14th Sunday in Ordinary Time — ‘Coming for You’

SCRIPTURES & ART: A Christian will always reflect something — let’s make sure it’s Christ.

James Tissot (1836-1902), “He Sent Them Out Two by Two”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “He Sent Them Out Two by Two” (photo: Public Domain)

As the Church settles into an extended period of “Ordinary Time,” stretching until Nov. 26, we meet Jesus sending out his disciples (“others”) two by two. Note the words Luke uses: Jesus sends “also” (καὶ) “others” (ἑτέρους). Jesus makes a clear distinction between his 12 Apostles and “also” the “others” who are his disciples. They are never conflated. Many may proclaim the Good News, but the distinct, core group are the Apostles.

Numbers play an important role in today’s Gospel. Jesus dispatches his 72 disciples in pairs. Neither number is accidental. Neither are the 12 Apostles.

Jesus selects 72 disciples. Note that it is Jesus who “appointed” (ἀνέδειξεν) them. Ministry is not “your” choice nor self-validating: “you have not chosen me but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). That is why every claim about someone being “unjustly” denied access to ministry, e.g., women to Holy Orders, founders: No one has a right to what is absolutely God’s free gift of grace given in the manner he has established it.

Seventy-two. Jesus is deliberately alluding to Exodus 24:9-12, where Moses selects 70 elders who, together with “Nadab and Abihu” accompany Moses and his brother Aaron up Sinai where they see God. Jesus is the new Moses. Jesus is the Priest who replaces the Aaronic priesthood. The 72 are the disciples of the new Israel. They don’t need to go up to a mountain to see God: He has “appointed” them and sent them to bear witness to what they have seen.

Remember when John the Baptist sends his followers to Jesus to ask if he is the one? How does Jesus answer them? “’Go back to John and report what you see and hear: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5).

They are to report what they see and hear. In Jesus they see and hear the Son of God. The things that he does — the catalog of what they saw to be reported to John — are all Messianic deeds, signs of the presence of God’s Power in the world. The message of Jesus is not a head trip: it is seeing and then bearing witness to what is seen. And they are to bear witness to him, to him who is coming: “He sent them in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit.”

Jesus’ disciples are called, like John the Baptist, to “prepare the way of the Lord” by their preaching, their performing the deeds that speak of whom is coming (“cure the sick,” “even the demons are subject to us because of your name”), and speaking of what they have seen, of what they are witnesses. 

In one sense, this dispatch is a preliminary assignment, a kind of “summer parish assignment.” But in another, any making ready of the Lord’s Way is already eschatological, is already part of his Second Coming. Jesus himself makes that clear. In shaking off the dust of the places where the disciples are refused, Jesus promises an accountability on the Last Day: “It will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.”

Jesus sends them in pairs. He does so not because he doesn’t want them to be lonely or have no one to talk to. He doesn’t do it because he doesn’t trust them (although accountability to another often keeps us on the straight and narrow). 

He does so for two reasons. One is that because they make him present: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:19-20). They are already the Church in miniature. The other is because they are witnesses: “A matter must be established by the word of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15; see also 2 Corinthians 13:1).

These disciples are not just preachers because God’s Word is not indifferent. The Word of God is not a “take it or leave it” proposition. We can, of course, reject it. But that rejection is not neutral, not inconsequential. One can turn away from God’s Word but, as Jesus makes clear, even Sodom will be better off. 

In mentioning Lucifer’s fall in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that we are in the midst of a cosmic struggle. St. Paul reminds us that this “struggle is not [one] with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12).

Because encountering the saving Word of God is a high stakes proposition, with (eternal) life or death consequences, the witness to whether one accepts or rejects it “must be established by the word of two or three witnesses.” 

You may not be the one who judges, but your witness is vital to the Judge.

(Twelve — the number of Apostles — is also significant. Twelve — like seven — was a number of perfection in ancient Israel, alluding to the 12 Tribes of Israel. So, again, the Apostles are the foundation of the New Israel).

Jesus sends those disciples out with practically no provisions, “no money bag, no sack, no sandals,” so that they will realize their total reliance on him from whom their appointment and vocation came anyway. They realize that on their return as they marvel what they accomplished “in your name,” but Jesus again corrects their perspectives: what matters is not what they accomplished (because they also presumably failed in some towns) but that, in doing his will, their “names are written in heaven.”

Today’s Christian needs to remember that same truth.

As Pope St. Paul VI reminded us in Evangelii nuntiandi “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses.” What did Jesus tell us just five weeks ago, immediately prior to his Ascension: empowered by the Holy Spirit, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Let’s also not forget what Vatican II (Gaudium et spes, nos. 19-21) taught about the Christian as anti-witness. One of the Council’s efforts was to read the Gospel against the “signs of the times.” Those signs included atheism: by the 20th century, non-belief in God was an indisputable phenomenon. Some people deliberately close their ears and hearts to God. Some live under systems that ideologically promote atheism (communist dictatorships in the Council’s day, liberal societies with naked public squares in ours). 

But Christians can also be responsible for spreading atheism when their religion is superficial, nominal or hypocritical: they say one thing but live another.

Believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.

Christians reflect, whether they intend to or not. To the extent they reflect Christ, they are living the life of the name they bear. To the extent they obscure Christ, they are not just self-contradictions but stumbling block for their brothers and sisters. A Christian will reflect something: let’s make sure it’s Christ.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by the 19th-century French religious painter, James Tissot and held by the Brooklyn Museum. Jesus is at central figure, standing a head above all others on a small hillock. Yes, Jesus surpasses his disciples, because “a disciple is not above his teacher” (Luke 6:40; Matthew 10:24). The hillock perhaps alludes to the New Moses on his own mount. The disciples come and kneel before him whose word and teaching they will bear. He lays hands on them, the quintessential biblical sign of empowerment.

Keeping with the biblical text, they bear staffs and sandals. At least seven pairs of disciples are already on their ways in all four directions from Christ, pointing to all the directions of the compass. About 20 disciples are on the canvas. With Jesus, we have 21 figures on the canvas (I assume the man directly behind Jesus’ back has a companion) — three and seven were both considered holy and perfect numbers, so 3x7=21. 

Although Jesus stands the tallest, the whole scene is set against the whole of the countryside of Israel, with three towns in the distance. It’s fitting they traverse this rocky and barren terrain, because it augurs some of the stony opposition they will encounter. Jesus did not promise them a rose garden.

Now these men are sent to the whole of Israel; at Jesus’ Ascension, they will “go to all nations” (Matthew 28:19). 

One of the men leaving Jesus’ presence has his eyes on the viewer. (He also sports more color and a striped cloak as well as standing in the foreground.) For Tissot, this is not just an historical painting — he’s (and He’s) “coming for you.”

How’s it going to go on Judgment Day?