Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (15 July 2018)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:7-13 – NRSV)
Matthew 10:1 & 9-14 and Luke 9:1-6 give us similar accounts of the mission of the Twelve. Luke 10:4-11 adds the mission of the seventy-two. Matthew and Luke – against Mark 6:8 – command that they not take a staff – see Matthew 10:10 and Luke 9:3 – and they prohibit the wearing of sandals – see Matthew 10:10 and Luke 10:4 – against Mark who says they should wear sandals – see Mark 6:9.
Mark situates his account of the mission of the Twelve between the rejection of Jesus by his hometown folk and the execution of John the Baptist by Herod. There seems to be no safe place in this world for Jesus and his disciples. It has already become starkly evident that the kingdom that Jesus has been proclaiming from the beginning – see Mark 1:15 – does not fit any of the social, political, cultural or even religious constructs of Palestine at that time. Conflict is inevitable. Choices must be made. Consequences must be expected. This is all part of accepting the mission to which the disciples are being called. They are “to continue and extend the work begun by Jesus (1:34; 3:11–12; 5:8). (J R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 179.)
Two commentaries offer complementary summaries of this passage in Mark. One commentary sums it up this way:
“The four items required of the Twelve are, in fact, identical to the belongings that God instructs the Israelites to take on their flight from Egypt: cloak, belt, sandals, and staff in hand (Exod 12:11). The parallel in dress, in other words, is identical with the Exodus apparel ..... These four items of clothing recall the haste and expectation of the Exodus. They suggest that the mission of the Twelve announces something as foundational and revelatory as the Exodus from Egypt, and that the disciples must be as free from encumbrances as were the Israelites, to serve their God in a new venture.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 180.)
The second commentary sums it up as follows:
“The enduring theological significance of this passage is its role as a call to the church never to forget its origin in a community of missionaries: the Twelve are also among the first recipients of a resurrection appearance in 1 Cor 15:3–7, a tradition that has been described as ‘community founding’ and mission inaugurating. The church’s self-identity is as a community that is sent; it is to ‘travel light’ and to proclaim the word in freedom and fearlessness. Like Jesus it is to confront the power of evil and serve as an agent of God’s healing power. As many churches today are engaged in a continuing quest for identity in a complex world, this rather simple narrative should always be a conversation partner.” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 194.)
Jesus called the twelve: The Greek verb kaleō means “call” or “summon” or even “name”. Add the prefix pros and you have a somewhat different connotation. Thus, proskaleō, used in the text and translated as “called” carries the extra meaning of “call to oneself”. Jesus – the one who will send them forth – first of all calls them to himself. We are reminded of Isaiah 43:1, where God speaks to Israel and says: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah then continues: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (43:2-3). Whenever you find the phrase, “the Lord your God”, it is a reference to the Lord of the Exodus, the liberating Lord who has forged an everlasting covenant, who will always be there as the incomprehensible, un-nameable Mystery (cf Exodus 3:1-15).
to send them out two by two: The calling – proskaleō – is accompanied by the sending – apostellō. This repeats Mark 3:13-14. We get our English word “apostle” from this Greek verb, apostellō. “Sending the disciples in pairs conformed to Jewish custom (e.g., Eccl 4:9–10) and was continued in the early church” (J R Edwards, op cit, 178).
authority over the unclean spirits: We are reminded o an earlier moment in Mark’s Gospel: “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’” (Mark 1:27-28). This is a sure sign that the kingdom is among them. “The authority given the Twelve is an authority to act. Here as elsewhere in early Christianity there is no proclamation of the gospel without powerful deeds, and no powerful deeds without proclamation of the gospel” (J R Edwards, op cit, 178-79).
