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Saturday, June 22, 2024
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Christ saves the lost and adrift

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He Sent them out Two by Two by James Tissot, 1886-1896. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

José Salvador Alvarenga is hardly a household name, but perhaps it deserves to be. In 2012 José and his mate Ezequiel set out on a seven-metre fibreglass boat for a night of fishing off the Mexican coast. It proved to be a nightmare. A catastrophic five-day long storm left them with no engine or radio. They had no instruments to figure out their location, no sails or oars to make their way back manually, no anchor to stop the drift. Before long, the shoreline had vanished and they floated helplessly lost in space—the space that is the Pacific Ocean. Days turned to weeks, and weeks into months.

After using up their supplies, the two men survived on the raw meat of any birds, fish or jellyfish they could catch, drinking rainwater, turtle blood, their own urine. Ezequiel got sick and died. Now all alone, José continued to drift across the ocean, all the while praying to God, for it was his faith that he was ultimately in God’s hands. Eventually he came near enough to the Marshall Islands near Guam to swim to shore. In total, José spent 438 days lost at sea, the longest in recorded history!

Such tales of survival like Jose’s are inspiring, yet they also underline our vulnerability, the perils of being lost, the inescapable trepidation that there may be no rescue for us. There may be rescue parties sent out to look for the physically lost, but sometimes no one notices the spiritually lost.

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We may not even be very aware ourselves when our relationship with God and others has gone off track. We can lose our bearings as to what is true and good and beautiful. Our moral compass can fail. For a time, we might remain fairly functional and fool everyone, even ourselves. But then we start to drift. We are thirsty or sick of soul. Eventually it’s an emergency…

In tonight’s gospel (Mt 10:1-7), Jesus is all too aware of humanity’s perilous state. He worries for those in the grip of physical, emotional or spiritual evil. So, he decides to appoint twelve of his men to be lifesavers, to join him in coming to the rescue. He gives them power to heal the physically sick—those with “all kinds of diseases and sickness;” the emotionally troubled—the sheep that have lost their way; and the spiritually disoriented—those he describes as in the grip of “unclean spirits.”

But there’s this curious qualifier: “Don’t go to the Gentiles,” Jesus says, but give preference to “the lost sheep of Israel.” Surely lifesavers go straight to the rescue of anyone in need, not concerning themselves with ethnicity, religion or other attributes. Elsewhere, Jesus praises a Good Samaritan who cared for a Jew bashed and left for dead (Lk 10:25-37).

He says that many Gentiles will precede the chosen people into the kingdom of God (Mt 8:11 etc.). And there are many accounts of Jesus himself bringing healing and faith to non-Jews (Mt 8:8-10, 26-34; 15:21-28; Mk 5:1-20; 7:31; Lk 7:2-9; 8:26-39; Jn ch. 4). His final charge to his men is to go out to all the world, preaching the Gospel and making disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15; Acts 1:8). In Jesus, God’s message of salvation is for all peoples.

So why today’s instruction to the lifesavers to put Israel first?

Well, several chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman who begs him to heal her daughter (Mt 15:22ff; cf. Mk 7:26ff).

Echoing today’s Gospel, Jesus’ first response is to say: “Sorry ma’am, I’ve been sent for the lost sheep of Israel.” It’s ironic, given that he and his men have journeyed at least 50km into Gentile territory by that stage. But Jesus testing her faith and teaching the onlookers, including us, in the process.

She persists. Even when he says that “It’s not right to take food from the children and feed it to the puppies,” that is the unclean, she’s undeflected. Jesus gives her what she asks.
In going to Israel first, Jesus is aligning himself with the ancient promises, ones that would perplex the early Christians. Where should we put our energies?

Should we convert all Israel before turning our attentions elsewhere? What can we expect of the Gentile converts? Should we require their men to be circumcised and their women to cook kosher?

Jesus tells his men to start with their own—their own families, friends, familiars. After all, the children of Abraham had gone well off track: who were they to hold themselves out as lifesavers for the rest of humanity, if they couldn’t even get their own people to obey God? In our first reading (Gen 42:21-24) we heard part of the story of Joseph and his brothers; these were the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel; you’d think they’d be admirable characters.

In fact, out of jealousy and ambition, the brothers had nearly killed young Joseph and then sold him into slavery. Now they are getting their comeuppance. So, from the very beginnings of the tribes of Israel there was a spiritual rot. Fix that, Jesus seems to be saying, take the plank out of your own people’s eye before you go dealing with splinters in other peoples’ (Mt 7:3).

Where does that leave the rest of us? Well, the people of Israel had no monopoly on being spiritually lost. Like them, our relationship with God can go through periods of certainty and fidelity, and times of doubt and wandering. Sometimes we join Christ in saying “Not my will, Father, but yours” (Lk 22:42); at other times we join Frank Sinatra in singing “I did it my way”—not God’s.

Through his death and resurrection, Christ welcomes the entirety of humanity into his sheepfold. He not only seeks out the lost ones but lays his life down for them. Whether our needs are physical, emotional or spiritual, he offers healing and a better life.

Which is why every day, but especially when we are at our most desperate, we do well to follow the example of José Alvarenga and turn to God in prayer. Reach out, then, when you are drowning, when you are all at sea, when your compass is broken, but also when things seem fine, for you never know what’s round the corner. God’s love in Jesus Christ is waiting for you.

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