A successful ad campaign reminds us about a certain credit card : “Don’t leave home without it !” Jesus, too, utilizes a series of “don’ts” to make a point as he sends the Twelve out from home : don’t take food, don’t take baggage, don’t take money -don’t even take a spare undershirt. It’s a pretty shocking set of orders - and if we’re not careful, our modern sensibilities can get stuck on the list and miss the whole because of the parts. That would be a shame, because there’s a lot to see and understand in this little account.
First, it would help to situate the story, to put it in its context within the narrative of Mark. So, we start by remembering last Sunday’s gospel : Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth were briefly impressed by his teaching, but then things turned ugly and they rejected him - it seems that Nathaniel wasn’t the only one in Palestine who couldn’t believe that “anything good could come out of Nazareth” !
In this Sunday’s story, “amazed by their lack of faith,” Jesus has moved on. But moving on is not giving up. In fact, he now begins to share his mission with the Twelve in a new way by sending them out without his close supervision. Jesus has been preaching the coming of the Kingdom through teaching and healing since the start of his Galilean ministry ; he’s modeled what he wants done. So now, having completed the first part of their “apprenticeship,” they go out to do likewise.
The urgency of the mission is reflected in Jesus’ action : his “sending out” of the apostles multiplies the spreading of the message by six. But if that’s the case, we ask, then why not send them out singly, which would multiply it by twelve ? In answer, Jesus might reply that, unlike the American Express Company, he is not interested in just getting things done. Urgency, yes. Expediency, no. By sending the Twelve out in pairs, Jesus teaches that mission is not so much a solo effort as it is something to be received and enacted in community. Together, the Twelve receive authority over unclean spirits, together they will preach repentance, together they will anoint the sick with oil. For those of us who’ve vowed to live in community, this can be a challenge as we live and work with people we haven’t chosen, who may or may not live up to our ideas concerning ideal partners in mission. And this challenge isn’t just for people in religious life. Clearly, the Church is Jesus’ community - how do we receive the mission and carry it out as Church ?
And what does the mission mean ? While Jesus has modeled the what and even the how of his mission, the deeper meaning of the actions he performs isn’t so clear to his friends. Our story of the first apostolic journeys of the Twelve is now going to be interrupted by the account of John the Baptist’s arrest and execution. When Mark picks up the thread again, he will show their joyful return to Jesus, but then quickly present the Twelve as unable to imagine any way that 5000 people could be fed with five loaves and two fish. Despite their newfound abilities to heal and to teach, it’s clear that they still have a lot to learn.
How and where will they learn what they need ? The rest of the gospel story, the story of the Church, really, is that they will learn it in community. Yes, their initial community learning is incomplete - we know how things are going to go as Jesus proceeds on his way. But by staying together, by acknowledging both their need of him and their need of each other, they do learn. Sure, it isn’t perfect — ever. That still holds true today. But, trusting him and each other, they continue to go out, to preach the Good News anyway. That’s what we’re called to do, too. Listening for and trying to answer this call make questions of extra sandals or undershirts - or even credit cards - pale in comparison.
Nuala Cotter, r.a.
Worcester - United States