How many countries are there in the world? Thanks to Google, I can tell you there are 193 that are member states of the United Nations, and a further two that are non-member observer states: the Holy See and the State of Palestine. So the answer is, roughly, 195 in all.

In first century Palestine, if you asked Jesus this question he’d tell you there was no more than 72 countries making up the world. Thus it is suggested by some Scripture commentators that this number lay behind him choosing the 72 people mentioned in today’s Gospel. These were the second group of missionaries he appointed after he had previously chosen the 12 apostles.

The choosing of 12 apostles, his first missionaries, was to signify that as the Israelite people had been founded on 12 tribes, Jesus would found his new community, the ‘new’ Israel, on 12 people. This number was so important for the first Christians that when one of them, Judas, died, they quickly chose another, Matthias, to replace him.

The instructions Jesus gave to the 72 missionaries contained curious restrictions – no walking sticks, no backpacks, no sandals (footwear) and no greeting people on the way. Why these restrictions? Without a staff or big walking stick you would be defenceless on roads notorious for muggers and robbers. Without a bag or rucksack of some kind, you’d have no way of carrying a change of clothes or some food for the road. And no matter how tough your feet were, you couldn’t run from danger on that rocky Palestinian terrain without something on your feet.

The force of the instructions is that Jesus wanted his missionaries to travel lightly and to have a serious and urgent sense of purpose in carrying out the mission he gave them. Hence, ‘salute no one on the road’ i.e. don’t waste time chatting or gossiping with people. And their lack of possessions was to increase their dependence and trust in God’s providence.

What can we learn from this? Perhaps it is a strong reminder, if we need it, that we also need to travel lightly on our journey through life; and to have a greater trust in God’s providence and less on our own possessions and status? With all our worries, responsibilities and commitments to others, it can be so easy to forget that this earthly world is not our permanent home. We’re just passing through.

On a more joyful note, the task Jesus gave these missionaries was to help people have a better relationship with a loving and merciful God. Jesus wanted people to know God as a loving Father who cares for his children. On the other hand, the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading – speaking of the joy that would follow for the Israelites returning to Jerusalem from exile – God is presented as a mother who consoles her children at her breasts and dandies them on her lap.

In an age of increasing and, at times, fierce disputes over gender, trans rights and preferred pronouns, what does Isaiah’s image of God as a mother breastfeeding her children say to us?

Michael Campion
Holy Name Jesmond
3 July 2022

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