He ordered them to take nothing with them: Mostly, when we are travelling or setting out on a task the focus is on what we should take. Here the focus is on what not to take. This forces them to place their trust, not in their possessions or skills but in the one who sends them. The “success” of the mission – then as now – depends not on us but on Jesus. One might ask: Were the disciples really equipped at this time to proclaim Jesus’ message on his behalf? Their record is not good. They get in the way of his mission – see Mark 1:36-39, they become fed up with him – see Mark 4:38 & 5:31 and they even stand in opposition to him – see Mark 3:21. Consider also the interchange between Jesus and these same disciples sometime later: “Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod’. They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread’. And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?’” (Mark 8:14-18). Would you give them the tick of approval to represent you? What is happening here?
The foregoing is particularly puzzling when you consider that Jesus’ focus in his ministry is teaching: “Jesus again embarks on a mission circuit, ‘teaching from village to village’ (1:14, 39; also Matt 9:35). As earlier, the defining element of his ministry is teaching. Jesus is popularly conceived of as undertaking a ministry of ‘presence’ or of compassion and healing. These were indeed important elements of his ministry, but they do not identify the dominant purpose of his ministry, which, according to Mark, was teaching. The doing of a deed, even the performing of a miracle, does not necessarily exact any commitment from those who behold them. They may, if they choose, remain simply impressed, without considering the possible significance of the event for their lives. Even if they consider the event further, they may be mistaken in its significance (e.g., 3:22). But teaching involves “the word’ (2:2), which affords a clearer and more precise window into Jesus’ person and mission, and with it the possibility of greater understanding and commitment” (J R Edwards, op cit, 177).
but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics: This statement must be held in tension with the “take nothing” statement that precedes it. Every text has a context! As we have noted above, Matthew and Luke both have Jesus saying they should not wear sandals. Wearing or not wearing sandals is obviously not the issue. Freedom is the issue – the freedom to be Jesus’ messenger, the freedom to let the One who sent Jesus speak through the disciples and act in the disciples. An acquisitive or possessive attitude tends to be ego-centric, catering to felt need to be in control and the building of our kingdoms, rather than Jesus-centric, opening us to the ways of God and the coming of the kingdom. Don’t give ego-centricity any opportunity whatsoever!
A number of years ago I was listening to a presentation from Michael Leunig. He used the metaphor of a “small hole” that we have to fit through when we die. His point was, there is no room for baggage. A woman in the audience put up her hand. She said: “Michael, I work in a nursing home and we call the coffin the ultimate downsize!” Nothing is left in the end except ..... ?
In today’s Gospel – Mark 6:7-13 – we hear Jesus instruct the disciples: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in your belts; but wear sandals and don’t put on two tunics.” It is worth noting that both Matthew and Luke, in their accounts, report that Jesus told the disciples not to take a staff – see Matthew 10:10 and Luke 9:3, and not to wear sandals – see Matthew 10:10 and Luke 10:4. It is also worth noting that Jesus did not order them to go naked or eat no food! But what are we to make of it?
It may be helpful to start from where we are and shine a light on the modern Western mindset. We place great emphasis on acquiring property, knowledge, wealth ..... possessions of all kinds. History might eventually choose the garage sale as the quintessential symbol of our times. One day – the sooner the better – we will come to the realization that life is not about what we have or can acquire. It has much more to do with what we can do without.
There is a lovely story from the Zen tradition: “Nan-in received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is over-full! No more will go in!’ ‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’” (Paul Reps. compiler, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, A Doubleday Anchor Book, 5.)
Individualism, materialism and celebrity-ism create a thicket of unreality around us. T S Eliot, echoing St John of the Cross, challenges us with a deep wisdom: “In order to arrive at what you do not know/ You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance./ In order to possess what you do not possess/ You must go by the way of dispossession./ In order to arrive at what you are not/ You must go through the way in which you are not./ And what you do not know is the only thing you know/ And what you own is what you do not own/ And where you are is where you are not.” (T S Eliot, ‘East Coker,’ III, Four Quartets.)
Is it possible for us to get out of the way and let God be God in us?