In today's gospel, Jesus sends his disciples (students) out two by two into the villages of Galilee, making them, for the first time, apostles (emissaries). They are to travel in pairs, bringing one tunic, one pair of sandals and a walking stick. Imagine yourself walking into the surrounding towns wearing nothing but a bathrobe and flipflops, and you get the idea of how vulnerable (not to mention cold at night!) the apostles might have felt. Jesus had all but sent them out naked.
Anyway, the context of the story is Jesus's belief that a catastrophic convulsion in history was imminent. God was about to intervene in world affairs, not unlike the way he had overthrown the Egyptians in Exodus days. But on steroids. Let's call it The Cataclysm. If you don't believe this, here are the words of The Virgin Mary when she learned she would give birth to the Messiah:
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1: 51-53)
This is the mindset that Jesus was raised in, at his mother's knee: a program for radical social and political change that involved the toppling of rulers and the inversion of classes. When Jesus later teaches that the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16) it wasn't just wishful thinking. Jesus was flat out saying what his mother taught him: a cataclysmic inversion was just around the corner, and you'd better get on the right end of it if you have any hope of surviving and thriving afterwards. With views like these, it's no wonder he was crucified by Rome as a rebel!
In the gospel today, Jesus is acting as a force multiplier -- sending out 6 teams to spread his message 6 times more quickly than he could alone. The teams were to arrive in a village and preach the good news of God's imminent destruction of the prevailing order. If they were welcomed, they would get a meal and a bed for the night before moving on. That village would be spared. If they were unsuccessful, and the villagers ignored or rejected them, they were to shake the village dust from their feet. That village would be skeh-rood (screwed) when the Cataclysm arrived!
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And as for you, Capernaum: ‘Will you be exalted to heaven?You will go down to the netherworld.’ For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:21-24)
Tyre and Sidon, by the way, are cities that the prophet Ezekiel, writing in the 6th century BC, predicted would come to ruin and desolation. Jesus is saying that this will seem light punishment in comparison with what Galilean towns that reject him will suffer. It goes without saying that this is not the Sunday school Jesus with a word of peace and love for everyone. This is the doomsday prophet Jesus -- giving people a last chance to repent before the coming storm of wrath.
The good news is that the apostles come back with news of miracles and cures. At least some of the mission was successful. Did this news surprise Jesus? Was he expecting worse results and was shocked that his message hit home? Or was he disappointed, thinking his followers would have done better? Either way, it is not recorded that he tries this approach again. For the remainder of the gospel, the disciples stay close to their master.
It's hard to know how much of the apocalyptic worldview that Jesus inherited from his days with John the Baptist persisted into his own ministry. At the last supper, he says that he will not "drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:25). It seems that some sense of an impending cataclysm still exists in his mind. But there seems no celebration in it. Maybe that's due to centuries of pious and dour theatrical and cinematic depictions of this scene. But even the gospels depict a last supper laced with melancholy. One of his followers will give him up, another deny him and the rest abandon him. But perhaps Jesus has come to understand The Cataclysm in new ways. Maybe it's not an event that will happen in the larger world, but in his own body, which will soon be broken and poured out for many. If this is accurate, it's a sober realization for a 30-year-old. God will not break the world apart in dramatic fashion. But God will allow the world to break his most ardent and loyal follower.
But for now, let us watch Jesus wrestle with these questions in his own home region. Let him fit one more piece of truth into the eternal puzzle that is God's plan. Let us wrestle with him as we struggle to understand our own strained and broken lives. Let us be our own emissaries, sent into the world to plumb its goodness and evil. Like Jesus, let us learn from our experiences and adjust our actions as we seek to follow God's purpose.