Texts: Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
There’s a man who doesn’t drive and is always walking around town. He’s been doing this for years and many people know him on sight, if not personally. Lately he’s taken to settling himself on a bench on the sidewalk and peacefully resting there for some time. He does nothing more than make friendly eye contact with passersby. And to his surprise, people have responded to him on a whole new level.
It seems that people have things to say, but no one to listen to them. Life has its complications of body and soul as we all know. And who knows the burdens that others are carrying around? But it seems that if you wait patiently on a bench, you will find out many unexpected and sometimes deeply shared things.
In a way, Jesus sent out seventy people with much the same task. He instructed them to take nothing more than the message that “’The kingdom of God has come near to you’”. Going as they did, with only the clothing on their backs, made them very vulnerable which Jesus pointed out, saying they would be“‘…like lambs in the midst of wolves’”.
They were not to get distracted along the way. Greeting people in those days was an elaborate ritual. Still today if you enter any shop in a Middle Eastern marketplace, you will be urged to have something to drink, to sit and rest, and answer many questions. These seventy were on a mission, with a time-sensitive message so they were to avoid stops that would delay them.
The only protection the seventy had, was to enter a house with the words, “Peace to this house”.
This word peace signified more than a good wish. Peace was a valuable entity, an aspect of a person’s soul. It could be shared without limitation, but if rejected would return to that soul.
If anyone responded with the same greeting it meant a receptive soul or spirit was in that place. And they spoke the welcome for the extended family – “house” meant all the adults and children who were kin. And under those circumstances the visitor from Jesus was to enter with peace.
There the visitor would remain while in that village or city. In that home they would sleep, take their meals, and in return for the hospitality offer the curative power with which Jesus had equipped them. And as then encouraging word of the worker spread in the community, others would come and be welcomed there.
In our minds this might seem like an artifact of bible times. People hearing about someone providing something desirable or helpful, and then crowding around to see what it was all about. But really, how is it different from sharing a blog that is especially helpful, which then goes viral? Information webs have been happening since the dawn of human community.
Inhospitality however, is another timeless feature of human interaction. Jesus warned the seventy to be ready to move on from some communities. The sad truth is, not everyone is ready for God’s peace. Even people who call themselves followers of Jesus’s way.
The seventy were released from any further obligation, taking not even the dust of the town on their feet as they left. Though this may seem harsh, we can understand it as a matter of not becoming overly dependent upon people’s approval of their mission. The mission was to keep moving God’s message along. It’s also likely that Luke knew his own community needed encouragement in the face of rejection for speaking about the good news of God in Jesus Christ.
The nearness of God’s kingdom was a joyful and positive thing. No wonder the seventy returned with the surprising news that not only had they cured sick people, but demons departed people whenever they spoke the name of Jesus. This hadn’t been part of their preparation. Jesus had equipped only the twelve disciples with the gift of casting out demons.
Jesus confirmed their experience. “I watched Satan fall from the heaven like a flash of lighting.” He also validated the source of their power which was the authority of his name, Jesus. But he reminded the seventy that, as spectacular and affirming as this might have been, it was not the most important thing about their work for the reign of God.
So what was the thing that really mattered? “‘…do not rejoice at this…but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’” said Jesus. And we all know what that means, right? No?
Jesus is referring to heaven, the house of God. He is conveying the idea of kinship with God, having the right of spiritual inheritance, and dwelling with God. A related notion in the Jewish scriptures is to have your name written in the book of life. God promises this gift to those who do mitzvot. These are righteous deeds in keeping with the Commandments.
So Jesus was telling the seventy that their great joy should not be that they had heavenly powers.
It should be in knowing that their work accomplished good things, restorative things which ultimately honor God. It’s a re-evaluation of what is really meaningful when it comes to power. The power to do good is better than any other kind of power. As heaven only knows.
This is not complicated stuff. A bus driver sees someone waiting on the street at a stop. When the bus stops the person hesitates, obviously searching frantically for the bus fare. The driver covers the fare box and says kindly, come board the bus, it’s okay. That’s a mitzvot. And a bus driver’s name is written in heaven.
A child sees a classmate with no lunch. She breaks her sandwich in two and offers to share. That’s a mitzvot. And a child’s name is written in heaven.
A car at the ferry tollbooth is there far too long. There seems to be some kind of problem about the ticket. In the car behind them two people confer. Other car drivers eye them looking for the usual frustration at the delay. But the car door opens and a person comes forward offering their ticket to be scanned. It’s a mitzvot. Two ferry riders have their names written in heaven.
A man sits on a bench several hours every day in a town in the San Juan Islands. He makes gentle eye contact with passersby. Some stop and even sit down to talk to him. It’s a mitzvot.
Another name is written in heaven. Such is the power of doing good. Heaven, it turns out, is never too full to accept another name. Including yours and mine.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.