The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9), Year C.
The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, 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. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
“The Kingdom of God has come near you”. These are the words the Seventy are told to proclaim from town to town. Whether they are accepted or rejected, the proclamation is the same: “The Kingdom of God has come near you”. Much like “Bless your heart”, this proclamation is a joyful blessing, or a dreaded curse, depending on how well people take Good News. At first glance, this may seem like a strange slogan for the Seventy to proclaim as the Gospel. Why start with this mysterious phrase about a spiritual kingdom rather than something like “Have you heard about Jesus?” After all, this is what the Seventy are tasked with doing, introducing these towns to Jesus and his message, preparing them for His arrival. Why talk about this “Kingdom of God” stuff, what even is the “Kingdom of God”?
Now this may come as a shock to some, but Jesus was in fact Jewish. And as difficult as it is to imagine today, in Jesus’ lifetime, more people had heard of a few prophets like Moses, Elisha, and Isaiah than the itinerant Galilean stirring up trouble. Throughout His commissioning of the Seventy, Jesus is using language so that even people who were unfamiliar with Him would understand the Good News He brings: the Kingdom of God has come near you.
The Kingdom of God has been described in many ways throughout millennia, but the most succinct summary comes from Isaiah (11 & 65), and you may recognize it from a Christmas pageant or two.
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime,
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat,
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord‒and their descendants as well.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”Isaiah 65:17, 19-23, 25
In other words, the Kingdom of God Jesus and the Seventy proclaim is one ruled not by politics, corporate interests, and a security policy of mutually assured destruction, but a kingdom ruled by righteousness, justice, abundance, and peace over all the earth. In telling the Seventy to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near, those who hear this word, even if they don’t know who Jesus is, understand His message. Jesus’ ministry is the beginning of that new creation, the fulfillment of that promise first given to the people of Israel now being proclaimed to all the nations of the earth.
It is tempting to dismiss the Kingdom of God as little more than wishful thinking. A comfort for us stuck somewhere between the promise of the new creation, and its fulfillment. Yet we see in the commissioning of the Seventy that it is not some fantasy, but a pragmatic mission with clear goals not reserved for heaven, but to be lived out here on earth. Though the highly symbolic language of the commission may obscure the meaning to us, to those being commissioned, the mission could not be more clear.
The fact that seventy (or seventy-two, depending on your manuscript), are commissioned is a reference to Genesis 10, where “all” seventy (or seventy-two), nations of the earth are numbered; illustrating how the Gospel message is meant for the whole world. The fact that they are called to go out in pairs is a reference to Mosaic Law, where two witnesses are required for a testimony to be credible (Deuteronomy 19:15). Jesus saying that He is sending them out like “sheep among wolves” refers to the passages of God’s Kingdom from Isaiah (11 & 65). He acknowledges that the Seventy’s mission will not be easy, safe, or well-received. By using this language of God’s Kingdom, He reminds the Seventy to stay true to the principles of love and righteousness, because in God’s Kingdom, even those wolves will turn from their violent ways and lie down with the lamb. When Jesus tells them to carry no provisions, no purse, no bag, no staff, and greet no one on the road, He is telling them the urgency of their mission by referencing the story of Elisha commissioning a servant to hurriedly go to save a child’s life (II Kings 4:29).
In telling the Seventy to rely on the hospitality of others, eat what is set before them, and not move house to house, Jesus is telling them to live in the Kingdom of God. They are expected to stay with those who live in righteous hospitality, to trust in the abundance of their hosts, and the thing that we tend to forget the most: have the humility to let the host set the context for their stay, not their own social standards and expectations. By not moving house to house or carrying a purse, they are excluded from turning this into a profit-seeking venture, where they move around to better accommodations and collect wealth to carry with them. Finally, living into the Kingdom of God they are to proclaim peace, eat what is set before them, heal the sick, cast out evil spirits, and by their life and their word, be the Kingdom of God on earth. By being the Kingdom of God, the Seventy speak truth to the places they visit, whether welcomed or exiled, the Kingdom of God has been near.
But that was a long time ago. Has the Kingdom of God been near us? There have been many attempts to make the Kingdom of God here on earth over the centuries, yet at present, many of us feel that the Kingdom of God is further away than ever. America was at one time one of these attempts, well at least the colony of Massachusetts Bay. When the Puritans, or “Pilgrims” if we’re going off the version we learned in 5th grade, established the colony in 1620, they did so as an explicit attempt at making God’s Kingdom on earth. At least in the first generation, they established a society that was based on principles of economic equality, genuine love for neighbor, (relatively) open civic participation, and despite their reputation as dower theocrats, religious toleration, free thought, and open debate. Now, there are several asterisks to those principles, if you were a bit too free thinking with your religion, you would be banished to the heretical colony of Rhode Island, or if you loved money a bit too much, you would be banished to Virginia. But for their time in those early days, they truly believed the Kingdom of God had come near. And as God lets no good thing go to waste, we can see how even their imperfect implementation of the principles of freedom, love, and individual rights still live with us today.
Yet as we know all too well, there are dangers in trying to make the Kingdom of God here on earth: believing that the Kingdom of God only belongs to one nation and loving power more than the mission. In the case of the Puritan’s American attempt at the Kingdom of God, they were tainted from the very beginning because of their belief in the English way of life’s superiority. They believed that the Kingdom of God belonged only to Puritans, and showed little curiosity and love for their neighbors, the Algonquin and Wampanoag. The Puritans did not proclaim peace to the house, nor ate what was set before them, despite what we were told in 5th grade. Instead, they gave into the temptations of fear, hatred, and war, the consequences of which we also still live with today. And as time went on, the love of power and money drew the Puritans further from their original egalitarian attempt. Subsequent generations became more theocratic, with more privileges and protections being given to church members while church membership became increasingly difficult to obtain. And while not explicitly codified, over time church membership became granted more exclusively to wealthy landowners who upheld an increasingly codified puritan orthodoxy. What was meant to be a shining city on a hill, the Kingdom of God in contrast with the old world they left behind, became a kingdom of the earth much like all the others.
It is these very temptations that Jesus warns the Seventy about when they return from their mission. They come back rejoicing at their success, and their power over evil. While Jesus commends them for their work, He issues them a stern warning: “Do not rejoice over this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven”.
The Kingdom of God is near you. Live by proclaiming peace, righteousness, and justice, eat what is set before you, be the Kingdom of God, and we shall hasten its coming. Only when we live into being the Kingdom of God, recognize that the Kingdom of God belongs to all nations and all people, and love our neighbors more than the power, can we rightful proclaim to all we meet that the Kingdom of God has come near. The commission of the Seventy is your commission. Go, proclaim peace, be a good guest, heal the sick, cast out evil, and proclaim to all “the kingdom of God has come near you”. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”. Amen.