by Joshua Chestnut
Matthew 10:1-4 – And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. 2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
So the votes are in and we have a new president-elect. In an election season as divisive, antagonistic and downright juvenile as this last one, many of us, myself included have not been immune from breathing it’s toxins in. Yet, now that the votes are counted, that the winner has been declared, it would be naive to hope that these months and months of angry slander and polarizing rhetoric will just dissipate and we’ll all happily move on together. The common refrain that I have read and heard since election night is that we just didn’t realize how fragmented and angry the American people actually are, and from where I stand it seems as though these divisions are as real in the church as they are in wider culture.
What has been instructive for me these last months is to consider why in the gospel of Matthew the only disciples whose names are followed by a title are Matthew “the tax collector” and Simon “the Zealot.” Now, in most cases, if you’re a reader like me when you come upon any list of people in the bible (this one included) your mind jumps into skim mode, zooming over at a thousand feet so you can get back to the matters at hand. Yet upon slowing down and taking a second look at this list, and these two titles of “tax-collector” and “zealot” in particular, I wonder if Matthew, in a rather subtle and indirect way, wants to teach us something important about the type of community that Jesus has both called to himself and sent back into the world.
In Jesus’ day a zealot was about as far removed ideologically, socially and politically from a tax-collector as a Marxist guerilla is from a conservative radio pundit. The political differences between a progressive Democrat and an anti-establishment Republican might in fact pale in comparison to these radically conflicting political alignments. Commenting on this in his hefty but profoundly helpful two volume commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale-Bruner writes “… that a “leftist” Zealot and a “rightist” tax collector would now find themselves in Jesus’ apostolate suggests the power of Jesus. He is able to take both liberal and conservative mentalities, both Left and Right, and, by uniting them to himself, unite them to each other in a cause higher than either Left or Right.”
There is something instructive here for Christians on either side of the political divide living in a splintering democracy like ours. At a minimum, Matthew’s list of the disciples with its striking juxtaposition of a former freedom-fighter now working alongside a one-time traitorous collaborator with the Empire shows us that Jesus’ mission is undertaken by sinners transformed by grace rather than saints without pasts. This should instill in us a grace and hospitality towards those who differ from us on weighty and important political matters. But even more so, this list evidences the power of the gospel to create a community of radically different people whose political and ideological differences have been put in subjection to Jesus’ greater call of being his disciple.
To be clear, I do believe there are lots of political and cultural matters that are worth disagreeing about, even getting upset about, and I am not intending to downplay these in the some sort of watered-down call to “just get along.” Nor am I saying we should overlook unacceptable behavior or dangerous policy proposals, but how we deal with that is a matter for another blog post. Many of us are justifiably upset at the way this whole process went down, and frightened by the picture of the nation it has given us. It is here, in this place of disillusionment, fragmentation and polarization that the church of Jesus in North America needs to remember that Jesus calls his disciples from across the political spectrum to himself and his call eclipses, transforms and subverts our prior political affiliations uniting us to a higher cause.