Week of Sunday July 4: Pentecost 6
Gospel: Luke 10: 1-20
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”12I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.13 ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14But at the judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15And you, Capernaum,will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.16 ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ 18He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’
I come this reading with a larger load of baggage than usual. There is guilt for not doing enough about the harvest. There is guilt because I have definitely not gone without purse, bag, or sandals, despite earlier intentions and attempts to to live very simply.
There is pain and anger because I once stopped outside a town, and very deliberately removed my shoes, and clapped the red dust off them. That occasion of failure and rejection, and the memory of my condemnation of them, carries its own guilt.
This text brings back to mind many of my failures to conform to, and succeed at, a certain vision of religion based around converting the unsaved. It brings to the surface many memories of what I hate most about church; the comfortable in-language about how we are doing the work of the Lord, being the faithful labourers, and going out to the unconverted. We set ourselves up over and against the people around us. And we too often justify our well deserved rejection by those who find us offensive, or just plain laughable, with a comfortable condemnation of those folk to the fate of Bethsaida and Chorazin. I am angry that I have let so much of my being Christian get sidetracked and confused by a so called “evangelical” theology that is not good news, and does not speak to our times.
I will not leave out the bit about Bethsaida, Chorazin and Sodom, on Sunday. The fact that we have it in the gospel stands as warning and condemnation of our selves and our attitudes, especially if it does not immediately offend us.
Such visceral feelings can blind us to the text. It says we wipe the dust off our feet as a “protest against them.” I was not only protesting when I did that. I was condemning, full of anger; albeit also terribly wounded. It was a sudden news to me as I read the text today that it is translated “as a protest,” not as a judgement.
I am reminded always to ask, as I prepare my preaching, if the text is a "flash point" for my congregation.
There are two things I see in Luke's story. The first is that the number of people sent out (70 or 72) is clearly a message about taking the news about Jesus to the whole world. It is a universal message. This is neatly summarised by John Petty.
What is the significance of 70/72? Genesis 10 numbers the nations of the world at 70 or 72, depending on whether you read the Hebrew or Greek version. Moses appointed 70 elders (Num 11), to which were added Eldad and Medad, making 72.In Numbers, the Lord God had also given some of Moses' "spirit" to these 70/72. This is mentioned three times (Num 11:17, 25, 29). By drawing on these associations, Luke may be comparing these messengers in Luke 10 to those of Moses. As then, they are "spirit-filled." In light of the number 70/72, this spirit-filled mission will be universal and world-wide. The saying in regard to the harvest (10:2)--along with the exhortation to "go!"--adds a sense of urgency.
The second thing I see in Luke's story is that it reflects the experience of the Lukan community. This is what they actually did, deliberately poor travellers, two by two. There was an actual strategy, no doubt partly deliberate and partly happen stance, which cause the spread of the Jesus tradition.
Loader says about this strategy, and the people involved, that
They were never meant to be above the locals, but rather to engage them in the same mission. Their lifestyle was a statement against prevailing values, a kind of protest which defied the normalcy which insisted people remained bound to their locality, family and station in life and treated it as their reward. The strangeness of these early patterns may be accounted for by the vast chasm of time and culture; it may, however, reflect a high level of estrangement on our part from the values which drove them. (My emphasis)
I doubt we can fully appreciate the differences between our time, and the time of Luke. I'm sure they should not be explored with the idea that in Luke's time it was easier to be a roaming disciple. Luke's time and place was not one of nomadic culture. In his time, too, people had houses, obligations, and jobs. This is clear from last week's gospel. People related to a locality and a family, just like us. Leaving home was fraught with all the same uncertainties and obligations that we face.
One significant difference, I suspect, was in the nature of hospitality, and its obligations. It is intriguing that when Luke mentions cities which clearly were not well regarded by the people of his time when it came to receiving the gospel, he compares them to the city of Sodom. It shall be more tolerable for Sodom, than for those who reject the 70.
The great sin of Sodom was its inhospitality. We should understand that hospitality includes guaranteeing the safety of one's guests, not just feeding them, and also that if I have a friend staying, you owe him the same respect you show to me, your neighbour. By using Sodom as an example and context, Luke implies that the spreading and receiving of the gospel is done in the context of hospitality and community.
Working with Pitjantjatjara people, I saw a great difference between their houses, and the houses of their white employees. Whites lived inside their house. Pitjantjatjaras, at that time, lived in their yard, in which there was also a house. I could visit Trevor next door, by entering his yard, sitting at the fire, eating and drinking and talking, and being neighbourly. Palestinian houses were often like that; “Larger Palestinian houses were such that you could freely enter the front half of the house from outside - it was public space.” Loader
For me to visit Trevor, was always easier than for him to visit me. The public area makes all kinds of approach and confrontation much easier than going into a house, where one becomes at the mercy of the owner; I've had parishioners lock me in when I visit! The public area lets me feed you with less intrusion on my self, and with you placing yourself much less in my power by being inside. Sitting around my fireplace is very very different than sitting at my kitchen table. I wonder if the Australian love affair with the mates around barbie reflects some of this?
Understand the dynamic, to which we are a little blind in suburbia. We only enter the house of people we know and trust, and who know and trust us. Out walking the dog, we frequently stop in a yard to chat, but would hesitate strongly about entering the building. Entering inside, and allowing to enter, involves major transactions of trust and power.
