The liturgy of today expresses God’s love and compassion for His people and His desire to save all from sin and death. The Israelites were lost in sin and slavery when God, out of love and compassion led them out and brought them to himself at Mount Sinai through the hands of Moses. Based on these, the second reading tells us, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Out of his love and compassion, he called and sent his disciples to the lost sheep of Israel. However, why will Christ place a restriction on his disciples not to visit the Gentiles (sinners) and what did he mean by the lost ship of Israel? The first reading is a beautiful passage that describes the arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai and God’s message to Moses. Sinai was a place where Moses met God in the burning bush. The whole nation of Israel would soon experience some of what Moses did at the burning bush. Moses could lead them to this mountain for this experience because he had already been there. The mountain is a symbol of God’s presence and a place where people experience some sorts of revelation from God: At Mount Sinai, Moses will stand in Yahweh’s presence and receive the commandments. Elijah will defeat the prophet of Baal at Mount Carmel (1Kings 18) and Christ will be revealed in all his glory at the transfiguration event on Mount Tabor (Mt 17).
Prior to this, He will pray with his disciples at the Mount of Olives (Lk 22:39). On Mount Sinai, God reminds Israel of His great power and compassion for them when they were helpless and were like sheep without shepherd in the land of Egypt. It was a reminder on how He delivered them from slavery in Egypt through the plagues that persuaded pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt, and the drawing of pharaoh’s army preventing the Egyptians from re-capturing the Israelites. He also reminds them of how He bore the Israelites on Eagle’s wings and brought them to himself when they were helpless in Egypt. It is said that an eagle does not carry her young in a claws like other birds; the young eagles attach themselves to the back of the mother eagle and are protected as they are carried. Any arrow from a hunter must pass through the mother eagle before it could touch the young eagle on her back. This metaphor is developed most extensively in Deut. 32:11, where the loving compassion, protection, strength and watchfulness of God is compared with the majestic bird’s attributes, but the power of eagles is nothing compared to Yahweh’s power who has saved Israel again and again. Having done this for the Israelites, God made a promise, “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). Invariably, keeping God’s commandment is only an expression of love and gratitude for all he has done for us.
When we live in obedience to his commandments, we become holy people set apart. The love and compassion of God to his people is visible in the gospel of today which says, “When Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Christ presents this as a critique of the Pharisees who should be their shepherds. The nature of sheep is helpless and will always need a shepherd, unlike rams that can defend themselves against predators. In this gospel, the Pharisees in their pride looked for the destruction of sinners, while Christ in his love died for the salvation of sinners. After the critique on the Pharisees, he called and commissioned the twelve disciples for a mission to the lost sheep of Israel. In antecedent of this gospel, Christ went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogue and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and in today’s pericope, there is a form of expansion, not just him going about, but sending the disciples to go preach to the lost sheep of Israel about the kingdom of God. He specifically said, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The emphasis of the saying lies not primarily on the prohibition of a wider mission, but on the priority of the mission to Israel. Going to the lost sheep of Israel, God’s intention was to reach the whole world, but beginning with Israel. There was certainly enough work to do among the lost sheep of the house of Israel to keep the twelve busy until God directly commanded them to expand their ministry. It is a pattern of the gospel as St. Paul puts it, “It is first for the Jews and also for the Greek” (Rom 1:16). Later the gospel will go to the Samaritans and the Gentiles, but it had to begin with the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Who are the lost sheep of Israel? In a sense, the prophet Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way” (Is 53:6). In another sense, there were also lost sheep that were abused and neglected by their spiritual shepherds, the scribes, priests, and Pharisees. This is the sense of Jeremiah 50:6: “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray.” Christ sending his disciples out is because so many were spiritually neglected, and the intention was to begin from the ‘known’ to the ‘unknown.’ That is, from the Jews to the Gentiles. This lost sheep of Israel could be found in the feast at Capernaum, Christ dinning with tax collectors and sinners in Mt 9:10. The motive is to reconcile the immediate ones back to God and later to the Gentiles as Christ clearly told Paul, “You will be my disciples to the Gentiles” (Act 9:15). The second reading and the gospel are closely related as St. Paul says, “While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). He gave a description of God’s love as underserving given to those in sin. This emphasizes the fact that the reason for God’s love is found in Him, not in us. Christ died for those that are legally condemned and all without hope. The very fact that Christ died for the ungodly or sinners, leaves us with no excuse to come to him and believe in him for our salvation. Beautifully, the liturgy of today express a radical love of God and his compassion in saving his people in history, in our time and time to come. All God needs from us is obedience to his commandments and we shall be his people, the sheep of his flock.