The Gospel for this week is one of those passages that modern readers find hard to relate to. Taken as a whole, even without the yet more difficult verses that the Lectionary omits, it seems to portray Jesus as encouraging a kind of fanaticism in the simple people he recruits to his cause. Relying on their primitive beliefs about demons and Satan, he promises them paradise in exchange for complete devotion. Isn’t this what happens today, when religious extremists recruit credulous suicide bombers?
If we believe in the Incarnation, we have to accept that the eternal God chose to be born into a world radically different from the modern post-Enlightenment societies with which we are familiar. To discern God’s enduring purpose for us, consequently, we must try to understand the reality of that kind of world.
Three features of this Gospel episode are especially important. First, the people Jesus chose to spread the word of God’s kingdom on earth were not highly educated, politically powerful or socially prestigious. They were notably ordinary ‘simple folk’, and in the verses that follow the lectionary’s extract, Jesus underlines that fact. Secondly, he gives these simple people the power to do some very remarkable things. This is in sharp contrast to their normal powerlessness within the social and political structures that then prevailed. No wonder they return from their excursions ‘with joy’.
Yet, thirdly, at the very height of their delight, Jesus tells them NOT to rejoice in their new found power. It is not these astonishing new abilities that matter, but the fact that their names are ‘enrolled in heaven’. In other words, these ordinary people have been entrusted with a task, and given powers to accomplish it, both of which have been denied to far more sophisticated people. They have the ability to see ‘what many prophets and kings wished to see, yet never saw’ (v 24), and thus to tell others that ‘the Kingdom of God is near you’. This does not imply or bestow any special status, however. They are neither prophets nor angels, but remain simply human. Since they probably expected it to be otherwise, this is the hardest part of accepting the mission they been chosen to undertake.
In the accompanying Epistle, Paul identifies very precisely a special danger confronting those who find themselves possessed of unusual spiritual gifts. He warns the Galatians: ‘If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit’. The warning is apt. Yet there is no disguising the great challenge that confronts anyone who believes that God speaks to them in a special way. They will be strongly tempted to use their spiritual insight and charismatic power in the promotion of strictly human ends. Often, as in the case of suicide bombers, these are political goals, pursued with brutal disregard for others. The Gospel message is that this is not simply immoral; it is a spiritual failure.
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