Accustomed to thinking about our church's hierarchy when we hear lists of the Twelve, we often ignore what Scripture scholars have been telling us for a long time about this specific group. The historical Jesus traveled with the Twelve not to show his intention to divide his followers into clergy and laity, but to demonstrate his passion to include all Jews in the reform he was preaching. The Twelve are symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. Each Jew descends from one of Jacob's twelve sons. (That's why no women are in the group.)
Two of the twelve tribes were dominant during Jesus' earthly ministry: Judah and Benjamin. Except for these two and the priestly tribe of Levi, the other nine were on the fringe of Jewish society. British theologian Karen Armstrong reduces significant first century CE Jews even further. Along with other historians, she believes only those who could trace their pedigree back to the sixth century BCE Babylonian Exile thought they were true Jews. The rest were second class.
Jesus employs the Twelve as his sign of inclusivity. He invites and welcomes all Jews to return to the earliest beliefs of their faith. The historical Jesus' arrival in your town creates a good news/bad news situation. The Messiah's visit is good news; coming accompanied by the Twelve is bad news. The latter demonstrates that the Messiah's message is wider than a lot of Jews want it to be.
Today's Exodus passage must have been one of Jesus' favorites. Yahweh tells Moses to inform all Israelites, "If you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation." The Exodus author is reminding the community that all Jews are important, not because they belong to a special tribe, descend from nobility, or have accomplished great feats. They're somebody because they're committed to forming a covenant relationship with Yahweh.
Paul buys into the same belief. He's amazed both at how much Jesus loves all people - even non-Jews - and at how Jesus' love goes beyond anyone's response to that love. "Christ, while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find the courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." Paul takes Jesus' determination to invite all Jews to follow Yahweh, and transforms it into a determination to invite all people to follow Jesus.
It's clear from today's three readings that God demands we expand the limited faith which brought us to the true faith. We're to break through the restrictions our "old time religion" imposes on us.
Notice how "Jesus' heart was moved to pity for (the crowds) because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd." In this context, when Jesus encourages his disciples to "ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest," he presumes some laborers are already out there. But he wants new laborers, people convinced everyone's worthy of being harvested, not just a special few. It's precisely to those "unworthies" that Jesus sends the Twelve, "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
We can't leave today's liturgy without examining our consciences on how we relate to our Catholic Church's lost sheep. Whom, because of our post-biblical hierarchical structure and triumphant self-righteousness, have we pushed to the outskirts of our religion?
It'll be interesting to discover which groups we surface. Even more interesting to compare lists.