This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on June 11, 2017.
Matthew 28:16-20 is a foundational text of Christianity, one of its most inspired statements, a summary of its faith, a mandate at the heart of its every ambition, and a profound picture of how the Christian life of mission participates in the Trinitarian life of God. Almost anyone who calls her/himself Christian will recognize it and will need to respond to it, and everyone who is not Christian falls under its purview. In these four short verses, Matthew’s Gospel anticipates the extraordinary reality of something that began as an oddball reinterpretation of a cultic religion at the dusty edge of a waning empire and became the most powerful religion and cultural force the world has ever known: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (NRSV).
It is also a principal warrant for some of the worst things associated with and attributed to Christianity. The long, sad, and continuing history of European colonization took place under the aegis of these words. It is a history that would see the decimation of whole nations of people, the ending of linguistic worlds, the evisceration of beautiful and beautifully harmonious ecologies, the cultivation of and enculturation into an economy of slavery based on body type, where human beings would be, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “thingified” in the name of Christion mission. Such practices (typically brutal, systematic, and unending) were part of what European and American Christians termed “a duty to propagate their religion among the heathens.” This duty especially when couched in the terms of Matthew 28 became the impetus to colonize, enslave, and forcibly educate. Recently, Pope Francis recognized this tendency, no doubt lamenting the church’s track record of doing the very thing Christians self-righteously attribute to others: “Today, I don’t think that there is a fear of Islam as such but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam… However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, regarding the same idea of conquest.”
The ubiquitous and unavoidable question of whether the spread of the gospel has to come at the cost of local cultures is one way the difficulties surrounding this passage often register themselves. Given Christianity’s regrettable history of misusing passages like the Great Commission, it is now impossible, and unwise, to proceed with any missionary endeavor without some level of circumspection as we Christians try to ferret out the bad from the good in what we do.
Matthew 28:16-20’s unfortunate history interpretation too often does not come up for preachers as they prepare to teach the Great Commission. It is almost as if the history of how Christians have used these verses to justify heinous acts remains hidden from view, as if its history does not exist. Maybe this is unsurprising; maybe it is the nature of such violence to forget itself, for how else could readers of this text go on reading it rather than avoiding it altogether (as Christians are wont to do with controversial passages)?
Worst still is the viciously circular thinking that this history, when recounted at all, is justified by the passage. You take some horrible historical occurrence X and say, “Well, X, while regrettable, falls under the auspices of what the Great Commission allows and even calls for. After all, as the passage says, we are given by Jesus the authority to make such judgments. It is our prerogative. Armed with our mandate and confident of the Gospel’s authority over all people at all times, we go forward, knowing, as promised, God is with us. In fact, we know God is with us insofar as we continue forward.”
I want to say that horrors done and justified in the name of the Great Commission reads something other than the Great Commission, fatefully reading something into and out of it. In these moments, the world of this text and the world of its author and the respective worlds of its readers have gotten disastrously confused. At minimum, such readings commit the basic error of separating the form of evangelism from the content of the Gospel, as if the Great Commission were a call for naked expansion. This stems from having relinquished Christianity’s inexhaustibly incarnational imagination, the vision that the form of God’s self-expression in Christ matches the content of that expression.
The content of the good news of Jesus Christ is something about reconciliation between creation and Creator within the terms and to the benefit of creation. The act Jesus inaugurates as the practice of this reconciliation is baptism, which is hardly a statement of one’s superiority over others but the vulnerable confession of one’s need for God and vulnerable entry into community with other similarly needy people. Jesus’ promise of divine presence is not meant to bolster our certainty in our own judgments, but to relativize them, reminding us Jesus is always with us in great part because we need him to be always with us. “And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age” can be read as a warning that God is with us watching, and a hope that he might save us from ourselves.
The authority the Great Commission grants us Christians matches the authority of the goodness of our lives; our lives supply the evidence that what we talk about in talking about Jesus is true to the fact that God has made us good. If we are not good people, we have no authority, at least none that has to do with Christ the Suffering King as Matthew likes to talk about. Matthew’s version of the Kingdom of God tells the story of how Jesus fulfilled his royal lineage by embodying Matthew 5-7’s Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that service, goodness, truth, vulnerability, neediness, Christianity, the Great Commission, look like this, require thus, but I tell you, they look far different and require far more.” The life of Jesus is the unity of the Great Commission’s form and content. Any reader of Matthew genuinely inspired by its evangelistic commission cannot separate the content of evangelism from its form. The passage in this way summarizes the whole of the Gospel. We are talking about a kingdom expanded not by conquest but by vulnerability, characterized by servants rather than colonists, spread by the blood of its martyrs not that of its subjects.
Associate Professor of Religion and Faculty Steward of Honors Residential College
Tags: commission, mission, cost, horrors, vulnerability