At a barbecue, if I as a visitor am uncomfortable, I can drift to the edge of the circle. I can wander over and inspect my host's car on the other side of the carport. I can look at the sky and take time out to wonder about the forecast. If we are eating formally, inside, I cannot leave the table without creating a problem of manners.
Pitjantjatjara people always want to know who you are related to when they meet. It is not small talk. It is a way of working out obligations of hospitality and behaviour towards a new person. We have lost all this in the west. Our hospitality is based around our ownership of the front door and whether we want to let you in... can we afford the time, or the money? Do we have the inclination? Obligation might reach as far as seeing it will help our employment prospects if we invite the boss to tea, but that's about it. We have no obligations even to the family next door, let alone strangers.
The notion that we are responsible to those who have visited our locality is foreign. If I walk into a Pitjantjatjara tribal gathering, the immediate question for everyone is, “Who is responsible for this man Andrew Prior? Who is his family? Around whose fire will he sleep?” As a newcomer, I was told the family of which I was being made a part. (A very good family, I might add!) They became responsible for me, and I for them.
If a person walks into our street tonight, the issue will not be who is responsible for them. It will be one of “How can we protect ourselves?” It will be a question of how long before someone rings 131-444 and, more or less politely, asks the police to move the person on.
We are ashamed about this, probably somewhat unfairly to ourselves. When you don't have a front yard, taking on a traveller can suddenly become very permanent, and risky. It is much harder to serve up a cold shoulder at the kitchen table, than it is in the front yard. I'd be a lot happier sleeping in the front yard with a slightly odd stranger, but with dogs on the alert and extended family around me, than I would in the artificial dark of a house, and my children out of sight and sound in another room.
We are deeply ashamed about this. A man at a seminar once talked about letting people stay in his house; radical and daring stuff. A colleage muttered to me of his foolishness, how one of these people would lead his children into drugs, or rape them. He spoke with a depth of anger which puzzled me, until I realised that he felt guilty, and trapped between the challenge and the impossibility of doing the same. Our shame eats into us, and probably paralyses us.
So there is a vast chasm of time and culture, as Bill puts it. And we have developed a style of living and housing that is not just unsuited to hospitality, it has developed from an individualistic, relatively inhospitable culture. If we felt the obligation to hospitality that Jesus' people felt, and valued it as much, we would build very different houses.
Talking with Sudanese friends, I am beginning to understand that it sometimes seems it was easier to be a community and a church in the refugee camps, than it is here in Australia. Our kinds of houses, and our kinds of community spaces, do not work for Sudanese society. Our small enclosed houses make certain meetings unsafe and socially embarrassing, if not unacceptable. Place, house, home, architecture, community and hospitality are all intimately related and affect each other.
For example, hospitality brings its own payment, and has obligations. The visitor does not merely sit disconnected from the rest of the group. The visitor becomes one with the hosts. The visitor respects the host and those who are the host's kin, and that respect is returned. (This is what did not happen in Sodom.) The visitor goes on the hunt with the men, or digs marku with the women, or keeps the fire, or watches the little children. They become part of the community. (We artificially separate hospitality and community in the west; in Jesus' time they are inseparable.)
I think Luke specifically forbids that phenomenon we euphemistically call “the travelling christian.” “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide... Do not move about from house to house.” He calls the person to be part of the community they have entered. Despite the text being parcelled up in the story of the seventy being emissaries sent out before Jesus, and who return to Jesus, there is a kind of settled feeling about what they are to do. The text does not feel like it is talking about travelling preachers. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Be part of the place, a responsible, functioning part.
In my street, perhaps, I should settle more permanently and be making closer friends with Brian who made me welcome when we first moved in … And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person... I could be putting a couch on my front veranda... very bogan, I know, but it actually begins to restore the front yard of hospitality. The un-cashed up bogans, who have no airconditioners, probably know their neighbours better than the rest of us! In the 'olden days', houses had verandas, and verandas had chairs.
It might also be the case that I should be seeking to work here in Elizabeth, and not be commuting across town. Dormitory suburbs are the antithesis of the reading in Luke! They are a safe way of living. We do not commit to the locality, and are never like lambs in the midst of wolves.... we are always able to sell up and leave. Hospitality, and mission, and discipleship, imply local commitment and vulnerability. Perhaps our Western missionaries have always been able to go home too easily.
It is possible that I might decide I should sell up and buy a house, or find a rental somewhere else:
But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”
The thing is, I didn't choose to live here based on Luke 10. We chose this place because we could afford it, because we can walk to the train and the shops, because we can commute easily, because it looked a reasonably safe street. True, there was a a certain rebellion against the affluence and aspirations of the eastern suburbs, but like all Australians, it is somewhere in our minds that we will move on, or retire elsewhere. Our hospitality to our street is limited.
Perhaps what we need more than travelling preachers and evangelists, is people who will settle down for decades- not to build a safe house closed to the street, but to build a new front yard with grapes and sofas, and with a low fence you can step over, but high enough to keep visiting toddlers off the street.
The very strangeness of this idea highlights what Bill Loader said: It reflects a high level of estrangement on our part from the values which drove Jesus and the early christians. Living as Jesus would live would recommit to such values. It is the values of community and hospitality which are central to the reading, not the ideals of travelling preacher/missionary which we have so often highlighted in the mythology of our churches.
Addendum: It escaped my notice that "eat what is set before you" has serious implications. In a world of food laws, rather than simple likes and dislikes, "eat what is set before you" demands a great humility on the part of the visitor, who may have deep religious reasons not to eat the particular food set before them!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!