This sending out by the Lord of the twelve disciples had a twofold purpose: salvation was being preached and offered, first of all, to the Chosen People; and, at the same time, the apostles were thereby being prepared for the commission Jesus would give them after His Resurrection to go out and preach the Good News to all mankind.
Let us look at this preparation of the Apostles. Above all they needed to gain confidence in the Lord who was sending them out on this their first mission, because this present mission to the Jewish people – who, though stiff-necked and rebellious, had, nevertheless, been gradually formed and prepared over 2000 years by God to hear the word of the Lord -- would be much easier than their future mission to the sophisticated pagans of the Roman Empire and to the relative ignorance and extreme violence of the uncivilized world beyond. However, Jesus made this mission to the People of Israel more difficult by His injunction that they were to:
Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick -- no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals, but not a second tunic.
On their return from ‘mission accomplished’ (Luke 22:35) Jesus asked them:
“When I sent you out without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?" So they said, "Nothing."
Evidently, their experience on this first mission to the People of Israel was such as to give them confidence that the Lord would be with them whatever their future needs.
Being sent out without bread, bag, or money in their belt, with only sandals on their feet, and, according to Matthew and Luke, without even taking a staff with them, would call to the minds of the apostles that they were on a most sacred journey, because, according to the Rabbis, people should not enter the Temple precincts with staff, shoes (notice, sandals were permitted) or with a money belt. The disciples were being sent out on God’s holy work, and nothing else was to fill their minds and hearts. They were to enter upon their proclamation of the Good News of salvation with the same dispositions of mind and heart as they would have on entering the Temple: seeking to worship God and give glory to His holy name; and for that their trust and confidence had to be secured by both faith in the Person, and confidence in the sure promises, of the Lord Jesus.
Today the Catholic, Universal, Church, continues the mission of the Apostles and the work is still the same: a supremely holy work to be done in the name of Jesus, and trusting in His Spirit; a work for the glory of the Father and in fulfilment of His plan for the salvation of mankind.
The response of men and women of our times and indeed, of all times, can be set out as Jesus put it before the Twelve. First of all, He was sending them out:
As lambs among wolves. (Luke 10:3),
With such a warning the Apostles should not have been surprised at anything. However, Jesus, in our Gospel reading today, deals first of all with the disciples’ response to those who would apparently welcome them:
Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave.
Matthew (10:11-13) adds a few more details:
Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out. And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.
They were to enquire, literally “question carefully”, about who might be “worthy” enough to give them hospitality. The fact of giving hospitality would not, of itself, be sufficient: for, on entering the house they were, indeed, to give it their greeting and blessing; but if the house, that is, the people within it, proved to be unworthy, that blessing of peace would return to them. Jesus would personally guarantee the blessing of His Apostles, but it was not to be pronounced lightly nor given unconditionally: for the offer -- even the actual gift -- of hospitality was not enough, it had to be made, given, in the right spirit:
If (the house) is not worthy, let your peace return to you.
People of God, there we have something which people today, even modern Catholic people, might find remarkable, indeed, somewhat unpalatable, for it is quite obvious that, for Jesus -- and He wanted His disciples to have the same attitude as Himself -- those who received the apostles sent in His name, were the ones receiving a blessing, and they were the ones who would, and should, ultimately be grateful. Not that the Apostles should not feel or express gratitude for hospitality received, but that they were in no way to feel beholden to their hosts: for those hosts would be rewarded, superabundantly, by the Lord Himself, not only by the blessing of the Apostles given in return for whatever kindness and assistance had been provided.
This appreciation is confirmed for us when Jesus goes on to tell His Apostles:
Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.
The symbolic gesture of shaking off the dust from their feet in testimony against that place and the people living there would serve as an indication that the ban of the Lord was resting upon that place. In the legislation of the book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel were instructed (13:17):
Nothing from that which is put under the ban shall cling to your hand.
The Rabbis’ teaching explained that anything of this sort, clinging to a person, was metaphorically called “the dust”: for example “the dust of an evil tongue”, “the dust of usury”. With such a background we can understand the significance and awesome threat implied in the Lord’s command to His Apostles:
Shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.
