Understand the Text: Our Last Chance

Luke 10:1–16

After this the master commissioned seventy others, and sent them ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he was intending to come.
There’s a great harvest out there,’ he said to them, ‘but there aren’t many workers. So plead with the harvest-master to send out workers for the harvest.
‘Off you go now. Remember, I’m sending you out like lambs among wolves. Take no money-bag, no pack, no sandals—and don’t stop to pass the time with anyone on the road. Whenever you go into a house, first say, “Peace on this house.” If a child of peace lives there, your peace will rest on them; but if not, it will return to you.
‘Stay in the same house, and eat and drink what they provide. The worker deserves to be paid, you see. Don’t go from house to house. If you go into a town and they welcome you, eat what is provided, heal the sick who are there, and say to them, “God’s kingdom has come close to you.” But if you go into a town and they don’t welcome you, go out into the streets of the town and say, “Here is the very dust of your town clinging to our feet—and we’re wiping it off in front of your eyes! But you should know this: God’s kingdom has come close to you!” Let me tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.
‘Woe betide you, Chorazin! Woe betide you, Bethsaida! If the powerful deeds done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum—you want to be lifted up to heaven, do you? No: you’ll be sent down to Hades!
‘Anyone who hears you, hears me; anyone who rejects you, rejects me; and anyone who rejects me, rejects the one who sent me.

I had lunch with a friend who told me how, earlier in the year, his teenage son had been taken seriously ill. For weeks he had been going to doctors and specialists, all of whom had been puzzled by his symptoms. Finally he went to a senior specialist, who put an end to the speculation. ‘Take him to the hospital at once,’ he said. ‘We’ll operate tomorrow.’ He had discovered a brain tumor, which was removed with great skill and without lasting damage. Had they waited another day it might have been too late.

Something of that mood hangs over the story of Jesus’ second sending out of followers. This time, when Jesus sends messengers to the places he intends to visit, there is a note of real urgency. He knows he will not pass this way again; if people don’t respond to his mission this time, it may be too late. He is the last herald before the great debacle that will come on the nation if they don’t pay attention. If they reject him, there can be no subsequent warning. If they delay, it may be too late.

Only Luke tells us of a mission of seventy, and there are two puzzles about this. First, some manuscripts read ‘seventy-two’, instead of ‘seventy’, and there has been much discussion about which is correct. Second, whichever it is, why was this number chosen (either by Jesus or Luke)? Was there a symbolic meaning for it?

The answer to both questions may be that once again Luke is seeing Jesus in the light of Moses, who on one occasion chose seventy elders of Israel, who were given a share in God’s spirit, and were thereby equipped to help him lead the people of Israel (Numbers 11:16, 25). On that occasion two others who were not part of the original seventy also received the spirit, to the alarm of some. The point will then be that Jesus is sending out assistants to help in leading the new exodus.

But in the original exodus the Israelites rebelled, grumbled and didn’t want to go the way God was leading. That, indeed, was the main reason why Moses needed extra help. In Jesus’ work, too, many if not most of his contemporaries simply didn’t want to know. Despite all his healings, and the power and shrewdness of his teaching, the way he wanted them to follow—the way which he knew would lead them to God’s true exodus—was simply not the way they wanted. Thus it had been since his first sermon at Nazareth; thus it was to be right up to his last days in Jerusalem.

At the heart of his call was the message of peace. ‘Peace to this house,’ the messengers were to say, looking to see whether there was a ‘child of peace’ there. Jesus’ contemporaries were for the most part not wanting peace—peace with their traditional enemies the Samaritans, or peace with the feared and hated Romans. They wanted an all-out war that would bring God’s justice swiftly to their aid and get rid of their enemies once and for all.

But Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom, and of God’s justice, was going in the opposite direction. As far as he was concerned, the idea of fighting evil with evil was like the children of Israel wanting to go back to Egypt. Other movements had tried the way of violence, with disastrous results. But his rejection of that way was not based simply on pragmatic considerations. It grew directly out of his knowledge and love of Israel’s God as the God of generous grace and astonishing, powerful, healing love. This was the God whose life-giving power flowed through him to heal; this was the God to whose kingdom he was committed.

His messengers therefore had to go with a word of warning as well as of invitation. To refuse this message would mean courting the disaster of going the opposite way from God himself; and that would mean, as always, throwing oneself into the hands of pagan power. The judgment that would fall on Chorazin and Bethsaida in central Galilee, and on Jesus’ own town of Capernaum, would be more terrible than that suffered by the wicked cities of the Old Testament, but it would not consist of fire falling from heaven. It would take the form of Roman invasion and destruction. Rome’s punishment for rebel subjects would be the direct result of God’s people turning away from God’s way of peace.

This explains the urgency and sternness of Jesus’ charge to the seventy. They were not offering people a new religious option which might have a gentle effect on their lives. They were holding out the last chance for people to turn away from Israel’s flight into ruin, and to accept God’s way of peace. God’s kingdom—God’s sovereign and saving rule, longing to enfold his people and the whole world with love and new creation—had come close to them. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the showdown with the forces of evil and injustice. To reject him now, or even to reject his messengers, was to reject God himself.

Tom Wright

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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