The Eleven

This coming Sunday is the Solemnity of the Ascension. Jesus was from Galilee and since the beginning of his public ministry had moved from the northernmost reaches of Israel to its center in Jerusalem – the locus of the confrontation and rejection by the leaders of Israel. But now the “Galilean” has triumphed against all odds and in a manner none had foreseen. The preparation of the “twelve” was not lost in their abandoning Jesus at the Passion. They are now restored to their positions of trust and responsibility and given final instructions for fulfilling the mission to which they had already been called (cf.  10:1-15) – but the scope is now far wider than Israel and included all the nations: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19)

The baptism which John had originally instituted as a symbol of a new beginning for repentant Israel (3:1-12) is now to be extended to all peoples of the earth. At the heart of this new community of faith is the risen Jesus himself, as he said he would be (18:20).  The new community will consist of his disciples who keep his commandments and are sustained by Jesus’ abiding presence among them. The abiding presence of the one who holds all power in heaven and on earth – a power greater than that offered by Satan in the desert (4:8-10)

After Matthew’s emphasis on the fate of Judas (27:3–10) it is appropriate that he now describes the ‘inner circle’ as the eleven disciples. While some scholars argue that more disciples were present, it seems to me that their arguments are to ensure that the commission and promises of vv.18-20 were given to more than the “eleven” – an argument constructed to “head off” any later succession arguments about who is to direct the early mission. To accept that only the eleven were present does not, of course, require us to believe that the commission and the promise of vv. 18–20 applied only to them; here, as often, they represent the whole body of Jesus.

Image credit: Jesus’ ascension to Heaven depicted by John Singleton Copley in Ascension (1775) Public Domain

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