is the ultimate question in Matthew’s eschatological discourse (25:31–46).

In the midst of the awareness of the failure of the past and the anticipation of the future, we live now in the present. Historical consciousness grounds us in the presence of the kingdom that we are now creating, even out of our own existential crises.

So even though one may have failed to be what one ought to have been, the present is the place where one stands. The present is the location of the call to follow Jesus. Jesus’ passionate cry, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…” needs not to be hopeless. It need not be lost on those who would take up the cross and follow Jesus. Answering the call is not about making up for the past or preparing for the future. It is the awareness that God blesses me not because of anything that I am, or anything that I do, but because God is absolutely free and invites me into that fellowship of freedom.

In my mind, the essential struggle of discipleship is the struggle to experience this freedom, which relieves me from the burden of my historical identity and brings me into the presence of God. There I find peace in the assurance that God’s will comes to pass even through me. Freely have I received, freely I give.

Notes and References

1. For Matthew, the escape to Egypt from the massacre of the Herod and the consequent return is a fulfillment of the most important experience in Israel’s history—the Exodus. Thus, he quotes Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (2:15). Here he shows that Jesus is God’s son in the same way that Israel was God’s son.

Olive J. Hemmings is a professor in the Department of Religion at Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland.

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