We have come to that section of Luke’s gospel which relates his long journey toward Jerusalem. In the past few weeks, we have seen him teaching and healing in Galilee, crossing over the Sea of Galilee to heal the Gerasene demoniac. Last week, we were told that he set his face to go to Jerusalem, and we heard that strange story of him sending his disciples ahead of him into Samaritan towns that refused to welcome him. Strange, because James and John wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy the inhospitable villages.
Today’s gospel is something of a reverse image of that story. Here, Jesus commissions 70 disciples and sends them to all the towns and villages on his itinerary. It’s as if they are his advance team, setting the stage for his visit. But he gives them instructions on what to wear and what to take with them, and instructions on how to receive hospitality.
The instructions are clear, dramatic, and from our perspective, rather austere. The seventy are to take only the clothes they have on: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” Jesus tells them to focus on their mission, don’t be sidetracked by people they might meet along the way. The threat of opposition looms over all—they are like lambs sent into the midst of wolves and the note about going two by two is probably also in part about safety.
Perhaps most surprising are the words about receiving hospitality, especially the double admonition to “eat what is set before you.” But that’s not all. We tend to worry about overstaying our welcome when we visit friends—either for an evening meal or as houseguests. Jesus had no such concern: Remain in the same house; he told the seventy, don’t move about from house to house. But if a town won’t receive you, go out into the streets and say: “go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.”
As I think about this story, there are several things that draw my attention. First, hospitality. Behind Jesus’ instructions are a serious debate in early Christianity over the lifestyle and behavior of early Christian missionaries. We know this was an important topic from Paul’s letters. He tells us about those who complained that he refused to accept financial support from the communities where he was preaching, instead making his way with his profession of tent-making. We know about similar conflicts from texts outside the New Testament. So on one level, Jesus’ words are intended to guide his disciples, and later missionaries, as they do their work.
But there’s a deeper meaning here. We talk a lot about hospitality—about welcoming strangers. That’s important. But there’s more to it than that. One of the crucial elements in building community is sharing meals, fellowship: it’s how we get to know one another, how we deepen our bonds of affection. But that’s not really what Jesus is talking about here. It’s one thing to offer hospitality—we do it in our home, or our church, on territory where we are comfortable, where we have power and privilege.
It’s quite another thing to receive hospitality—to be welcomed (or not, as the case may be) in an unfamiliar place, on territory that isn’t ours. In fact, that’s what Jesus is talking about. He is telling his disciples to knock on doors, to offer peace—a blessing—to the house they enter, and to accept whatever hospitality they receive. There’s a vulnerability, open-ness here. And that can be profoundly uncomfortable.
At the same time, hospitality: giving and receiving it, is such a central value in our Christian tradition. And given our cultural values and our lifestyles, to offer and receive hospitality is profoundly counter-cultural. The old world where people would gather regularly in each others’ homes for dinner and conversation has largely disappeared. If we do such things, we do them with family, or in some quasi-professional fashion, hosting one’s boss, or fellow department members, that sort of thing. If we do gather with friends we do it on neutral territory. That’s why our ongoing ministry of Foyer groups is so important—it offers opportunity to gather together, to give and receive hospitality, to strengthen relationships.
But there’s another interesting nugget here. Jesus gives instructions on what to do if hospitality is not offered: “Go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.”
There’s quite a contrast between Jesus’ instructions on how to receive hospitality, and his instructions on what to do if you aren’t welcomed. When receiving hospitality, he seems to be saying accept whatever you’re offered, Don’t complain; don’t look for somewhere better to stay. But if you aren’t welcomed, well, then, make a show of it. Protest their inhospitality.
Again, it’s worth pointing out the contrasts here. Peace and protest. Jesus instructs his followers to bless the houses they enter, to offer them peace—but if you’re not welcomed, make a show of your protest. I wonder whether this is a helpful reminder to us as well, especially in our politically and culturally fraught times. Jesus instructs his disciples to make open and public demonstrations of their rejection, to shake the dust from their sandals as the other gospels describe it. There may be a time and place for peace but Jesus also seems to be time and place for protest. But remember, it also may be that such protest could be directed at us, if we refuse to welcome those who knock on our doors.
There’s a third thing I would like to point out. On one level, it doesn’t matter whether or not one receives or offers hospitality. In both cases, the disciples are to proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near!” It is good news—the nearness of God’s reign, signs of which can be seen in the offering and receiving of peace, shalom, and the offering and receiving of hospitality. But God’s reign is not only blessing, it is also judgment—and for those who refuse to receive and give peace, those who refuse to give and receive hospitality, the nearness of God’s kingdom may mean an upending of their world.
I’ll grant you that these instructions seem a very long way from 21stcentury Madison. Just as we would never go on a trip with no extra clothes or shoes, no money, or other supplies, we are also quite unlikely to knock on a stranger’s door to ask for hospitality or to offer them peace. And when there’s a knock on our door, and we open it to discover LDS or Jehova’s Witness missionaries, we are unlikely to welcome them in.
Still, these instructions challenge us—to reflect on how we follow Jesus and how Jesus is calling us to follow him, to reflect on the welcome we offer and the welcome we receive, to remember that the Kingdom of God is near, a reality that is both promise and judgment, and finally, perhaps, to remember that among the gifts we receive as followers of Jesus, especially when we obey his teaching, is the great gift of joy. May it fill our hearts and open us to the possibilities of welcoming and being welcomed, offering and receiving peace.