–– Sito di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA –– Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa A missionary look on the life of the world and the church –– VIDA y MISIÓN – VIE et MISSION – VIDA e MISSÃO ––
“I have no peace.” It’s a confidence that, at a time of particular discomfort, more than one has shown us. Perhaps the friend who had an abortion, or a spouse who was involved in an unmanageable emotional bond or a neighbor tormented by a desire to take revenge for a wrong suffered and did not succeed, or a street girl humiliated and exploited. “I have no peace” those responsible for crimes, wars, traders of tools of death if they were not stunned by power and money, would shout. “I have no peace” those engaging in immoral activity, those who commit injustices, but go on with the mind clouded by success, money, and lies of flatterers, would repeat.
This is the world into which Jesus sends his disciples not to condemn, to curse against corruption and bad morals or to threaten divine punishment, but to announce the peace that everyone—many unconsciously—are desperately seeking.
Considering the reality we live in, it really takes a great faith to imagine that it is possible to build a world where peace reigns. It is easier to believe that God exists than to keep hope in universal peace. Yet this is the mission entrusted to the disciples.
Christians have tried to build peace, but not always with the means suggested by the Master who wanted them to be “lambs among wolves.” Sometimes they preferred to resort to force, imposition, and intolerance. They are also cloaked in power, like the kings of this world. They have not always walked—poor, meek, defenseless—alongside people in need of peace. Not always walk like Francis of Assisi has done it—to have his name written in heaven.
“The Lord appointed seventy-two other disciples and sent them two and two ahead of him to every town and places where he himself was to go” (v. 1). Today’s Gospel thus begins. This information is rather surprising because, earlier, Jesus had already sent the twelve disciples to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick, urging them not to take anything with them, “neither staff, nor bag, no bread, no money, and don’t even take a spare tunic … “ (Lk 9:1-6). Who are these seventy-two that appear suddenly and will no longer be remembered later? Theirs is a strange mission also because it is hard to imagine Jesus going after as many as 36 pairs responsible to prepare the ground for him.
It is the story of an apostolic initiative undertaken by Jesus and reinterpreted by the evangelist as a catechesis he intends to give to his community.
We are in Asia Minor in the second half of the first century. Despite difficulties and persecution, Christians continue to engage themselves in the announcement of the Gospel. However, there were many questions that arise: Does God reveal his Gospelthrough visions, dreams, and apparitions or is there a need for someone to proclaim it? Is the message of salvation for all, or is it reserved for a privileged few? What methods do we use to convince people to accept it? How to present ourselves to people and what have we to tell them? Are words enough or are signs necessary? What to do if we are refused? Will our work be crowned with success?
To these questions, Luke responds by narrating the sending of disciples on a mission. He is not giving a chronicler’s report, but a theological text in which literary devices are used.
The number seventy-two is certainly symbolic. Referring to the list that is found in Genesis 10, the ancients had established that the peoples of the world were seventy or seventy-two. On the Feast of Tabernacles, seventy bulls were sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem to implore God for the conversion of each of the pagan nations.
In the communities of Luke, Christians of pagan origin need to overcome the inferiority complex that some felt towards the children of Abraham, to end all forms of discriminations they themselves introduce according to ethnic origin, cultural traditions, social position, temperament, character, customs, the lifestyle of everyone.
Saying that Jesus sent seventy-two disciples (v. 1), the evangelist wants to say that salvation is not a privilege reserved for just some, but is for all, without exception.
The messengers are sent in pairs. This indicates that the Gospel is not left to the inventiveness of the individual, but is the work of a community. Who speaks in the name of Christ does not act independently, he or she is in communion with the brothers and sisters in the faith. The first missionaries—Peter and John (Acts 8:14), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1)—did not only go two by two, but they were also “sent” and felt to represent their community.
The purpose of the missioning: to prepare the city and the villages for the coming of the Lord. Jesus arrives after his messengers, not before. The task given to each apostle is not to represent himself, but to dispose the minds and hearts of the people to accept Christ in their lives.
To fulfill this mission, the disciple must prepare himself. Jesus suggests the way to do it: “Pray the Lord of the harvest” (v. 2).
Prayer is not intended to persuade God to send laborers into His harvest (this obviously would not make sense) but is intended to transform the disciple into an apostle. It gives him balance, good disposition, inner peace; frees him from pride, presumption. It enables him to overcome opposition, disappointments, and failures; it reveals to him, moment by moment, the will of the “Lord of the harvest.”
The wolf is a symbol of violence, arrogance. The lamb indicates gentleness, weakness, and frailty. It can escape from the aggression of the wolf only if the minister intervenes in its defense.
The rabbis said that the people of Israel were a lamb surrounded by seventy wolves (the Gentiles) who wanted to devour it. Jesus applies this comparison to his disciples: he says that they have to behave like lambs (v. 3). It is, therefore, necessary that they be vigilant so that the feelings of wolves may not arise in their hearts: anger, greed, and resentment, the desire to dominate and bully. These feelings lead in fact to the actions of the wolves: the abuse of power, aggression, violence, insults, and lies. The history of the Church confirms that, when Christians are transformed into wolves, they have always failed their mission.
