Knowing we've been chosen by God to be part of God's people can easily give us a big head. This seems to be one of the reasons Sunday's three sacred authors composed our liturgical selections in just this way.
Going back to Yahweh's Sinai choice of the ancient Israelites as a "kingdom of priests, a holy nation," the Exodus author revolves God's selection around God's love, not around any of the Chosen People's stellar characteristics (Ex 19: 2-6).
Yahweh reminds Moses that it was "I who bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself." Yahweh's action alone made the Jews "a special possession, dearer to me than all other people." These former slaves contributed nothing to God's choice.
Proof of love
In a similar vein, Paul reminds the Christian community in Rome why Jesus died for them (Rom 5: 6-11). "Indeed," he writes, "only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves His love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Glance at Paul's letter to the Galatians or listen to his reflections in chapter 15 of I Corinthians, and we understand why being saved as sinners is so important to him. His own salvation happened while he was persecuting Jesus' followers. Had he been praying for divine guidance when Jesus appeared to him, his conversion would have made sense. But to have "seen the Lord" while he was engaged in a sinful act can only be a sign of God's great love for him and all people. God makes us who we are in spite of who we are.
Matthew also wants to make certain that his community understands this basic tenet of faith (Mt 9: 36-10:8). This seems to be why he begins with the remark, "At the sight of the crowd, Jesus' heart was moved with pity...because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd." Such people can do nothing to merit being "harvested." Jesus not only sends the harvesters, He also creates the conditions by which those harvested are ready to be harvested.
Remembering what I said last week about the historical Jesus' choice of the Twelve, it's significant this week to notice what mission He gives them. "Do not go into pagan territory," He commands, "or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
In other words, they're not to go to exotic places or people; they're simply to surface those in their midst who have been marginalized by their own religion. More than anyone else, those hovering on the outskirts of faith must be reminded that "the kingdom of God is close at hand." And they're to experience that kingdom especially in the healing and life which Jesus offers them through His disciples' ministry.
Organized religion rarely carries out the mission Jesus gave to His Twelve. Perhaps one reason for this oversight is found in the Gospel's last line: "Without cost, you have received," Jesus reminds His followers; "without cost, you are to give."
Glancing at the minutes of one of our presbyteral council's recent meetings, I noticed on the agenda a discussion of the fees to be charged for weddings and funerals. In my almost 40 years of being a priest, I realize it's precisely at weddings and funerals that I most come into contact with the marginalized of our Church: the "lost sheep of Catholicism." It's precisely at that point in my ministry that I can proclaim that God's kingdom is at hand even to people who don't think they're part of that kingdom.
I can't think of a better time than at weddings and funerals to proclaim Jesus' conviction that "without cost, you have received; without cost, you are to give." If His words don't apply to us priests in those situations, to whom and where else do they apply?