We are studying Matthew 10:1-15 for Sunday, April 7. This is the beginning of Jesus’ second long teaching in Matthew, often referred to as the “missionary discourse.” It covers material that shows up in the other synoptic gospels (Mark and Luke), but contains some possibly important differences, so it’s invited a fair amount of speculation about why that is from commentators. [Questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re in the gospel of Matthew – a gospel that emphasizes Jesus’ connection to Jewish tradition, scripture, prophecy, wisdom … all that. Because of that, the conventional wisdom is that Matthew may himself have been a scribe, and that the gospel was written to and for an early Jewish Christian audience. The book is structured around five discourses that present Jesus as a teacher, in particular as a wisdom teacher, interspersed with action that advances the plot. That number five may be significant, too: maybe they correspond to the five books of Torah.

Our text follows Matthew’s opening prologue (a genealogy that positions Jesus as the descendant of prophets, priests and kings, an infancy narrative that positions Jesus as also of profound significance to the Gentiles, Jesus’ baptism and temptations), the first act of Jesus’ ministry along with the Sermon on the Mount, and then several episodes of healing and saving that demonstrate Jesus’ authoritative command over the forces of evil and chaos. From Matthew 8:1-9:34, Jesus makes lepers clean, heals the sick, calms the wind and waves, casts out evil spirits by the legions, and raises the dead.

Matthew 9:35-38 seems to serve as a summary and transition to the next discourse:

35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’

The reference to “sheep without a shepherd” may be a reference to Numbers 27:12-23, by means of Numbers 27:17. In that story, Moses is about to die. He asks YHWH to appoint a successor for him, so the people will not be “like sheep without a shepherd.” God does this, making Joshua the leader, but making clear that Joshua will need the help of Eleazar the priest to find out what God wants Joshua to do.

Or maybe Jesus is referring to Ezekiel 34 – a whole chapter of complaint by YHWH, via the prophet, about the deficiencies of the recent shepherds of Israel (the priests and kings), and about the way the fat sheep have been bullying the little, scrawny ones. Either or both of these references would place Jesus’ next act, of commissioning the twelve apostles, into the larger context of the scripture of Israel and the topic of leading God’s people, with divine authority.

The commissioning of the twelve occurs early in Matthew’s gospel, just before a section that is bracketed by more references to John the Baptist (Mt 11:2-6, Mt 14:12). This section includes Matthew’s long section of parables about the kingdom of heaven. It positions the disciples (we tend to think the twelve in particular) as those to whom Jesus has revealed “the Father” (Matthew 11:26) and the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 13:11).

In other words, Matthew emphasizes the role of the twelve as the specially commissioned, authorized, and trained leaders of the “found” people of God. Possibly, people on pilgrimage through a kind of wilderness.

No one thinks the fact that there are twelve members of this inner circle is an accident. Everyone thinks it’s a reference to the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel, the sub-patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.

The history of Christian interpretation has taken this reference to a lot of places, some of them really dangerous. It’s a mistake, I think, to say that “Jesus made the Church the New Israel,” as if the old Israel was just hauled off to the thrift store or something. But Matthew does give the impression that Jesus is purposely engaging in a restorative work that’s deeply connected to Israel’s history here.

N.B.: I haven’t ever heard anyone mention the connection with the twelve spies from Numbers 13, either. Maybe because that would be less than flattering to the apostles, and because then we would argue about who are the counterparts of Joshua and Caleb, “the good ones.” But considering the way the twelve flee when Jesus is arrested, it does not seem all that crazy to me to think of that Hebrew Biblical reference, too.

CLOSER READING: In v1, Jesus summons his twelve disciples, literally “students,” and in v2 they are called apostles, literally “ones sent.” Matthew will continue to call them “disciples,” “the twelve disciples,” or “the twelve” after this.

They are given authority, clearly from Jesus, over unclean spirits. We’ve already seen that Jesus has this authority, since he’s just exercised it many times. There’s a sense from the text that curing every disease and infirmity may have something to do with the ability to cast out unclean spirits.

