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I know what you’re probably thinking after hearing our Gospel reading today, specifically the part about how Jesus appointed 72 men to go out to proclaim the Gospel throughout the whole region. You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute – my Bible says Jesus sent out 70, not 72! Which one is it? What’s going on here?”
This question of how many men Jesus appointed in the Gospel of Luke goes back to a discrepancy in the most ancient existing translations of Scripture; two of the four oldest manuscripts we have say 70, and the other two say 72. And it probably goes back to an error made by a scribe long ago as he was copying the Gospel of Luke – before the invention of the printing press, every Bible had to be produced by hand.
Numbers in Scripture are very often symbolic numbers that contain a deeper meaning or refer back to something else. And so it is with the number of disciples Jesus appointed in the Gospel of Luke to go out ahead of him to all the villages he intended to visit. The 70 disciples Jesus appoints points back to a story from the book of Exodus, back to that pivotal event in the history of the Jews: when Moses and the Israelites were wandering in the desert, having fled slavery in Egypt, on their way to the promised land. God chose Moses to go up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from him. He also instructed Moses to appoint twelve men to serve as priests, with his brother Aaron as high priest. But then, because there was such a huge number of Israelites to serve, and who had so many disputes that the priests had to adjudicate, Moses and these twelve priests were soon overwhelmed and could not keep up. So Moses went to the Lord and asked for help, whereupon the Lord instructed him to appoint 70 elders who could assist them. Scripture tells us that these 70 men then received a portion of the Lord’s spirit that had been given to Moses. So when Jesus chose his twelve apostles and then appointed these 70 disciples, he was deliberately establishing a new priesthood based on the original Jewish priesthood. Peter was the new Aaron, the new high priest of the twelve apostles. And the 70 disciples were in a sense the successors of the 70 elders appointed by Moses.
But what about those translations that say Jesus appointed 72 disciples? Well there is also scriptural justification for 72, because later on in the Old Testament, we hear that when the 70 elders received the Lord’s Spirit, there were two other men – with the interesting names of Eldad and Medad – who did not happen to be with them at the time, but who also received the Lord’s Spirit. So, whether it was 70 or 72, either way Jesus’ action refers back to the Old Testament and is intended as a fulfillment of it.
Jesus sent the 70 (or 72) out to the villages that he intended to visit. Incidentally, the number 70 in the Jewish tradition also had another significance: it represents the total number of all the nations or peoples in the world. So the Church has understood Jesus’ action of sending out the 70 disciples as signifying his desire that the Gospel be proclaimed to all the nations. Why? Because the Gospel message is the most important news there is. It concerns our eternal salvation. God loves every single human being he has created and desires their salvation; he desires that each one of us go to heaven and spend eternity with Him.
And so there is a sense of urgency in the instructions that Jesus gives to these 70 or 72 disciples. When he instructs them to “greet no one along the way”, this is not out of rudeness but rather reflects the urgency of their mission: they cannot stop while on the road because they have to get to all these villages. And for the same reason Jesus tells them not to linger in the villages that reject them: shake the dust of that town from your feet in testimony against them and move on to the next village. The message of salvation is too important and there are other people who need to hear it too.
Not everyone is going to accept the Gospel. People are free to reject it. They are free to reject what we believe and how we choose to live because we are followers of Christ. Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them out “like lambs among wolves.” Following Christ is not going to make us popular in this world, and it seems that we have daily reminders of that. But we still must renew our commitment to follow Him. And when people reject what we believe, sometimes we have to move on, so to speak, because there are other people out there who still need to receive our witness of faith, who still need to hear the Truth of Jesus Christ.
The instructions that Jesus gives these 70 or 72 disciples are very similar to those he gives earlier in Luke’s Gospel when he sends out the twelve apostles. And among the things he tells them is that they are not to carry a money bag, or a sack, or sandals – presumably he means a second pair of sandals – and to depend on the kindness of strangers, of those people to whom he is sending them. Usually when I go on a trip, I like to plan ahead: I make sure my gas tank is full, I have the appropriate-sized bottles of shampoo to make it through airport security, I’ve packed some snacks in my bag, and so on. Jesus is basically telling his disciples to in a way go out unprepared in material terms. He’s not telling them this because he wants them to be uncomfortable and have annoying problems while on the road, but instead so that they will put their trust in him alone and not in their own resources.
It’s the same for us: not just those of us who are ordained to the sacramental priesthood but also to the common priesthood of the laity. Each one of us is called to be a witness to others of our faith in Jesus Christ. It is an urgent message, the world is in desperate need of it, and there’s always much work to be done. Even though the Gospel message of repentance and salvation is for the good of all, some people are going to misunderstand it, feel threatened by it, and reject it. Being witnesses to Christ is not easy and we will experience difficulties and hardship because of it. But we are called to put our complete trust in God, to make an act of radical trust in his providence and in his grace. On our own, we cannot fulfill God’s will for our lives. We cannot be adequate witnesses to the Lord. We do not have the resources to follow the Lord in an often hostile landscape. But God promises to provide for us. He promises to give us what we need in the moment. And sometimes his love for us will be made manifest in the kindness of strangers.
When the 72 disciples returned to Jesus, they were rejoicing because of what the Lord had done for them and through them, how his glory was made manifest in their faithful witness. And Jesus told them, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power to tread…upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you.” When we follow the Lord and witness to Him, the power of Satan is weakened. Although it often seems that evil is on the verge of triumphing, we believe that ultimately the Lord will triumph. If we are faithful to Christ, Satan’s power to tempt us and his power in the world is diminished more and more. And Jesus furthermore tells us that we ought to rejoice, because our names will be written in heaven.