I spent part of last week at our excellent clergy conference in Swanwick. (I will leave it ambiguous as to whether the clergy or the conference was excellent—or both!). As is the practice with the Partnership for Missional Church approach to mission (being used in a number of diocese including ours), we repeatedly spent time reflecting on Jesus’ sending of the seventy-two in Luke 10.1–12. This is also a foundational text for the ‘LifeShapes’/Missional Communities approach associated with Mike Breen from Sheffield.
We read the text each morning, and simply gave space to hear from each other what has struck us in the passage. I was left with the overwhelming impression that this teaching of Jesus is remarkable, and almost incomprehensible, in that it appears to overturn almost every conception of mission and missionary activity that Christians have thought up and passed on. Perhaps it is a good reminder that, however ‘intimate’ we are with Jesus, with God, this is an intimacy with someone who is quite ‘other’ than us, whose thoughts are a long way above and beyond ours (Is 55.8).
Here are some of my (still half-formed) observations and reflections, simply from reading the text before looking at any commentaries or other expositions:
1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.
There is some textual uncertainty about whether the number is 70 or 72, which I suspect is due to the sense of parallel with the 70 elders appointed by Moses in Numbers 11.16–25. This suggests Jesus is not doing something new, but repeating a pattern of God’s dealings with his people in the past—or, perhaps, better, that this radically new thing is the same radically new thing that God has always been doing.
He sends them out ‘two by two’; mission is never undertaken by individuals, but only in teams. That is why Paul never works alone—except in Athens in Acts 17.16–34, the only place where he fails to establish a congregation. This is a constant challenge to our persistent individualism. (I wonder if there is also a connection with the biblical emphasis on plurality of witness, in line with Deut 17.6.)
They were sent to the places ‘Jesus was about to go’ though in fact he does not appear to have gone there subsequently in Luke’s narrative. So the 72 actually function as Jesus’ presence in those places, which is confirmed by his later statement. The ‘kingdom of God’ is present in the ministry of Jesus, but now it becomes present in the ministry of the 72. Contrary to the current vogue saying ‘Mission is finding out what God is already doing and joining in’, this is much more like ‘Mission is going to the places where God wants to be but is not yet until we go.’
2 He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
In the West, it feels to me as though our conceptualisation of the missionary task is that we are willing, but it is jolly hard work and people are just not interested. In other works, the workers are willing but the harvest does not appear to be ready. Jesus here says exactly the opposite; the harvest is there, and ready, and all that is needed is for workers to go out and reap it!
3–4 Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
It is worth noting here that mission is seen as inherently risky; if there is a power relationship, then those sent are the ones without power, which seems to be the opposite of most recent history of mission. There is a certain recklessness in the task, since those sent do not plan for their own provision. In our discussion group at the conference, which included people with experience from Africa and the Middle East, the command ‘not to greet anyone’ was baffling and very difficult to make sense of in cultures where greeting was important.
5–7 When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If the head of the house loves peace, your peace will rest on that house; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for workers deserve their wages. Do not move around from house to house.
I was struck here by the sense of reality that this section assumes. Those whom Jesus sends make a tangible difference; if they bless people, those people are truly blessed. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this reality is that the good news of the kingdom is almost a commodity, in the sense that people who receive it will be willing to support you because they appreciate the value of what you bring. The idea that we should receive from and even depend on the people to whom we are preaching is quite shocking; I think most of us assume that we need to do good to them in other ways as a recompense for the fact that we are asking for the privilege of preaching, or that the good we do is buying the right to be heard. Jesus here assumes that the good news is in itself enough of a blessing.
Staying in one place has, I think, been made much of by Mike Breen. We are to focus not on the crowds but on significant individuals in the communities to whom we are sent who respond positively.
8–9 When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
To ‘eat what is set before you’ would be a shocking thing for Jews who wants to observe the food laws and who visits those who are less kosher than them, but is completely in line with Jesus’ other teaching which prioritises relationship over the niceties of legal conformity. In many parts of the world, being willing to receive hospitality is essential in establishing relationships; I wonder if Christians in the West need to learn humility in receiving…?
One of the things I left behind when leaving the Roman Catholic church was the idea that the church is coterminous with those who are saved—in other words, that the kingdom of God and the church are identified. Whilst I would continue to reject such identification, it is challenging here to see that the kingdom is understood as being present in the embodied ministry of Jesus’ followers. This comes very close to Paul’s idea of the Christian community as ‘the body of Christ’, but because Paul’s language relates to the gathered community, we often forget that here Jesus applies the idea to the scattered community as well. We are Christ’s presence not just when we meet, but wherever we are. This idea is also powerfully present in the parable of the sheep and the goats; those who have welcomed, fed and clothed us (as we come to them on mission?) will inherit the kingdom.
10–12 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
If the earlier verses hold challenges for evangelical or pietistic understandings of mission, then these closing verses contain a stark challenge to ‘liberal’ ideas of mission. The reality of the kingdom of God in the presence and ministry of the people of God means the departure of the kingdom on the rejection of the message. The command is simply to ‘wipe the dust off’; the idea that this is a ‘warning’ is an interpretive expansion in the NIV, possibly based on the parallel in Luke 9.5 ‘as testimony against them.’ The phrase also occurs in Acts 13.51, with a similar interpretive expansion in the NIV. The act is a sign of Jewish rejection of Gentile values and lifestyle, and signals a clear sense of separation between the two groups. So, ‘inclusive’ Jesus, who ate with ‘tax collectors and sinners’, is clear that rejection of the message of the kingdom will lead to symbolic and actual separation—to ‘lostness’ if you will.
There remains an important interpretive question: To what extent is this teaching, which Jesus gives to particular people on a particular occasion, really paradigmatic for mission today? First, it is worth noting that the word ‘mission’ does not appear in English translation here, or anywhere else in the NT for that matter. (In Acts 12.25 in the NIV, the word ‘mission’ translates diakonia, elsewhere translated ‘service’ or ‘ministry’.) But our word ‘mission’ comes from the Latin mittere ‘to send’, itself a translation of the Greek apostello—which Luke has Jesus use here, and which is a cognate of ‘apostle’. To say we are an ‘apostolic’ church means both to be rooted in the apostolic teaching and testimony, but also to be ‘sent’ on mission as the apostles (and the 72) were.
Luke emphasises the importance of this pattern by repeating it, first with the 12 in Luke 9, and then here with the 72. Matthew conflates Jesus’ teaching from more than one occasion (as is his habit, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount) in Matt 10, and interlaces it with what looks to be later teaching that relates to the period after Jesus’ death and resurrection. These all suggest that Luke and Matthew see this pattern as a template for the communities they are writing to, and not just of historical interest concerning Jesus’ practice.
I am sure there are many, better and fuller, expositions of this passage. But there is enough here for me to be very conscious that I still have much to learn about mission as Jesus understood it. To read it again and again over a whole year might drive me mad…but I suspect most of us have a long way to go before this becomes our natural way of working. Perhaps we should talk less of ‘transforming mission’ than of ‘reforming mission’ in the light of Jesus’ teaching…
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