Who would, however, be so foolish as to incur the ban of the Lord? Our first reading taken from the book of the prophet Amos showed us: for Bethel was the royal sanctuary of the Northern Kingdom of Israel which had separated from Judah, and the Lord had sent Amos to warn the Israelites of the dangers threatening them. However, when Amos proclaimed the word of the Lord, Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, told him to pack off back to Judah saying:
Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and a royal temple.
Amaziah, however, even though he was the chief priest of the royal and national sanctuary was only one priest. Was he really typical of the Israelites: what were the people as a whole like? Listen to Amos speaking (Amos 3:15) in the name of the Lord about others in the Northern Kingdom:
I will destroy the winter house along with the summer house; the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall have an end.
Obviously, many Israelites of the North Kingdom ignored the word of the Lord because they were engrossed with their enjoyment of the ‘dolce vita’: winter and summer houses as splendid as if they were made all of ivory; and just listen how they lived it up!
Woe to you who lie on beds of ivory, stretch out on your couches, eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idly to the sound of stringed instruments, and invent for yourselves musical instruments like David; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint yourselves with the best ointments, but are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. (Amos 6:4-7)
Now, there are many such people in our modern and prosperous Western society who are replete with and delight in possessions and pleasures, power and prestige, but have no concern for the ruin of the Church; anxiously seeking the approval of men and fullness of their earthly life, they have little time or use for the Word of the Lord. Will the ban of the Lord be on them? Was it on the luxurious Israelites in Samaria? Hear the prophet’s words:
(They) are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph, therefore they shall now go captive as the first of the captives, and those who recline at banquets shall be removed. (Amos 6:6-7)
Listen again to the prophet Amos (7:17) speaking this time directly to Amaziah the priest in charge of the royal sanctuary:
Thus says the LORD: 'Your wife shall be a harlot in the city; your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword; your land shall be divided by survey line; you shall die in a defiled land; and Israel shall surely be led away captive from his own land.'
That, People of God, is the background to Our Lord’s words to His Apostles:
Whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them.
What is, what can be, the modern significance of such threats against those who similarly reject, disdain, the known Gospel? Should the Gospel be proclaimed using words of doom and destruction? No, the Scriptures are for our guidance, comfort, and understanding, not for a weapon to brandish against our brethren; nevertheless, they are not empty, nor should we be ashamed of them.
Today, God is widely held to be bound, even stifled, by our human rights … He cannot punish, He actions must always be patient of our appreciation and approval, He must be always kind in our way, never causing suffering of any sort … whereas the Scriptures show what God has in fact done, and allowed to be done in His name. His unsearchable wisdom and goodness, His incomparable knowledge and understanding of the creature He has made, His boundless appreciation of human possibilities in the destiny He is preparing for them along with His unerring awareness of what would be the ultimate results of humankind’s indulged selfishness and pride, above all His divine Love and enduring mercy guarantee the ultimate righteousness, beauty, and saving truth of all that He has done and will do.
Such examples, such warnings, are for us, for the modern apostles, that we may have true awareness of the vital importance and pressing urgency of the gospel proclamation for the salvation of souls; it is a gospel not to be watered-down for lukewarm conformity with modern humanistic thinking. Centuries ago the French revolution first opened up the paths of our present-day exaltation of man and rejection of God, and one of its supreme leaders and logicians was Robespierre who has merited a modern biography entitled ‘Fatal purity’ of which one prominent reviewer was able to say that it proved there are monsters of virtue as well as monsters of vice! How much fatal purity is being pedalled today, how many monsters of virtue are basking in the sun of human approval and praise!!
But what are the promises of the Lord? What are the blessings he wants to bestow on us; the blessings reserved in heaven for those who embrace His Gospel and live through love in Him? Listen to our second reading again:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before Him. In love He destined us for adoption to Himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favour of His will, for the praise of the glory of His grace that He granted us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption by His blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of His grace that He lavished upon us. In Him you also who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the first instalment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s possession, to the praise of His glory.
Elsewhere Paul -- finding himself quite unable to express the wonder of our calling and the blessings that await us -- simply contents himself with quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. (1 Corinthians 2:9)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, may those promises be fulfilled, those blessings be bestowed, upon you who are now listening to the Word of the Lord with faith and will later go out from this gathering with love and trust enough in your hearts to try to live it in your daily lives.