Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus summoned the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for their journey but a walking stick – no food no sack, no money in their belts. Mark 6, 7-13

This story of Jesus inviting his disciples to share in his mission is repeated in both Matthew (10, 1-16) and Luke (9, 1-6). While all three evangelists stress the fact that Jesus instructed the twelve to travel lightly and to trust in the hospitality of those open to receive their message, Matthew goes into greater detail regarding the instructions the disciples were given. What stands out in all three accounts is the fact that Jesus empowered the twelve to drive out evil spirits from anyone they encountered whose lives were afflicted by such.

These days, tertiary students preparing for internships and practical experiences in teaching, nursing, medicine and any other profession are thoroughly prepared before they venture out. Jesus’ apostles seem to have embarked on their mission practice with little more preparation than their having observed Jesus in action as he went about teaching, preaching and healing. Moreover, they had just witnessed how he and his message were rejected by the people of his own hometown (Last Sunday’s gospel-reading). That was clear indication that they, too, could get the same treatment.

Mark gives his audience no hints as to the extent that the disciples might have integrated and processed what they had witnessed as they accompanied Jesus. So, with seemingly little preparation, other than being empowered to cast out devils, they were dispatched in twos to go into unknown territory with no lecture notes, lesson plans or extra clothes, and no money to get by with in case of emergency. Scripture scholars have puzzled over this situation for centuries. The most satisfying explanation I have been able to find comes from the renowned Italian, Jesuit Marco Fausti (1940-2015) who, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, Ricorda e Racconta il Vangelo (Remember and Tell the Gospel) suggests that the disciples were directed to take nothing with them to stop them from relying on things they could stuff into their bags. He went on to comment on the fact that people often become over-reliant on what they have accumulated, believing that they will impress others if they have hand-outs to distribute. If we have no props, we have nothing to share with others except what we have within our hearts. – our convictions, our values, our beliefs, our accumulated wisdom (Marco Fausti, SJ, Ricorda e Racconta il Vangelo, Ancora, 2012). Authenticity comes from within.

We’ve all seen people involved in leadership or in ministries of accompaniment who seem to subscribe to the view that the best way of helping those in their care to grow is to create difficulties for them to deal with. It’s the philosophy that if something is difficult, it’s bound to be good for the growth and development of others. However, by instructing his disciples to travel lean and light, Jesus wasn’t trying to make things difficult for them. He was making the point that what they had to offer had to come from deep within. It was not something that could be put into a bag or a wallet. And isn’t that an appropriate message for us, as well? As we have grown in our commitment to Jesus and his Gospel, what we have learned and integrated into our lives is not contained in handouts, notes or donations. It is to be seen in the integrity of our daily lives, in the ways in which we engage with everyone we meet.

Like Amos in today’s first reading, the disciples were being sent out by Jesus to get a taste of being prophets of the kingdom of God. Amos had been commissioned by God to venture into hostile territory. He was directed to cross State boundaries, to go from the Southern to the Northern Kingdom of Israel prophesying destruction. Having declared publicly that King Jeroboam would die by the sword and that his people would be taken into exile, Amos was accused of intruding as a foreigner and plotting against a kingdom to which he did not belong. His accuser, Amaziah, a priest of Bethel and confidant of the king, upset by the proclamations of Amos, set out to rid the Northern Kingdom of the trouble-maker: “Use your brains, and get out of town, if you know what’s good for you.” However, Amaziah did not appreciate the measure of the man with whom he was dealing. Amos was not prepared to give in to threats and bullying. In the verses that follow, he reveals that he is a reluctant prophet who has come to the seat of power only in obedience to God. His preference would have been to stay back on his farm, tending his cattle and pruning his trees. As so often happens, genuine prophets end up being a threat to those in power and disturbing their comfort. The verses which follow (not included in today’s reading) show that Amos did not cave in to Amaziah’s pressure. Instead, he made a withering utterance regarding the destruction that would befall Amaziah and his family, and reduce Jeroboam and the Northern Kingdom to utter insignificance.

This reading points up the harshness with which those who proclaim the message of God’s kingdom are often confronted. Those who are threatened by that message respond by wanting to shoot the messenger. Jesus was pressured to leave his own town of Nazareth by people whose minds were closed to anything new. Accepting the new is accompanied by a need to change, to move out of one’s comfort zone. That’s something that many people, including us, are reluctant to do. The disciples saw how Jesus was treated by those who supposedly knew him. That was an object lesson for them, a warning that they, too, might have to cope with hostile receptions.

All that said, I’m not convinced that Amos is being held up to us as a model to be imitated. True, he was bringing a challenge of reform to a heedless group of powerful people, but that’s surely not a licence to be obnoxious and vindictive. Amos responded to Amaziah’s fire with more vicious fire. Jesus responded to rejection more evenly, stating that there was little that even he could do for a people whose minds and hearts were closed. Moreover, he advised his disciples to deal with unreceptiveness merely by “shaking the dust from their feet” and moving to where they had a better chance of being made welcome.

What’s more, by advising the disciples to trust in the hospitality of complete strangers, he wasn’t suggesting that they take advantage of those who welcomed them. The Semitic people of the Old Testament were all conscious of making sure that strangers were made welcome. They regarded hospitality as a sacred duty. So, Jesus was not putting his disciples into circumstances which might create embarrassment for them. Today’s readings challenge us all to take seriously our vocation to proclaim by our living the message that God’s love and mercy, God’s compassion and justice are for all of humankind. There is nothing to be gained by getting upset or vindictive when our efforts to share God’s message are ignored or not even noticed. What matters most is that what we say and do emanates from within. We leave the rest to God.