Briefly, “behaving like wolves” can give results, but it is a fleeting success. Jesus saved the world by behaving like sheep, not a wolf. The choice of means for the mission is in keeping with the image of the weak and helpless lamb (v. 4). Jesus states them in a negative way: no purse, no bag, no sandals.
To impose itself, a political movement or ideology needs effective tools: money, weapons, and support of influential people. The apostle must resist the temptation to resort to such means to spread the Gospel and to build the Kingdom of God. The Church loses credibility when she wants to compete with the political and economic powers. One who cannot give up these human securities, who has not the courage to put his trust only in the power of the Word that he announces and in the protection of the Shepherd, will not be recognized as a witness of the Kingdom, composed only of “lambs.”
Along the way, the disciples must not greet anyone (v. 4). This is not, obviously, a provision to be taken literally, but of an indication that underlines the urgency of the mission.
When one thinks that the right time to speak of Christ has arrived, from where one must start? The messages that non-believers seem to have better understood from Christians are those relating to certain moral demands: inadmissibility of divorce, obligation to attend Mass on holy days of obligation, respect and submission to the hierarchy of the Church, God’s punishments for those who do not observe the Commandments … Must the conversation start from these issues? Not at all!
The Gospel is good news. Here are the words with which the disciple presents himself: I have come to announce peace; bringing peace to you, to your family, to your home (v. 5). This is a proclamation that gives comfort, inspires awe, hope, and joy! If among the listeners there will be a “man of peace,” if there is someone willing to open his heart to Christ, peace, and the fullness of life and good will come down on him (v. 6).
To express his gratitude, one who has heard the announcement could invite the missionary in his home and offer him his bread (v. 7). The apostle—Jesus recommends—accepts the invitation, does not broach his claims, is content with frugal food that is set before him and adapts himself to the traditions and customs of your host, without looking askance at his habits and traditions; not afraid of being contaminated because of the food, because no food and no creature is impure (v. 8). This statement was of great interest in Luke’s time when many were hesitant to share meals with the Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14; Acts 11:2-3; 1 Cor 10:27).
In what does the work of evangelization consist? Is the announcement sufficient or must this be confirmed by signs? The words—says Jesus—must be accompanied by concrete gestures of charity: care for the sick, assistance to the poor (v. 9). Where no change is noticed, any change in the condition of people and society, the Kingdom of God has not yet come.
The Gospel can be welcomed, but also refused. How to behave oneself in dealing with the opposition? Jesus clarifies thus: the missionaries are to go to the public square and in front of all the people, shake the dust from their feet. Sodom and Gomorrah will be treated with less severity than that city (vv. 10-12).
These are hard words to understand and even more to accept. Taken literally they contradict the rest of the Gospel. Just think of the reaction of Jesus towards James and John who wanted to call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans (Lk 9:55).
God does not get angry, seek revenge, or punish whoever does not accept his Word. He is only goodness and mercy and loves always. Jesus uses here the language and imagery of his people. He speaks of God’s punishment to show the disastrous consequences the rejection of the Gospel entails. Who does not accept his word becomes responsible for his own unhappiness; he is devoid of peace. It is meaningful that the threatening scene of the judgment pronounced by the missionaries over the city ends in every case with a word of salvation: “Know that the Kingdom of God has come to you.”
Having fulfilled their mission, the seventy-two return with joy and refer to Jesus the results. He responds: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (v. 18). When the Bible speaks of Satan it does not mean the despicable and ugly being that is still portrayed in some paintings. It refers to the forces of evil: hatred, violence, injustice, pride, love of money, the unruly passions … .
Saying that Satan fell from heaven, Jesus proclaims the unstoppable victory of good. With the proclamation of the Gospel, the kingdom of evil began to collapse. Then he continues: “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions, and to overcome all the power of the enemy so that nothing will harm you” (v. 19). Here is another biblical image. Like Satan, the serpent and the scorpion are symbols of evil (cf. Gen 3:15; Ps 91:13). Jesus does not promise that his envoys will not encounter oppositions and difficulty. There will be dangerous animals, but they will be “trampled” by the disciple.
The Master’s words suggest the idea of an easy, amazing victory (like lightning); they seem to reduce the long march that leads humanity to the kingdom of God to a comfortable stroll. The reality—we experience it every day—is not so simple nor so cheerful.
Evil reacts in a tough and violent way. It’s enough to think how much it costs, for example, winning a vice, overcoming a bad habit and how the smart, the powerful and the corrupt ones continue to triumph in the world. But Jesus, looking at the end result, notes that evil has already lost its force. These words echo a conviction of pessimism, a denial of who does nothing but complain and dejectedly repeats that the world is getting worse.
Whoever has put his trust in Christ and in his Word has his name written in heaven, that is, has become part of the Kingdom of God (v. 20). This is the reason for the joy he feels and announces to everyone. Although realistically he admits that the successes are limited and difficult and that the road is still long, he rejoices because he already foresees the goal.
Italian missionary and biblical scholar