By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
For Jesus followers in the US, this week’s Gospel offers a powerful counter-narrative to the flag-waving patriotism of the 4th of July. Nearly every detail challenges those of us who live and thrive at the heart of empire to reconsider which “sacred story” binds us together as a people.
We pick up Luke’s narrative immediately after last week’s Gospel, in which Jesus rejects a series of excuses for not committing to the Way of discipleship fully and now. He sends a symbolic group of seventy disciples ahead of him to scout out welcoming venues for the Word. The number “seventy” matches the legendary number of third century BCE sages who brought the Hebrew Scriptures to the Greek-speaking world via the translation known as the “Septuagint,” the version of the Hebrew Scriptures known to Luke. It expressed in its time the controversial movement of the Scriptures beyond the Israelites to the Hellenistic (“Gentile”) world, a theme Luke will take up in Acts. Here, it symbolically affirms Jesus’s evangelistic mission. But before they depart, he counsels them on how to respond to the provision or refusal of local hospitality.
He begins with a pair of eschatological metaphors that put their mission into a cosmic context. The first image of a bountiful harvest in need of laborers expresses a reality familiar to imperial agriculture: a commercial venture that cannot be completed by local labor, but requires the hiring of short-term workers (cf. Matt 20.1-16). The harvest metaphor also evokes prophetic warnings about God breaking in to gather together people whose lives have “born fruit” and casting off those whose lives have been fruitless (e.g., Joel 3.13). The second image is of the disciples as “lambs” in the midst of “wolves.” This echoes the apocalyptic text of 1 Enoch, where the Israelites are “sheep” amid the Egyptian “wolves” (1 Enoch 89.18-25). As always, apocalyptic texts point to matters of ultimate importance. Here, the reference calls Jesus’s followers to be nonviolent and vulnerable in the face of the “wolves” of empire, the opposite of what James and John had fantasized about in their attempt to replicate Elijah’s calling down fire from heaven (Lk 9.54-55; 2 Kg 10-14).
Jesus continues by counseling his advance team to practice the gift economy: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…” (10.4). What a scandal this is to our global capitalist system of scarcity and debt! They/we are simply to trust that there will be people of “peace” who will provide food and shelter for wandering strangers, like Abraham and Sarah did (Gen 18.1-8; cf. Hebrews 13.1-2). The disciples are expected to announce that they come in the name of peace, offering it to those whose houses they enter (Lk 10.5). If there is no one of peace there, the disciples must themselves, however, remain “children of peace” (10.6, Gk, huios eirēnēs).
And if hospitality is refused? No fire from heaven, says Jesus. Rather, Jesus counsels “wiping” (Lk 10.11; Gk, apomassometha, stronger than Mark 6.11’s “shake,” Gk, ektinaxate) the town’s dust from one’s feet, as an act of letting go rather than seeking vengeance.
Yet curiously, the lectionary omits Luke 10.12-15 from the reading, thereby missing one of the central points of the larger passage. The harvest/judgment comes not to individuals, but to cities. This theme emerges first in verse 8: “Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you…” For Luke’s elite audience, cities were the places of identity, honor and constant interurban competition. Jesus has already rejected his hometown, Nazareth, for seeking to gain comparative advantage via the spreading fame of their local son. Now, he lambasts three local towns (Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum) for being inhospitable, comparing them to Sodom, who famously rejected the very visitors hosted by Abraham and Sarah (Gen 19; cf. Ezek 16.49). Jesus makes explicit that God’s judgment is not only on individuals (which it also is; see Luke 16.19-31), but falls primarily upon whole communities who embody the “religion of empire,” in this case, suspicion of or hostility to strangers and outsiders. Shockingly, he praises two historically imperial cities (Tyre and Sidon) for showing more potential for repentance than these local towns, evoking the image of the city of Nineveh’s donning penitential sackcloth—from king to cow— after Jonah’s reluctant preaching (Jonah 3.5-8).
For those of us raised with the nonbiblical, Hellenistic theology of individual salvation, Jesus’s condemnation of inhospitable communities can—and should—sound deeply disturbing. For example, our own metropolitan Puget Sound region has experienced, amid an enormously booming economy, a doubling of homelessness in the past few years (see http://www.homelessinfo.org/what_we_do/one_night_count/2016_results.php). We see this same phenomenon in many “prospering” cities across the nation, where the wealthy elite gentrify and displace communities of color and the poor are pushed aside. Further, anti-immigrant rhetoric, fueled by the unhinged violence of Trumpspeak, has gained enormous force, despite the plain and clear evidence that immigrants strengthen local economies (e.g., http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/us-cities-immigrants-economy/398987/). We need not belabor the sad irony of a nation of immigrants, having sickened, murdered and displaced the local peoples across the land, shutting the door of hospitality behind us. Rather, Jesus’s Word calls us to clarification of thought and heart. Are we a people bound by Emma Lazarus’s powerful poem bedecking the Statue of Liberty (see below), or by hard-hearted rejection of travelers in need?
In this season of summer, many of us find ourselves on the road or welcoming travelers. Will we also find ourselves on the Way that seeks and offers peaceful provision to those in need?
“The New Colossus”
by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”