15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, B TRUST IN SERVICE

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out in pairs giving them authority over the unclean spirits.”

Last Sunday, the emphasis was on the prophet, mission and challenges. This week the theme of vocation continues, with emphasis on the field experience. In the First Reading (Amos 7: 12-15) Amos, the prophet of God, from the southern Israel, is challenged by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel in the northern region of Israel. Bethel was the “royal sanctuary, the national temple” where the king worshipped. Amaziah must have seen Amos as an intruder and a threat to his prestigious and lucrative ministry. For how hard it is to preach the Word of God when self-interest is mingled with divine purpose. The response of Amos strikes an important chord in the harmony of reflection on vocation today: “I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Notice here as Amos himself reports, it is God who called him from his humble profession as a shepherd and a tender of sycamores to be a prophet. In the Second Reading (Ephesians 1: 3-14) Paul reminds us: “Before the world was made, God chose us, he chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless and to live in love in His Presence.” In other words, God chose us to be consecrated and set apart. The initiative of our Christian calling and being chosen is always from God.

The Gospel (Mark 6: 7-13) wraps up this theme very neatly as Mark presents to us the sending forth of the twelve Apostles by Jesus. The choice of Twelve Apostles was not accidental but a divine choice to demonstrate the unbroken covenant and relationship of God with Israel, His Chosen People, in anticipation of the fulfillment in a renewed people, founded on the faith of the Apostles, saved and redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The word “Apostle” in English comes from two Greek words: “apos” meaning “away from” and “stello” the verb “to send.” Therefore an apostle is one who is “sent away from” home, from his people, from his comfort zones to carry out specific tasks. Therefore, the Apostles, having been called (Mark 1: 16-20) had spent time with Jesus experiencing His ministry – preaching with authority (Mark 1: 22), healing of lepers, paralytic, woman with hemorrhage, casting out evil spirits; they had also enjoyed the popularity of their Master and shared His rejection even by His own people. So they had it all and were now ready to be sent out on their first missionary experience. There has to be a time of tutelage and preparation before one embarks on the mission.

The Lord Jesus “sent them out in pairs.” Being the first experience, it would be more risky to be alone: they could be exposed to more dangers, temptations and could be easily discouraged and perhaps intimidated. A pair is companionship, support, encouragement, shared experiences and praying together. For the task, Jesus “gave them authority over unclean spirits.” This is the only clearly stated task of this mission – authority over unclean spirits! This sums up the entire message, work and mission of the apostles right from time, Christians and Christianity today as a whole. St. Paul testifies to this very explicitly: “For we are not fighting against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6: 12). This is our common enemy, the one who is untiring in dissuading us from carrying out the Will of God.

The instructions of Jesus, at a cursory look, are rather surprising and would seem Jesus is tactically exposing His Apostles to danger and deprivation. But far be it that our Lord could ever do that. The intention of Jesus is to leave a message that would teach profound lessons as we are about to share. They were to take “nothing for the journey except a staff.” The staff reminds us of staffs of Moses and Aaron, which were the instruments God used to perform many miracles before Pilate, like the turning of the staff to a snake that swallowed Pharaoh’s snake (Exodus 7: 1-13); the plague of blood (Exodus 7: 19-24; see other references in Exodus 8: 1-11, 16-20; 9: 23; 10: 3-21); the parting of the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14: 15-31); the striking of the rock at Massah (Exodus 17: 1-7); etc. The staff was a symbol of authority and power from God. Here the staff was to provide physical support and be a sign of authority from their Master, Jesus.

Otherwise, the apostles were to go with “no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purses … no spare tunic.” They were to go without personal supplies and were not to collect contributions from anyone as other priests of the time would do. The intention of Jesus was that the Apostles should depend totally on God for their needs. It was to take their attention away from themselves, not be distracted nor “worry about what you shall eat or what you shall drink nor what you shall wear” (Matthew 6: 25). They were to trust in God the Father Who feeds the birds of the air (Matthew 6: 26) and clothes the lilies in the fields (Matthew 6: 30) to feed, clothe and cater for their general needs. Secondly, they were to depend on the generosity of the people, who would welcome them as was the custom of the people of that region to easily welcome strangers to their homes and provide their basic needs. The sign of a true disciple is utter simplicity, utmost humility, total surrender and dependence on God. It is rather scandalous that modern “men of God” live in shameless affluence, own private jets, exploit the weaknesses and generosity of the people and care less about the sheep entrusted to them. The self has become the centre of focus and concern rather than the people of God. Even the message has been watered down to soothe the feelings of people, to be “politically correct”, to make excuses even for such things the Bible consider “abomination” and to favour the high and the mighty.

The Apostles were not promised that their mission would be smooth, that they would be welcomed everywhere they visited and that their message would be accepted by all. Jesus never made such promises. Even when He promised: “I will give you peace” the next line He reminded us of His “yoke” and “burden” (Matthew 11: 28-30).  In Mark 10: 29-30, persecution is part of the promise of a hundred fold reward here on earth and eternal life after. Jesus always made it real without trying to seduce us with flowery promises. In Matthew 10: 16, 23 Jesus clearly said: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves … When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Even persecution is not an excuse not to carry on with the missionary tasks. Certainly the call has its challenges. However, there is an indubitable assurance of divine accompaniment and eternal reward. Jesus promised: “When they deliver you up, do not be anxious about what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10: 19-20). Such reward is a crown for perseverance on the part of the apostles then and Christians now. Each of us is called in our weaknesses on this journey to surrender ourselves to the divine purpose, plan and power so that He who called and sent us can give us the needed strength to accomplish all things through Christ (Philippians 4: 13).

And so the Apostles set off to do what? To preach! Preach what? They preached “Repentance.” The word “repentance” could arguably be said to be the one word that summarises the entire message of the Bible. This was the message of John the Baptist (Matthew 3: 2) and of Jesus (Mark 1: 15). To repent means to change one’s heart; to make a U-turn in one’s life; to leave the old ways and embrace the new way in Christ (2 Corinthians 5: 17). This is what the Christian life is about - the courage to change; to disengage from the old in order to engage in the new ways of living. Put simply, repentance means to turn away from sins and to live a life of righteousness in God. Our loving Father, who is merciful and slow to anger will always forgive and embrace us. The preaching of the Apostles was accompanied by signs of healing the sick and casting out of evils. This is the manifestation of the power with which they were endowed for the service of the people. We are called to confront the evils of this world and to be ministers of healing.

I love to note that only Mark tells us that part of the mission of the Apostles was “to anoint the sick with oil.” Let me point out there that original Greek word used for oil here is “elaion” which means “olive oil.” I have done this to emphasise that it was not any kind of oil but the oil of olive, which is the oil that we still use today in the Church for the administration of the Sacrament of the Sick and some other sacraments. This further testifies to the biblical origin of the sacrament, as affirmed in James 5: 14-15, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” It also indicates the apostolicity of the origin of the Church – “One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

We have been made God’s children by the Blood of Jesus Christ and by our acceptance of the waters of baptism by which we have been configured to Christ. By this fact we have been called and sent out to be messengers of the Gospel, ministers of His Word and Sacraments, let us rise up in response with utter humility and simplicity, total surrender and trust knowing that He who called and sent us will always be there to sustain us as long as we persevere. I will never leave you orphans (John 14: 18), He promised.