Sundays after Pentecost, Proper 9  Year C
At first glance this looks like a great story for me to address with you today, but the closer I looked the more I felt that there were a few really tricky bits – how would I deal with these?
So I thought I might begin by thinking about how we tell stories.
In our culture, and in the time of Jesus, too, when you are telling a story and you want it to sound even better, you exaggerate some of the story to make it more exciting, or make it sound more important and so on. It doesn't change the meaning of the story – it just makes it much better to tell and to listen to.
In English we call this HYPERBOLE. It is a way of exaggerating something to make it more obvious. And the important thing we have to remember with this is that because it is so exaggerated we have to be a bit careful how we deal with the detail.
I think that in this story we have today Luke and maybe even Jesus is using this little technique as a way of making us sit up and take notice of what he is saying.
There is a Job Ahead of Us
The first part of the story is fairly straight forward. Jesus is saying to his followers there’s a pretty big job ahead of us and it won’t be easy. Not everyone will receive us positively.
The ‘harvest’ is a metaphor.
The ‘lambs among wolves’ is a metaphor.
The ‘purse, the bag, the sandals’ are metaphors.
They tell us there is work to do, it will be scary but we must trust God.
This leads into a discussion about the obligations of hospitality which maybe our Nubian friends understand much better than we westerners.
When you come to someone’s house the first and most important thing you must do is to offer your peace to all who live there – I think you will find that the Nubans will have a little ritual for this where they say Salem! As they cross the door lintel.
Jesus says that we will know if they receive our Peace or not.
If they do receive you, just enjoy what they have to offer. Stay in that house.
This is a really important thing and much later on in the history of the church, when there were monasteries all around the place, pilgrims would trade on the hospitality of the monks but keep moving around till they found a good place.
The thing that surprises me every time I read this story is the very simple task they are given to do:
Cure the sick,
and say to them
‘the Kingdom of God has come near you’!
He didn’t say ‘make all these people repent – turning back to God’.
He didn’t say ‘get all those people back into synagogue.’
He said ‘look after their needs, and tell them God was here.’
Now Jesus has some very wise words for his followers about what to do when people reject them.
Refusing to accept their obligation of hospitality is what most people now consider was the great SIN of SODOM – and Jesus reminds his followers of this by telling them that those who refuse them will get it in the neck in the end and it will be far worse than what the residents of Sodom will get.
But for now, what he says they should do is simply move right along (shaking the dust off their feet, as he says) but not before saying to the people the same thing they were to say to those who accepted the – ‘the Kingdom of God has come near you!’
There was a time in my life when I learned that this was much the best thing to do, rather than argue with people. No one wins when you argue. People just get more deeply entrenched. Someone else can come after me and get through to those people.
Rejoice in your Salvation, not in signs and wonders.
The second part of the story has some of that exaggeration in it, too.
Jesus’ followers came back with some amazing stories. When they did what they were told and started curing the sick, it was, for them, ‘as if the demons that had caused the sicknesses had completely submitted to us,’ they said.
Jesus, as if to gather together the weight of everything they had done together, uses this great metaphor – ‘I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.’ It was a way of saying to them that they had all done a wonderful job – they had achieved a mighty thing.
He then reinforces this sense of their power to overcome the evil in their world with metaphors of two great symbols of evil – snakes and scorpions.
Jesus is not saying literally that we can step on snakes and survive their bite, of kick a scorpion and survive its sting. But he is saying that when we take up this work he is calling us to do, we will feel like we could do that!
But what about You and Me?
In considering what this could all mean for you and me today, I need to say something about all those disciples who were sent out at the beginning of the story. There were 70 of them, or maybe 72, depending on which old piece of papyrus you are looking at.
You could say there are so many because Jesus has many more followers than just the Apostles, but most of us know that NUMBERS are very important in Hebrew stories.
So, it seems that the number 70 could be an echo of the 70 Elders of Israel, but it is more likely that Luke or Jesus wants us to be thinking of all the nations in the world – because in those days they thought there were just 70 or 72 countries.
Since we have the privilege of knowing the end of the story we can also think about the fact that in not too long a time Jesus will be sending them out to “Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.”
So, in this story we have Jesus’ followers being sent to all the countries in the world – the four corners of the world, as we might say – with a very simple instruction:
· Accept what hospitality is offered you.
· Look out for the needs of people.
· Tell them that the Kingdom of God has come near them.
The thing that I love about this is that I don’t have to be ordained to do this – nor do you. In fact this is the “ministry” you were called into on your baptism and confirmation.
And when you take up this job in this simple way, you will probably be amazed at how much you are able to help people to change their lives.
But Jesus has some good advice for us:
“Don’t go around looking for the power to do signs and wonders. Just be thankful that your names are written down in heaven.”
I feel sad when I see some Christian people clamouring after the signs and wonders, and even worse clamouring for the ability to do them themselves. Somehow, this story says, they have missed the point.
Our surest happiness will not be in how effective our work for Christ seems to be, but in our own unearned (and un-earnable) status as children of God.
Let us pray:
Divine Friend, your ever-living Son has given us free passage into a new life, where tears are turned to joy, and emptiness becomes an overflowing cup. Let no fear dismay us and no sin betray us.
Align us with your own Spirit, that the bedevilment of the world may shrink away before our love for you and our fellow human beings. Through the grace of Christ Jesus our Saviour.