Sent on Mission

This coming Sunday marks our journey in Ordinary Time, the 14th Sunday in Year C. You can read a complete commentary on the Sunday Gospel here.

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy (-two) others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.

3 Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. 4 Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way. 5 Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household. 6 If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another. 8 Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, 9 cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’ 10 Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, 11 ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. 12 I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.

[not part of the Sunday gospel:  13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. 15 And as for you, Capernaum, ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld.’” 16 Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”]

17 The seventy (-two) returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” 18 Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. 19 Behold, I have given you the power ‘to tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

Condemnation or Lamentation? Quite noticeably, the Sunday gospel passes over vv.13-16, sayings that are difficult in themselves, and certainly present larger homiletic challenges for a Sunday morning. In our English-language hearing of the “woe to you” expressions, we are conditioned to understand the phrase as a condemnation, or at least as “unless you change your ways, the curses promised by the condemnations will come upon you.” Especially in the context of these verses, condemnation is held up as a very real possibility when all things come to judgment. The question I would pose is this: what is the tone of the expression’s use. Is it condemnatory? Or is there another viable linguistic alternative.

The expression “woe to you” is written in the Greek as “ouai soi.” The word soi is straight forward and means “to you.” The word “ouai” is a bit more interesting. Most scholars hold that the Greek is really a Semitism used as an interjection expressing pain, lament, and especially a threat in 41 NT passages. [EDNT, 540]. The Semitism is not that unfamiliar to us. We have all heard the expression “oy vey” – the ethnically Jewish way to react when you find out how much your son’s root canal will cost, or when you find out that there is a two-hour wait time for a table at the restaurant where you just arrived. [Chabad.org] Oy and vey are two very old Jewish interjections which both mean “woe.” Oy is found many times in the Bible (see Numbers 21:29, 1 Samuel 4:7 and Isaiah 3:11 for a few examples). Vey is newer than oy; it is oy’s Aramaic equivalent. But at their root meaning, they are also expressions of pain and lament.

Why could this be important? I think it is because of the manner/tone we assign to Jesus as he says these words. I think we are prone and conditioned to assign Jesus the manner/tone of a street corner preacher call down the wrath of God on sinners. But that is not consistent with Jesus or the deeper meaning of the text. What is more consistent with Jesus’ manner and mission, is that he is lamenting the current state of things. Bethsaida and Chorazin were witnesses to the mercy and mission of Jesus, and yet remain unrepentant. Should they remain this way, it will not go well for them. And that is lamentable. Oy vey!

Mission. I have often wondered if this passage also presents a deeper difficulty in the sense that some people have the idea that “mission” is part of the realm of the “professionals” in the church. The Franciscans were the first religious order to have a specifically missionary charism in our rule of life. And that is good, but does it allow admirers of St. Francis to stay on the side line and let “the professionals” take care of mission? I would offer that this passage calls on all disciples to be part of mission.

  1. Allen Culpepper holds that this passage contains 10 principles of mission by which every generation should be guided:
  1. affirms the world’s need for mission
  2. points to the importance of prayer in and in support of mission
  3. insists on the active participation of every disciple
  4. warns of the realistic dangers, barriers and uncertainty of mission
  5. singularity of purpose
  6. the goal of mission: peace upon this household
  7. the host sets the context for the missioner’s witness
  8. recognition that mission and witness will not always succeed
  9. nevertheless, perseverance is the hallmark of mission
  10. despite the evidence or no, be assured about the ultimate fulfillment of God’s redemptive mission. This ultimate fulfillment, even if we are unsuccessful – this is why we rejoice.

On a more lighthearted note, among Franciscans we might wonder why St. Francis chose Luke 10:4 (and parallels) as the “marching orders” for our life. It would be a little more interesting if we also took on Luke 22:36. Then we would have a bag, a purse, and swords!

Context. Our gospel reading follows immediately on the heels of Jesus moving from Galilee with the intention of reaching Jerusalem (9:53). He is rejected in the towns of Samaria (vv.51-56) and he challenges the would-be disciples (vv. 57-62). Following so quickly after the Transfiguration and prediction of his own passion, death, and resurrection, these scenes, taken together, all point to the coming dangers for aspiring disciples. Each scene brings the disciples’ understandings and expectations into contrast with Jesus’ own mission for the disciples. Discipleship is radical, calling for the unconditional commitment to the redemptive working of God, and to understand that God’s Kingdom has the highest priority and largest claim on one’s life. It is at this point that the 72 disciples are commissioned.

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