For the past six weeks or so and on every Sunday until the end of November, we are reading at Sunday Mass the unfolding story of the public life of Jesus as presented in St Mark’s Gospel. This is the first of the four Gospels to be written and is dated some 35-45 years after the Resurrection. Mark was a companion of St Peter and it’s believed that he was the main source for the information about Jesus in this Gospel.
In today’s reading we hear of Jesus appointing the Twelve ‘apostles’ and sending them out ahead of him as missionaries. As he, Jesus, lived an itinerant and precarious life-style, he expected the same of his apostles. Living as he did, they were to share in his the ministry by doing the things he did i.e. confronting evil (as it was understood at the time), tending to the sick and calling on people to a necessary change or conversion of heart if they wished to be part of his ‘kingdom’ or new community.
On their journey from village to village, Jesus allows them to take a staff or walking stick as well as wearing sandals. While some popular preachers of the time went totally barefoot, Jesus prescribed footwear to enable them to speedily negotiate the rocky and mountainous roads. The staff would serve a two-fold purpose: a support for walking and also for fending off the bandits who were known to attack people, especially those travelling alone – hence, Jesus telling the apostles to travel in twos. No other possessions were allowed. Why? Because Jesus wanted them to be totally dependent on God to provide for them through the hospitality of others, as well as not having any baggage to slow them down on their urgent mission.
When they reached a place where they were welcomed, Jesus ordered them to remain in the same house. By the time Mark wrote this Gospel it appears that some missionaries were ignoring this rule and choosing better lodgings when they could.
A text known as the Didache, a first-century Christian document contemporaneous with Mark’s Gospel, bears this out:
Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the Gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet. (Did 11:3-6)
The instructions from Jesus and in the Didache were intended to counteract practices by bogus preachers who used preaching as a mask for moneymaking. TV evangelists promising miracles for money didn’t originate in the last century … money and religion have always had their cowboys! The disciples of Jesus were to focus on the mission given to them, not on their own comforts.
If the missionaries experienced hostility or abuse they were not to hang around, said Jesus, but move on, shaking the soil of the place from their feet as they left. At the time whenever Jews were returning to the Holy Land, they would shake Gentile dust from their feet. Now Jesus says that his missionaries were to do the same when they leave a village or hamlet that did not welcome them.
A final detail in Jesus’ instructions is that they were to anoint the sick with oil. Olive oil was a common remedy then. Although the Gospels don’t record Jesus using oil in his care of the sick, St Mark’s inclusion of it here may reflect the early Church practice contained in the New Testament Letter of St James and which is recited by a priest whenever he anoints a sick person today:
Are there people sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up. If they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them.
In hearing Jesus’ instructions to the Twelve, are there any that resonate with you?
The one that most strikes me most at the moment is his insistence that his disciples ‘travel light’. They were not to be slowed down by carrying possessions. Perhaps, in this Gospel now, Jesus is challenging us to the same? On the rocky paths of life that we have to negotiate, do we really need everything we own (including the clutter) for a meaningful life? Is Jesus challenging us to be less attached to things and more dependent instead on God providing what we truly need?
If you own something and cannot give it away, you don’t own it – it owns you.(Albert Schweitzer)
So regarding our belongings, what do they say about us and where our true heart lies?
Holy Name, Jesmond
11 July 2021