Everybody deserves to have an Aunt Ethel.
Aunt Ethel is the one who tells you that that dress really does make your behind look big.
Aunt Ethel is the one who frowns when you say you’re going to tile your downstairs bathroom in all different color tiles, because it will be so festive, and says “You sure you want to look at all that craziness if you use that room when you’re sick to your stomach?”
Aunt Ethel is the one who tells you the guy you want to marry is up to no good, when everyone else keeps their mouth shut. When her warning turns out to be true, and you learn it the hard way, Aunt Ethel is the one who doesn’t say “I told you so.” She just lends you the money for a good lawyer.
Aunt Ethel tells you to buy the little car, not the big SUV, because gas prices will go up. She says “Waste not, want not.”
Aunt Ethel never married, because her bluntness seemed to get her in trouble with the men in her life, but she’s happy. She lives with her two cats, Toothless Bob and Miss Petunia, in her two-bedroom condo a few blocks from the beach in a state south of here. The second bedroom has been turned into a little art studio, where she paints watercolors that she doesn’t give as gifts. She simply saves them in a pile in the corner. If you visit her, you should know there is no bed in that second bedroom – you’ll be on the couch in the living room. Aunt Ethel knows it’s unlikely you’ll stay for very long in that condo if you have to hear her starting the first pot of coffee at 5:30 in the morning. Aunt Ethel is no fool.
And so you’d be wise to listen to Aunt Ethel’s advice. She’s got a lot of it, and it’s practical advice. She’s been a careful observer of the human condition for nigh onto seventy-eight years, and she’s figured out what works and what doesn’t.
So when she says to you, “clean up your own house first, before you criticize someone else’s housekeeping,” it’s a teaching she passes along because she has seen what happens when you don’t do that. Your criticism doesn’t carry much weight if you haven’t done your own work first.
She would be the first to nod, and say, “Um-hum!” when she hears Jesus’ message to the disciples in today’s Gospel reading.
It sounds a little odd to us. Not the commissioning part – we’re not surprised that Jesus gathers the disciples around and gives them their marching orders. It’s the last part of today’s message that comes as a surprise: "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.'”
We wonder why Jesus is saying that, why He wants the disciples to preach the good news to the Jews and not the Gentiles. Most of us would be classified as Gentiles, and we’d like to think Jesus wants us as part of the party, wouldn’t we?
But instead, Jesus sends the twelve to preach to the Jews. It’s only later on that the Gentiles are brought into the fold, in chapter 28 of Matthew’s gospel. Why would Jesus limit the preaching of the Gospel only to the Jews?
Part of it is that Matthew’s audience was the Jewish Christian community near or around Jerusalem. They would hear Christ’s words of new covenant as a refinement of what their relationship to God as God’s covenant people meant. Just as we heard in today’s psalm, they’d remember themselves as offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones. It would be natural to see Christ’s message in Matthew’s gospel as an extension of the many times that God tried to help the Jews of the Old Testament to “get it right” – to repair things when the Hebrew people breached the covenant. Thus this commission, Jesus’ words while he was still alive, living and working in the Jewish community, would make sense. Christ’s work was yet again God trying to get God’s people on the right track, this time, by sending His own Son to live and work among them.
But we can also see this as a message like Aunt Ethel’s: “Clean up your own house first, before you criticize someone else’s housekeeping.” Jesus is telling the disciples, and us, that the starting point for our work of learning how to put the good news into action is to put ourselves into good order, into right relationship with God. We can’t preach to those outside that circle until we’ve got our own act together first.
Now that’s not a comfortable place for us. It’s easier to look outside of our own house, our own community, our own nation, and go “tsk, tsk” about something we see as wrong. But until we’re able to say we’ve corrected our own bad behavior, as individuals, as part of a larger community, as a nation, we have no right to speak ill of others. The good news for us is that the disciples eventually got around to preaching to the Gentiles, and we’ve become part of the Body of Christ as a result. But I suspect we all could do some housekeeping of ourselves about how we live as part of the Body of Christ. Perhaps it’s time to clean our own house before we criticize anyone else’s housekeeping. Aunt Ethel would approve.