Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (11 July 2021)
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!
Mark introduces us to Jesus when he encounters John the Baptist: John saw “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:10-11). An affirmation of Eternal Love! God knows he will need it. Then “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12-13). A dreadful harrowing occurs. It is a preparation for what is to follow. He is in occupied territory. His mission is to claim it back. So, when he emerges from the wilderness, he announces “‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’” (1:15). The reign of evil in the world is coming to an end. It will be replaced by the reign of God.
He calls some local fishermen to join him in this mission (1:16-20). They do. They almost certainly have little or no idea of what they have agreed to. Their first encounter with the reign of evil is in a synagogue. An “unclean spirit” cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (1:24). Ironically, a representative of the reign of evil announces the one who is to destroy the reign of evil. The evil spirits know what is happening before the religious authorities do. Indeed, it will be many months and after some devastatingly dark hours, before the fishermen – those closest to Jesus – really understand what is happening.
In today’s Gospel – Mark 6:7-13 – the fishermen are introduced to the mission: “Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits”. We are told little more than that “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them”. Notice, Jesus has not yet entrusted them with the ultimate task of proclaiming the reign of God, the Kingdom.
In fact, “Jesus forbids the news that he is the Messiah to be spread by the devils, 1:25, 34; 3:12, by those he cures, 1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, even by the apostles, 8:30; 9:9. The silence is not to be broken until after his death, Mt 10:27. Since the prevailing idea of the Messiah was nationalistic and warlike, in sharp contrast with his own ideal, Jesus had to be very careful, at least on Israelite soil, see 5:19, to avoid giving a false and dangerous impression of his mission” (Henry Wansbrough OSB, editor, The New Jerusalem Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1990, 1661-1662).
Those fishermen who have thrown in their lot with Jesus – and many millions since – will only be in a position to bear witness to the coming reign of God – and be able to counter the full force of the reign of evil – when they have been grasped by the reality of the cross and the empty tomb. Only then will they be able to set aside their own expectations and allow God to be God in them.