This coming Sunday is the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year B. The gospel for the day comes from Mark 6 and narrates the beginning of mission for the disciples.
Instructions for the Mission. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there. 11 Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.”
The final instruction provides a response for those who reject the disciples. Shaking dust off one’s feet was a gesture of cursing a place. The elements of curse and divine condemnation are more evident in Matthew 10:14 and Luke 10:10–12. On the judgment day the rejecting towns will be worse off than Sodom and Gomorrah (Lk). Shaking dust off the feet may reflect the shaking of one’s clothing as a sign of renunciation (Neh 5:13; Acts 18:6). Clearing away even the dust under one’s sandals suggests an even more thorough rejection than shaking out garments or washing one’s hands (Matt 27:24). Mark may have moderated the severity of the judgment sayings from Matthew and Luke, since he does not anticipate Christian missionaries calling down curses on unreceptive towns. The tradition merely stands as a testimony before God that the town has refused to hear God’s word. Mark’s judgment sayings correlate witness to or rejection of the Son of Man with a person’s status in the judgment: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)
Modern missioners see the variations in the rules as evidence that the earliest Christians recognized the need to adapt to the circumstances in which they found themselves. A constant over time is that the gospel comes to bring healing, peace, and good news to people. This means that missioners must adapt to the culture of those they come to serve in order that no barriers be erected that impede the message. For example, some of the early missioners in East Africa brought with them trappings and comforts of their European lifestyles and were clearly associated with those who present in the land as agents of colonialism or political expansion. Adapting often means to live with and as the people live in order that the Word of God come simply and freely.
In this context, the gesture of shaking dust off one’s shoes does not have to mean cursing those who will not listen. It acknowledges the mysterious elements in human freedom. Even the most sophisticated and culturally sensitive presentation of the gospel can be rejected. Christians are not to waste their resources in such situations. Others are waiting to hear the gospel.
Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Church) writes about his stress on those waiting to hear the Good News:
“We’ve never encouraged other believers to transfer their membership to our church; in fact, we have openly discouraged it. We don’t want transfer growth. In every membership class we say, “If you are coming to Saddleback from another church, you need to understand up front that this church was not designed for you. It is geared toward reaching the unchurched who do not attend anywhere. If you are transferring from another church you are welcome here only if you are willing to serve and minister. If all you intend to do is attend services, we’d rather save your seat for someone who is an unbeliever. There are plenty of good Bible-teaching churches in this area that we can recommend to you.” [p. 39]
Warren is raising the question of whether the local church is a “branch office” of the larger denomination, serving the already-faithful, or a “mission outpost” serving on the frontier.