Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 15, 2008

The Appointment of the Disciples as a Call to Power over Disease

By Fr. Charles Bouchard, OP
  • Ex 19:2-6 (I bore you up on eagles' wings, therefore you shall hearken to my voice)
  • Rom 5:6-11 (It is hard enough to die for a just man, but Jesus died for us while we were still sinners)
  • Mt 9:36-10-8 (Jesus is troubled by the site of the crowds and sends out his disciples.)

Exegetical Notes:
The introduction to this passage is almost a verbatim repetition of 4:23. In both cases, Jesus is moved with pity; this concern leads him to "teach, proclaim and cure." It concludes a long series of healings with appointment of the apostles who are to do what Jesus did. This passage also presents us with two powerful agricultural images: sheep without a shepherd, and a harvest ready to be brought in from the fields, but too few laborers to do it.

This is also a crucial point in the gospel where Jesus's followers move from being merely disciples — those who follow, listen and learn — to being apostles, those sent out to bear the message of the Gospel. It's almost like until now they have been in school, and have suddenly graduated. They leave the security of Jesus' presence to go out into the world. Jesus gives them instructions not to waste their time on those who are unreceptive (the pagans and the Samaritans). He urges them to use their time as efficiently as possible, going to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He may have done this because these lost sheep at least heard the message once, and might be more readily able to hear it again. It might also suggest that "the harvest" is right in our own back yard, and that we don't have to go far and wide in order to find people who need to hear the Gospel's message of hope. The apostles are named individually. This suggests both that they have specific calls or vocations and also that there was some concern that others would present themselves as legitimate apostles if the names had not all been specified.

Possible homily approaches that draw on the Scriptures

1) Healing (and by extension, health care) is one of the most concrete signs of the reign of God. We have a duty to make quality health care widely available as a way of evangelizing.
If Jesus had not given the apostles this specific charge to "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and drive out demons," the Gospel might have been just an abstraction, an evangelistic "pie in the sky" that had no here-and-now meaning for those who heard it. Healing and curing were a way in which the salvation announced by these apostolic messages became real and tangible. Then, as now, healing was "sacramental." It was a good in itself, but it was also a sign of God's reign, an "occasion of grace." The Church has been involved in health care right from the beginning, imitating Jesus' own healing mission. Today, many people suffer from illness that can be prevented or cured easily, but they have no access to medical care. It is a scandal that millions of persons in a country as prosperous as the United States have no regular physician, no access to the sacramental touch of the physical healer. How can we raise awareness of the sacramental nature of health care – that it is not just physical, but mental and spiritual? How can we, like the disciples, make the reign of God more visible and tangible in our time?

2) Health care is not all about expensive and exciting research and technology. It is also about the familiar faces – the "lost sheep" that we see every day.
Jesus may have told the apostles to avoid the pagans and Samaritans and focus on "the lost sheep of Israel" because they were more receptive to the Gospel. But it might also be that he was reminding them that these "lost sheep" were right before their eyes, and not off in some distant land. We marvel today at the extraordinary accomplishments of health science — the genetic research, the high-tech procedures, the incredible array of new medications that have made many deadly diseases manageable. But we have our "lost sheep," too — those who live right next door or around the corner or up the street, who have no access to all these marvels; they might not even have access to basic dental care, let alone the wonders of genetic engineering. Are we called, as the disciples were, to identify and seek out those "lost sheep, " the "troubled and abandoned" who moved Jesus to pity, who need basic care before they need all that health care can offer? Can we help refocus attention — and health care dollars — on those who are outside the fold, those who need to be brought back to share just the basics?

3) Disease is not a mystery like it was in the time of Jesus, but it is no less a problem that needs our attention.
For most of human history, disease and illness were largely mysteries; because nobody knew where they came from, they were often seen as punishments from God (recall the story of the man born blind in the Gospel of John: "Who sinned," the Jews asked, "this man or his parents, that he was born blind?") This is why Jesus lumps together healing, curing and driving out unclean spirits. We would find this unacceptable today (exorcism and health care are strange bed fellows!) because we know that most disease has a clearly identify physiological basis. It's not the result of evil spirits, but of bacteria, viruses, genetic mutations and heredity. When we're sick, we call go to the emergency room, not the fortune teller. But even though we know much more about disease it is still terrifying, and it still brings death. Health care is one way that we can extend the healing ministry of Christ and his apostles. We, too, are sent to "heal and cure" and to cast out the unclean spirits of hopelessness, depression and despair. We can't do this on our own, but we can do it with the help of others. Just as the apostles had many different gifts and talents, they banded together in one common mission. So we too can work with others — doctors, nurses, economists, managers, executives and a myriad of others — to help assure that these diseases and illnesses do not become obstacles to faith. As Catholic Christians, who have an enormous ministry of health care, we have a responsibility to make it available to as many as possible.


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