These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town. ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
What is Lent for? Why do we do this? As we enter this third week of Lent, it’s a good time for us to stop and ask those questions. In my experience, this is the critical week: the week when we really start to miss our Lenten sacrifices—Caffeine? Chocolate? Cocktails?—and chafe against our Lenten disciplines—Evening Bible reading? A weekly volunteer time at Neighbor to Neighbor? Daily Morning Prayer? This is the week when whatever pious zeal we felt on Ash Wednesday has dissipated, and yet Easter still feels a long way off. This is the week when our Lenten undertakings can become either solid building blocks, or sinking albatrosses: stepping stones in our spiritual life, or burdensome displays of our piety before others. This is the decisive week, the week that determines what the rest of our Lent will look like. And that makes it the perfect time to ask, What is Lent for?
Providentially, today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel is the perfect way for us to begin to answer that question. That may not seem so at first. This is an odd passage. It’s a passage that seems very specifically directed at Jesus’ twelve Apostles just at the time they really become “apostles,” a word that literally means “one who is sent.” Though we might be familiar with the admonition “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” no one could be faulted for reading today’s Scripture portion and thinking, “What’s this got to do with me?”
And yet the first thing this passage reveals to us—especially as we walk “once more the pilgrim way of Lent”—is the extraordinary focus and purpose with which Jesus dispatched his apostles. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus doesn’t say that because the Gentiles and the Samaritans don’t matter. Scripture makes clear that he spent his fair share of time talking and ministering to both of those groups. But Jesus’ purpose in this moment is to spread God’s Good News among God’s chosen people. He wants his followers to be single-minded as they seek out “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And even in that work, there isn’t time to be wasted cajoling, convincing, or winning people over. Jesus tells them, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” The message is too urgent, too important, for the disciples to labor over the naysayers and the hard-hearted. They’re only meant to get out there, announce, and keep moving.
Or consider the work that Jesus sends his followers to do. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” The apostles are sent out to oppose the forces that rule this world. In spite of their appearance, Jesus is not sending out some roving band of wandering mystics and simpering preachers. He is commissioning an army on the march. Unrecognizable according to the standards and the forces of this world, nevertheless the apostles are guerrilla warriors, fighting the powers and principalities that rebel against God. They have been called to the high combat of spiritual warfare—they are nothing less than the vanguard of God’s invasion of a world in revolt.
And in all this, we are given essential instructions for this holy season. Heed the message of Matthew’s Gospel today. Whatever your Lenten disciplines, be single-minded in pursuing them. Do not concern yourself with the Lent that others are (or are not) pursuing—“Do not go to the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans.” God has a purpose for you this Lent. Do not waste time lamenting your failures or feeling guilty for broken vows—“Shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” Instead be honest, repent, and keep moving in the way the Lord has called you. Do not be pulled aside by other concerns or considerations, however noble, healthful, organized, or beneficial. Lent is not for losing weight, or learning to volunteer more, or saving the money you ordinarily spend on Starbucks or cigarettes or anything else. By God’s grace, you have been drafted into a mighty force, a force like nothing else this world has seen. This is basic training.
So shake off the distractions and the disappointments, the false motivations that you detect within or the faithlessness and failings you see in the people around you. God is at work in this world. God is at work in you. Let this season equip you to proclaim that Good News, wherever he may send you “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Let this time train and discipline you, that you may be wise as a serpent. Let these days purge and cleanse you, that you may be innocent as a dove. Let this Lent carry you to the source and center of God’s purposes in our world: to the foot of the Cross of Jesus; to the brightness of his Resurrection. That’s what Lent is for.