The way the twelve are listed in vv2-4 emphasizes that they are paired up.

If we compare the lists of the twelve given in Mark and Luke, we’ll notice some differences in order and even in names. There are traditional explanations for all of that.[1]

In v5, Jesus sent out these twelve, with instructions. They don’t report back in Matthew (although they do in Mark and Luke). They just show up again in Matthew 12:1.

Matthew records Jesus as instructing the apostles to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Only Matthew tells us this. It’s consistent with Jesus’ remarks to the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28, where he again states his mission as being “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” At the end of the gospel, the twelve will again be “sent,” this time to “make disciples of all nations” in the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Their proclamation is almost identical to Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is missing the “repent” clause. Is this something to think about?

Everything they are told to do in v8 (“cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”), Jesus has already done. So, maybe we could say Jesus is telling them to extend his ministry.

They are not supposed to take payment, but it’s clear they need to accept hospitality, that is, food and lodging, based on v10-11.

The way the phrase “You received without payment, give without payment” occurs directly before the long list of things not to “take along” on the trip creates an interesting ambiguity. All translations seem to come down on the side of the Greek verb in v9 meaning “take along” in this context. This makes sense, because that verb seems to govern the whole long list of things the twelve are told not to “take along.” This part of the instructions concludes with “for laborers deserve (literally, “are worthy of”) their food.”

But the more usual meaning of the verb translated “take along” is more like “get” or “acquire.” So at first, it sounds like, because of having received without payment, and needing to give without payment, they are not to “get” or “acquire” any gold, silver, or copper, which in context seems to mean any money, for their belts, by implication from their work. I’m not convinced that this is just a mistaken first impression; I lean toward thinking the author set this up this way on purpose, since Jesus really is telling them both not to run out and get travellers’ checks and not to take payment for their miracles.

A bag for the journey would have been something to put food in; two tunics would have allowed for a change of clothes, or maybe for something to wrap up in for sleeping along the way. In both cases, these things would have allowed the travelers a measure of independence. Without these things, the twelve will need to rely completely on help from whoever they meet along the way.

I admit I got concerned about the sandals. My issue was not that Mark, unlike Matthew, explicitly says that Jesus says to wear sandals (Mark 6:9). I am not an inerrantist, and I don’t feel I have to defend the Bible on inconsistencies like that. My issue was whether anyone (like Jesus, or anyone listening to him, or anyone listening to Matthew’s version of him) would have expected the twelve to go out on a long trip around the 1st century CE Mediterranean barefoot.

As it turns out, I found at least one contemporary source (Rob Greenfield) who says he goes everywhere in the modern world, including hiking in the mountains, barefoot. That lends some credence to the “don’t wear sandals” instruction. According to one shoemaking site, who kindly collected many Biblical and Talmudic references to shoes and sandals, going barefoot might have some ritual significance in the context of Biblical tradition. According to another history of footwear source, slaves routinely went barefoot. So Jesus might have been serious, and might have meant something by that instruction not to take along sandals.

The question of “worthiness” arises already in v10 – the laborers are “worthy” of their rations. It repeats from there: they are to find a “worthy” house; if the house is “worthy” they are to do one thing, if not “worthy” another.

Presumably, their greeting is something customary like “Shalom – Peace – to this house.” So that greeting of “peace” may stay, or not, depending on the house’s worth.

The theme of “worthiness” will recur in vv37-38, in the context of the criterion for being “worthy” of Jesus. Again, “peace” is connected to it: Jesus has not come to bring peace, but a sword (v34), and the conflict symbolized by that sword will afflict household relationships. In both cases, the criterion of “worth” seems to be the attitude of receptiveness to the message of the gospel, the kingdom of the heavens.

“Worthiness” does not seem to be a criterion for whether to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, or cast out demons. The criterion for that seems to be sickness, deadness, leprosy, and demon-possession.

