“. . . but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6)
Again, this seems a verse we read (into) as another “everyone” text, that is “go to everyone in Israel for all of them are lost sheep.”
Let’s reconsider: The word Jesus uses for “lost” here in 10:6 isn’t rendered at all very well by English translators. It is a specific word and no-where does it actually mean “lost” the way most of us modern Christians read the word and certainly doesn't carry the weight of a religious overtone of “lost” as in unsaved. The word is ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi, destroyed, banned is actually a good word). As this word is used (and rendered) elsewhere in the NT, a more consistent translation would have been “go rather to the destroyed sheep of the house of Israel.” This nuance changes how we read this charge to the twelve. If the English “banned” (a fair rendering as we shall see) is used, the resulting condition is nuanced to description, namely, of those “who have been shunned to destruction.” In fact, there is even more nuance to be heard from the word and the context.
Previously in the immediate paragraph, Matthew depicts the scene in which Jesus has been ministering to the sick, outcast, marginal, disgraced, and poor (9:35). Jesus looks upon this crowd, Matthew narratives, telling us that He “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 36b). There is no doubt Jesus and Matthew are drawing upon an Ezekiel context where God interjects, “So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd” (Ezek 34:5). Yet, just before in 34:4, the people, i.e., the sheep, carry the same conceptual (sociological) description as does Matthew 9 and 10 regarding the condition of certain Israelites, i.e., “the lost sheep of Israel”:
“The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost [ἀπόλλυμι] you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek 34:4).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, this word, ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi, destroyed), is used to give a rather dire description of a person's condition as a result of the actions or behaviors or attitudes of others.
And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed [apollymi], the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (1 Corinthians 8:11-14).
For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy [apollymi] the one for whom Christ died (Romans 14:15).
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost (apollymi) one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost (apollymi), until he finds it (Luke 15:4).
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (apollymi)” (Luke 19:9-10).
Now returning to the “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (of Matthew 10:6), we offer a more sociological-rhetorical reading of the verse. While apollymi (“lost” as rendered in most English transitions) in v. 6 certainly is a strong word and “destroyed” is perfectly acceptable as a translation, we should also note that this is the word used to describe those who have been banned from synagogue. Also, the raw, wooden transliterated meaning of this word, apollymi, literally means “from let loose,” “let loose from,” “unloosed”). This is most certainly its meaning later when the local synagogue leadership in Caperneum made plans to “destory” (i.e., ban) the man whose withered hand Jesus had healed: “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy [apollymi] him” (Matthew 12:14). [Whether the antecedent of “him” relates to the healed man or Jesus, the implication is to be banned from the synagogue.]
Finally, given the nature of Jesus’ primary audiences thus far and Matthew’s summaries of His ministry (4:23-25; 9:35-36; et al), perhaps we should read “lost” as “banned sheep of the house of Israel,” specifically identifying the marginal, infirm, mentally unstable, demon-possessed, poor, outcast, and disabled sheep of the house of Israel—all whom would have been shunned away from synagogue life, not just figuratively speaking, but banned from the worshipping and religious life of Israel. Is it no wonder the temple-leadership did not like and was angered (or is that threatened) by Jesus' association with tax collectors and sinners?
Leveling and equalizing the idea of “lost” in the Gospel narratives to simply a “we all are sinners in need of salvation” (albeit true, of course) places a barrier to faithful readings that put the poor and the marginalized of society in the purview of sound application in the life of the church (a church).
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