We are familiar with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ commissioning of the Twelve in Matthew, Mark, and Luke however, only Luke gives the account of the sending of an “other” group of seventy-two, of which we hear about in Sunday’s Gospel along with curious travel restrictions (no walking sticks, no backpacks, no sandals, no greetings on the way).
Where does this extra group come from? It may indeed be literally a group that Jesus sent out during his public ministry. Then again, this account may be Luke’s way of previewing the mission of the post-Easter Church reaching out to the nations. Thus, this commissioning of the 72 may well intend to say something about the Church’s mission in general, not just the mission during Jesus’ time.
Given the fact that the Christian communities described in the Book of Acts, and reflected in the Letters of Paul, were mainly made up of urban “stay-at-homes”, Luke may be using this commissioning of the 72 as a symbolic paradigm for living out the Christian mission. Taken this way, what can it mean? What does it have to do with following Jesus today?
The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Imagining the mission as a harvest reminds us that the enterprise is one initiated by God, not simply a human project. In spreading the Good News, we participate in something God is doing. Conscious contact —prayer— with the Harvest Master is essential.
Do not carry a walking staff or traveling bag; wear no sandals. No one in their right mind traveled the Palestinian roads staffless, bagless, and unshod. Without a staff you are defenseless. Without a bag of some kind, you have no way of carrying a change of clothes or some bread for the road. And no matter how tough your feet are, you can’t run from danger on that rocky terrain without something on your feet. In short, anyone traveling in this strange way would be engaged in a kind of prophetic action, communicating by means of attention-getting behavior. The point of this mode of traveling would seem to be something like this: we are people who trust in God for our defense and who depend on the hospitality of others for our sustenance; we have a vision to share.
Greet no one along the way. In the Near Eastern context, the point here is not avoiding the courtesy of giving or responding to a friendly greeting; it is rather a mandate not to engage in the extended pleasantries and exchanges that were customary in those parts. The point of this travel style is not unfriendliness but moving with an air of urgency and intentionality.
How does this apply to Christians now, who live in cities and hold down a steady job? The missionary charge to the 72 suggests that even followers of Jesus who are registered voters with a permanent address should be people who “travel light,” live a little more trustingly than the culture around them, and exhibit a sense of purpose that clearly goes beyond producing and consuming goods and being entertained. Even settled Christians, like us, can live in a way that invites questions about where we are coming from and where we think we are going!
Dennis Hamm, SJ All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce for personal or parish use. Modification to text 2022.