Today’s Gospel starts out with Jesus’ appointing precisely 70 evangelists to go out ahead of him preaching the Good News, for Jesus knows that he can’t do it all alone. Why 70, you might ask? Well, it turns out that in the book of Genesis, 70 is given as the number of Gentile nations in the world. So, there is a symbolic and prophetic reason for Jesus’ picking this exact number of evangelists; it represents the extension of his mission to the Gentiles—in other words, to people like most of us! I say it was an extension of Jesus’ mission, because in Luke 9, Jesus had already sent out the twelve apostles to spread the Good News among the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Luke tells us that Jesus sends out his evangelists to the Gentiles in pairs. And there are several possible reasons for this. One obvious reason would be mutual support. But another might have to do with the fact that in Jewish law, valid testimony requires two witnesses. And these evangelists, we are told, will be testifying for the Kingdom of God, as well as testifying against those towns that refuse to accept the Good News of God’s Kingdom. (As an aside, the Episcopal Church also encourages sending out home visitors two by two, but in this case it is to prevent misbehavior during home visitations.)
But before Jesus sends out his evangelists, he advises them to pray for help along the way, because there is so much to do and they are so few. Jesus goes on to offer instruction that is contrary to all common sense and that certainly violates the Boy Scout motto to “be prepared.” Jesus tells the evangelists to go out with nothing but the clothes on their backs: no money, no food, no spare clothes. And contrary to common courtesy, he tells them to greet no one on the road.
What did Jesus have in mind? To be honest, I am probably the last person who should attempt to answer this, since I never travel light. I pack up my entire medicine cabinet every time I go on a weekend trip. Be that as it may, I’ll do my best. It seems to me that Jesus wanted two things from these evangelists: he wanted them to travel quickly and without encumbrance (and that meant no time for pleasantries), and he wanted them to put themselves completely in God’s hands as an act of faith (and traveling without food or money is certainly an act of faith!).
In each town, the evangelists are instructed to accomplish two things: 1) cure the sick, and 2) announce the Good News of God’s Kingdom. I find it remarkable that the Church today puts so little emphasis on healing in its mission statement. It’s clear from today’s reading that healing the sick in body, mind, and spirit was central to Jesus’ mission and should be central to the Church’s mission today as well. (And speaking of the ministry of healing, let me take this opportunity to plug the next Taizé healing service, which is on Friday, July 15, at 7:30 p.m.)
Up to this point in the story, little has been said about the consequences of failure. But Jesus proceeds to tell us. He instructs his evangelists to testify against the towns that reject the Good News by a prophetic act and then to move on. They are to shake off the dust of those towns from their sandals as testimony against them. By this symbolic ritual, the fate of these towns is then left in God’s hands.
After some undisclosed period of time, the evangelists return. And they are jubilant! They shout out how even demons submitted to them in Jesus’ name. Jesus responds rather enigmatically, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” He seems to be saying that somehow the limited success of these evangelists in reaching out to the nations of the world has contributed to the final and irrevocable defeat of God’s Enemy.
Then, after acknowledging the salvific consequences of their mission, Jesus admonishes the joyful evangelists not to boast at their spiritual power, but to rejoice over something of much more consequence—namely, that their names are written in heaven and they are destined for eternal life.
As is often the case when contemplating the Gospel, we are left with questions regarding the applicability of Jesus’ teaching to us. Do Jesus’ instructions to his evangelism team still apply today? Or are they restricted to the specific circumstances of Jesus’ day? Personally, I think there is something significant here for us to learn. I spoke earlier of my tendency to pack up my entire medicine cabinet every time I travel. I suspect that this habit stems from anxiety, from a lack of faith, if you will. And I think that the Church as a whole suffers from similar anxieties. How often are we reluctant to let go of things that make us feel secure or give us comfort? How often are we unwilling to venture out of our comfort zone into unknown territory, either literally or metaphorically? How often are we afraid to take on a task because we don’t feel prepared? I suspect the answer to all three questions is “Pretty often.” Today’s Gospel reading reminds us that we can, in fact, get by without accustomed comforts; we can, in fact, survive in unfamiliar territory; we can, in fact, succeed even when unprepared.
Now, just to clear things up, I don’t expect you to go out door to door in pairs, although that is exactly what the LDS Church does. (On the other hand, I would support you in every way that I could, if you came to me with such a plan!) Fortunately, there are other ways to spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God. When you are talking to a friend about gardening, you might mention how your spirituality is fed by nurturing plants, how such stewardship of Creation stems from your belief in God. When you run into a neighbor while walking your dog, you might mention how your church blesses pets and how this reflects God’s all-encompassing love. When you talk to an acquaintance or colleague about music, you might mention how important music is in the liturgy of your church and invite her to come share the experience with you sometime. When you encounter a homeless beggar, whether or not you feel comfortable giving him money, you might pray with him and remind him that God loves him. And last but not least, when you talk to your children or grandchildren or to your nieces and nephews, you might remind them of how the teachings of Jesus Christ are the foundation of your entire life and how you hope that they too will find a deeper meaning to their lives.
There are so many ways that you as individuals can remind the people in your life of God’s love and invite them to join the family of faith. And there are so many ways that we as a community can do the same. We had an opportunity last Friday to attend the Mandarin Summer Camp’s celebration and to let the children and their parents know that they are all welcome here. You should have seen the smiles on the parents’ faces when I told them quite truthfully what a joy it was to hear their children’s laughter each day as I worked in my office. None of those parents might ever join this parish, but they now know that they and their children are welcome. (I only wish that one or two parishioners might have attended to reinforce that message of welcome!)
Like Jesus’ evangelism team in today’s Gospel, we are all called by very virtue of our baptism to be messengers of Good News to an alienated world, and we are asked to bring healing and wholeness to all whose lives are broken. It’s a daunting task for so few to accomplish, and as many of you have told me, you are just plain tired. I understand! To all who are here today, I ask you to pray that the Lord of the Harvest may send us more laborers. And to you who are feeling worn out, I have an encouraging message straight from the pen of St. Paul himself: “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith”—to which I say, “Amen!”