Jesus didn’t send them off on a summer vacation by the lake. If he had, he would have told them to make sure they had their swimming trunks, perhaps a hat, plenty of sun screen, and a stack of summer reading in their bags.
I love a trip where I don’t need to worry about packing socks or anything more formal than t-shirts and shorts. But Jesus didn’t send them off to camp or a week on the beach. It was a different kind of trip, one that wasn’t just a break from their daily routines, but rather more like a whole new routine.
It had started in the towns of Galilee where at some point he called together the twelve, gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and then he sent them out to do what he had been doing – proclaim the kingdom of God and heal. Then again in Samaria, on his way to Jerusalem, he sent messengers ahead of him to alert villages of his arrival and to make preparations for his coming. And after this, he appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.
I suspect that he had to appoint and send them, because if he had asked for volunteers and waited for them to come forward after he had told them about their mission, he might have had to switch to plan B: There’s a lot of work to do, and there are few workers, he tells them. He sends them like lambs into the midst of wolves and adds, Do not to carry a purse or a bag or an extra pair of sandals. They would be his messengers and for their meals and lodging they would depend entirely on the kindness of others.
When Miles and I are on the road, we love to stop at Cracker Barrel and eat Momma’s Pancake Breakfast, no matter if it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and Nancy will eat the hashbrown casserole almost any time of day. But as one of Jesus’ 70, you’d eat whatever is set before you. I read about a preacher’s kid who found that to be the most challenging part of Jesus’ travel instructions. His dad had been a pastor in rural South Dakota, in a very poor area with lots of small farms. The family was often invited for lunch after church on Sunday, and the young man recalled that he and his siblings were admonished to eat whatever was served. And he wasn’t referring to the countless varieties of cooked, leafy greens that very few children find delicious. Many of the farm families relied on whatever they could kill or catch nearby for food – occasionally it was chicken, sometimes it tasted like chicken, but on many a Sunday the preacher’s kid had no idea what he was eating. Reading about him, I thought about Stelma who grew up in rural Virginia during the Depression. She was the oldest of the girls, responsible for cooking, and she would fix whatever her brothers brought home from their hunting trips – mostly squirrels and rabbits.
“One day they came back with a raccoon,” she said.
“What did you do with it?” I asked.
“I skinned it and I cooked it. It was a little greasy, but we ate it.”
Jesus sent the 70 to proclaim the nearness God’s reign, but rather than telling them to pack enough food to feed the hungry, or extra outfits to clothe the naked, he told them to rely completely on the hospitality of others and to receive it with equal kindness. For most of us, I suspect, that’s an unexpected reversal. When we think of mission, we think of sharing our resources to alleviate suffering as a witness to the compassionate love of God. We glean fields and gardens and our pantry to prepare food for the hungry. We make beds in the fellowship hall and fill backpacks with mittens and scarves, chapsticks and toothbrushes, to protect the homeless from the elements and to make their life a little better. We write checks – beautiful, faithful checks for Hope Camp and Rooftop and Nashville Food Project and Week of Compassion and so many other agencies and programs here in Nashville and around the globe. We give – with glad and generous hearts as a testimony to the generosity of God who desires abundant life for all. And then we hear Jesus sending the 70 to proclaim the nearness of God’s reign with nothing but the clothes on their back, the word of peace on their lips, and the willingness to eat the food of strangers.
I don’t know who first noticed that in Luke’s telling of the gospel, Jesus is constantly either on his way to eat, eating with others, or just leaving the table. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but it does capture the prominent place of table fellowship in Luke. The whole story is built around shared meals, the heart of hospitality, and Jesus eats and drinks with all kinds of people in all kinds of settings, but – he never gives a dinner party. He is always a guest.
The way I read this, Jesus invites us to let go of the control that comes with having and giving, to let go of the power that comes with determining who gets what and when and why, and to trust in the possibilities of healing and wholeness that lie in depending on the hospitality of others. The one who had no place to lay his head invites us to share in his mission by sharing in his vulnerability.
“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” says the Lamb of God. Throughout the generations of the church, there have been those who lived as if they had been sent like wolves into the midst of lambs, but it wasn’t the Lamb who sent them, no matter how loudly they kept declaring that they were acting in the name of the Lord. With all their power and might, they built empires, but they didn’t proclaim the kingdom Jesus brought near. Yet throughout those same generations, there have also been the followers of Jesus who took nothing on the journey but the word and promise of God, who didn’t take the path of control or coercion or vengeance, and who returned rejoicing in the fall of demons.
In every generation, Jesus is appointing and sending 70 who trust in the possibilities of healing and wholeness that lie in depending on the hospitality of others. To me, the number 70 is not a matter of counting heads, but of recognizing Jesus’ mission as global. In the Bible, the number 70 represents all the nations of the world, so in sending the 70 Jesus is sending his followers to all nations, not to conquer or assimilate them, but to live among them as witnesses to the power of the Lamb.
Very few among us will hear this as a call to leave our homes and possessions and take up an itinerant lifestyle of radical dependence on the hospitality of others, although I don’t think we ought to dismiss that possibility altogether. The circumstances of our mission as followers of Jesus have changed, significantly in many ways, but we also know and affirm that his call to us to live as messengers of God’s reign in our world has not changed. His commission of the 70 talks about characteristics of the church’s mission that aren’t bound to particular circumstances but can serve to shape its work and witness in each generation. I want to highlight just a few of them.
1. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
He affirms that there’s plenty to do for us in the world once we learn to look at it through the lens of grace, and there’s always a shortage of people with that particular vision. Surprisingly for many of our generation, this doesn’t call for greater effort or longer hours, but for prayer.
2. Jesus says, “Go on your way.”
Of course he wants us to go on his way, but he affirms that there’s a way for each of us to be on his way. This also implies that we are to begin where we are, not where we think we ought to be or wish we could be.
3. Jesus says, “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
Proclaiming the peace of Christ arouses the hostility of powers opposed to God’s reign, no question about it. This doesn’t imply that we need to grow bigger teeth but rather that we trust in the power of the Lamb.
4. Jesus says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.”
The purse is for money and the bag is for stuff. Money and stuff are what make things happen in any other kingdom. He tells us that we can do what we need to do without them. If nothing else, this puts money and stuff in proper perspective.
5. Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you.”
This humble word is a well of wisdom and truth. It’s not just about what’s for dinner. This word implies that when we enter the world of others, whether that’s a kitchen or a whole country, we are to do so without imposing our own cultural assumptions on them. Jesus encourages us to meet others with a willingness to receive what they offer and them with it. That’s what the preacher’s kid began to grasp at the Sunday tables in South Dakota. Every meal is a communion, or rather every meal is open to becoming recognizable as communion, as the sacrament of creation redeemed and fulfilled. Eating what is set before us, we can stop pretending that our mission as followers of Jesus is to give others a truth we have and they need. Instead, we can both discover that the kingdom of God has indeed come near and know it together.