“The harvest is rich, but the labourers are few … Take no purse, no haversack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road” (Luke 10: 2, 4)”
We are reading the St. Luke’s version of the gospel that changed the life of a young man and gave the Church, nay world, one of its greatest saints. History records that St. Francis of Assisi had a turning point in his life after he listened to Matthew’s version of this gospel (Matthew 10: 5-15) at Mass on the 24th of February, 1208, the Feast of St. Matthias in the “Portiuncula” or “The Little Portion” of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels in Assisi. The particular words that struck him were: “Provide yourselves with no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belt, no bag for the journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff, for a labourer deserves his wages.” After hearing these words, and being so struck, he said to himself: “This is what I want, this is what I am looking for, this is what I am longing in my inmost heart to do.” From that moment Francis he became a different person, seeing life mainly from the point of service to God. He lived a life of poverty earning nothing. His life attracted many other young men and women with whom, in the 13th Century, he founded the Franciscan Order, who continue to serve the Church to this day.
Seventy or Seventy-two: It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we read about the “Sending of the Seventy-two Disciples.” Similar versions of this narrative in Matthew and Mark recount the “Mission of the Twelve” (Matthew 10: 5-15; Mark 6: 7-13). This arouses our curiosity: “Why seventy-two, or seventy, as in some translations?” First, St. Luke is pointing out to us that next to the Twelve apostles, there was another group of disciples, who were special on the missionary exploits of Jesus. The number “seventy” or “seventy-two” is a very significant or symbolic number in Jewish tradition. It was the number of the elders chosen by Moses to assist him in the administration of peace and justice among the people of God on their journey (Numbers 11: 10-17). The discrepancy between seventy and seventy-two could arise from what scripture scholars call Textual Criticism (errors arising from the translation of the texts from various languages and traditions) or discrepancy in various ancient manuscripts. But the most likely source of this could be traced to Numbers 11:24-27, when the Spirit of God rested on the seventy elders who were with Moses when he prayed to God, and also rested on Eldad and Medad, who, were not with them, but were also prophesying. The number seventy was the number of Sanhedrin, the Supreme Council of the Jews. In Genesis 11: 10-32, there is a long list of genealogy of the sons of Noah from Shem to Abram and to Terah, this is sometimes called the “Table of Nations” of the world. Seventy is also the number of Jewish translators, who went to Egypt to translate the Bible into Greek. This is where the “Septuagint” takes its name. St. Luke, from his universalist perception of the kingdom established by Christ, used the number seventy or seventy-two, which represented the number of the gentile nations, to point to the fact that the new kingdom is intended to extend to all the nations of the world. The appointment and sending forth of the seventy-two disciples is also understood to imply the fact that Jesus was the “New Moses” establishing a new priestly hierarchy after the model of Moses (Exodus 24: 1-11). For just as Moses had Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, the elders of the twelve tribes of Israel and the seventy (seventy-two) elders, Jesus had Peter, James and John, the twelve apostles and the seventy (seventy-two) disciples. The choosing and the sending forth of the seventy-two disciples in the gospel of today represents, above all, the calling, choosing and sending forth of men from all the nations of the world, which still continues today. Our Lord keeps calling men and women today for the mission to preach the gospel to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 8). Each of us is called in our own different ways, like the disciples, like Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Ignatius of Loyola and many others. How are we responding?
“The harvest is rich but the labourers are few …:” The vineyard of the Lord, a term used for “the House of Israel” in Isaiah (Isaiah 5: 7), is also used for the Church in present understanding; for the Church is the “new house of Israel. The harvest from the vineyard of the Lord is her ever renewing and increasing membership and followers. This is the first sense. The second sense refers to those outside of the sheepfold, who will come to believe through the works of the labourers. These ever increasing membership and the need to bring into the fold those who are still outside, present the urgency for more labourers, who are dedicated and committed to labour without counting costs in order to enrich the harvest. Are you prepared to offer yourself at this service?
Take no purse or haversack: To those who heed this call to service, the Lord instructs: “Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals. Salute no one on the road …” This instruction seems frightening from the human point of view, especially when you consider the sentence before: “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” The situation clearly exposes one to danger, hunger, insecurity and even death. But hidden in this instruction is a divine guarantee for protection, provision and life. The Lord does not want His disciples to be dependent on themselves, to be entangled and distracted by unnecessary relationships and does not expect them to be worried about the materials needs of life. These could be real obstacles to the mission. So He calls us to a life of total surrender and profound dependence on Him to cater for our needs.
“The Kingdom of God is very near to you”: The message is clear, direct and simple. The messenger does not speak of his authority and does not deliver his/her own words – he/she delivers the message of the one who sent him/her. Jesus always saw Himself in this position for He acknowledged that both His words and works are as commanded by the Father (John 12: 49; 14: 10). Therefore, just as Jesus spoke as commanded by the Father so were the disciples of Jesus to speak as Jesus commanded. Today, we are called to deliver, no our message, but the message of the One who called and sent us. Christ is at the centre of the message of the gospel. We are to promote Him and not ourselves.
“The seventy-two came back rejoicing”: The reason for the joy of the disciples is obvious. They had a successful experience – “even the devils submit to us when we use Your Name.” Notice however, that the devils fall at the use of the name of Jesus. The Lord Jesus is the Source of the power. Today many have forgotten the Psalmist: “Not to us Lord, not to us. But to Your Name give the glory” (Psalm 115: 1). Many have arrogated to themselves the power of God and have manipulated the power entrusted to them for the service of God and humanity into instruments of abuse, deception and fraud. The greatest joy, Jesus says, is not that the devils submit, for this can easily lead to pride and eventually a fall, but rather that “your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10: 20).
Today we pray that the example of St. Francis of Assisi may challenge us; and that the Spirit of God my inspire us to great sacrifice, submission and humility as Francis was inspired by these words of the Gospel.