Because welcome and hospitality are so vital, it makes sense that Jesus would mention Sodom and Gomorrah, those notoriously INhospitable cities, in v15. Whether Sodom and Gomorrah have already received their final judgment or not is not clear from v15. What is clear is that not welcoming the apostles is a bad idea.

We might want to think about what Jesus’ instructions in these verses mean in practical terms. The apostles will presumably show up in a village, will heal or cure or liberate whoever needs healing or curing or liberating, and will stay with whoever has the means and inclination to put them up until their work is done. The hosts may not be people who themselves need healing or curing or liberating. The needs might all belong to the hosts’ neighbors.

There is an economic model implicit in this instruction, it seems to me. It explicitly rejects the concepts of “fee for service” or “mutually beneficial exchange” or “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” or “pay your own way” or even “giving to the deserving.” The apostles are giving without regard for “worthiness,” and are depending on “the kindness of strangers,” to quote Blanche Dubois. Maybe we would want to call this an economic model based on “gift” or “sharing” or “hospitality” or “the common good.” Or even “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” – except that it’s purely voluntary. Although there are Day of Judgment-style consequences for voluntarily opting out.

I’m not sure what we’ll want to make of all that.

A significant question, of course, is how contemporary people, who are not themselves the twelve, ought to read Jesus’ missionary discourse. That is: to what extent do Jesus’ instructions apply narrowly, to that particular group of ancient individuals, and to what extent do they apply to anyone today? To some, to all members of the church, to the church as a whole? We might want to think about how we answer that question, and why we answer as we do.

The instructions that follow (vv16-42) seem to many readers as having more to do with a more distant future than an immediate one. They seem to have an eschatological spin, in fact. That may help explain why the twelve don’t report back on their mission in the gospel of Matthew itself – if most of that mission is yet to come. Again, we might want to think about whether that makes Jesus’ instructions more, or less, applicable to people today.


[1] The meanings of the disciples’ names and traditional relationships are given in various places on the internet.

  • Simon (Shimon) means “to be heard.”
  • Peter is the Latinized version of the Aramaic Kepha, “rock.”
  • Andrew, a Greek name (Andreas), “manly.”
  • James is originally Hebrew or Aramaic Yaakov, Jacob, “supplanter,” also the name of one of the patriarchs of Israel.
  • John, Hebrew Yochanan, “God is gracious.”
  • Philip, another Greek name (Philhippos), “loves horses.”
  • Bartholomew, maybe a patronymic meaning “son of Tolmai,” with Tolmai meaning something like “farmer.” A thought is that Bartholomew is the same person as Nathanael, who is mentioned in the gospel of John.
  • Thomas, a Greek version of an Aramaic name (t’om’a) that means “twin.” So, when John refers to him as “Thomas, called ‘the twin’” in John 11:16, he’s basically saying something like “Thomas, called ‘Thomas,’” maybe for the benefit of his readers who no longer know any Aramaic.
  • Matthew, a Greek version of a Hebrew original, Mattiyahu, meaning “gift of YHWH.” Mentioned in Matthew 9:9. Traditionally, identified with Levi, the tax collector and son of Alphaeus, mentioned in Mark 2:14. Could this mean he is related to James, the son of Alphaeus, mentioned next? Not many people seem to have thought so.
  • James, son of Alphaeus, is traditionally thought of as “James the lesser” or “younger” or “littler” – vs. James who is the other son of Zebedee. Sometimes he has been identified as “the brother of the Lord.” Matthew doesn’t identify him in any of those ways, though.
  • Thaddaeus might be a Greek form of a Hebrew name, Lebbaeus, that means something to do with “heart.” Traditionally, as well, he’s thought to have had another name, Judas, or Judah. But maybe he went more by Thaddaeus, so as not to be confused with … you know who.
  • Judas Iscariot, the other Judah, may be called “Iscariot” because of the place he’s from, maybe Kerioth, or maybe because of a similar-sounding word that means “dagger.” Both suggestions have surfaced. But he’s always identified, in all the gospels, as “the one who betrayed him.” That has become his real nickname.

Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew