Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us how Jesus sent the twelve apostles out on a preaching tour to prepare the people for the coming of the Kingdom of God. But only Luke gives us this account of a very similar preaching expedition involving seventy-two disciples.
The number of disciples is, of course, symbolic. Six twelves are seventy-two. If we look in Chapter Ten of the Book of Genesis we see a big list of the descendants of Noah with seventy-two names and it is said that all the tribes of the earth are descended from them.
From this we can see that Luke is using this number seventy-two to indicate that every single person has the responsibility to be a disciple. It is not the task of a privileged group, a clerical caste. No the responsibility for evangelisation belongs to us all.
And more than this, according to Luke all the tribes of the earth are to be evangelised without exception. The Jews of his day thought that salvation was something only for themselves. They believed that since they were the Chosen People this meant that only they would be saved.
They could not have been more wrong. Their privileged status as the Chosen People actually meant that the Messiah would come from among them and that they would be the first to have the Gospel preached to them. It did not mean that everyone else was to be excluded. Their privileged role was to be a beacon of hope for all the nations of the world not a cosy club of privileged saints.
A similar mistake is being made by many Protestant sects today. Unity is one of the most important aspects of Catholicism but this is not so for the Protestants, they are by nature prone to fragmentation. Their Churches frequently split over minor points of doctrine. As time goes on the number of Protestant sects naturally tends to increase.
In my home town in Scotland there was a row of four or five Protestant Churches backing on to the canal which ran through the town. Each one had broken away from the other. Ultimately, of course, they could all trace their line of descent to having broken away initially from the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation.
Consequently these Churches ended up with smaller and smaller congregations until some comprised only of one family who believed that only they were saved and the rest of humanity was consigned to eternal damnation. This is the very same mistake that the Jewish people made over two-thousand years ago.
St Luke tells us that Jesus gave the seventy-two disciples some very specific instructions about how to do the job. They were not to be distracted or to take material possessions with them and they were to depend on those to whom they were sent for their living.
Their mission was to bring peace and healing and encouragement to those to whom they were sent. They weren’t to waste any time on unbelievers but to move on to those who would make them welcome.
These seventy-two disciples were indeed very successful and returned to the Lord with joy in their hearts. Christ rejoices with them but even then warns them not to let their heads be turned by their achievements but rather to take joy in the fact that their names are written in heaven.
The story of these disciples and their mission is given to us by St Luke to remind us all that we have the same mission. He is telling us that this is not a matter of choice but is an essential element of the Christian life.
We are not sent to the villages of Galilee but to the people who live around us. We are sent to our families, to our neighbours and to those we work with.
Parents evangelise their children and children evangelise their parents. Brother evangelises sister and sister evangelises her brother. Each one of us is called to this task and without it we can hardly call ourselves Christian.
This does not mean that we should be preaching the Gospel in the same way as a priest does on a Sunday. Of course not, but there are all kinds of different ways we can communicate the essentials of the faith to those around us. Sometimes it is just by upholding the simplest traditions of our religion like saying grace before meals or remembering our night prayers.
We are able to carry out this mission of evangelisation in our ordinary conversation by upholding what is right and true; we can do it by avoiding negative and destructive chatter; we can find ways in which we are able to build up rather than pull down. The point is not to become a Holy Joe but rather to become someone who is authentic and genuine in all that you do.
I think that this genuineness is really important. It is by living a truly worthy life, by caring for others, by maintaining a certain integrity in our lives; by doing these things we become authentic human beings and faithful citizens of the Kingdom of God.
It is by demonstrating these qualities to those around us that we become effective Disciples of Christ. It is by showing others what it is to be truly human that, without knowing it, we give them an idea of what being a follower of Christ is all about.
So St Luke is encouraging us to take up our responsibility as one of Christ’s disciples and to carry out this special task of evangelisation. He himself by the very act of writing the text of his Gospel is putting his own gifts at the service of transmitting the message of Christ to the world.
Each one of us has our own gifts and talents and we too can put these at the service of the Gospel. We all have our own unique abilities and particular gifts and these can be used to make the world a better place and to bring light and love into our world.
By carrying out this evangelical mission we give an invaluable gift to the people around us. We enable them to find salvation through a unique encounter with Christ.
And not only this, because this great gift is reciprocal; when we open to others the joy of the Gospel we end up by deepening our own faith. Those who hear our message enable us to experience it more deeply and so we end up becoming better disciples of Christ.
This is a deeply affirming process, it is a positive cycle and we all come out the better for it. So take up this task, think of yourself as one of those seventy-two disciples and rejoice that, as with them, the devils submit to you and that you bring salvation and healing to all those you encounter.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket