Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/IIWfWyRL0rM.
The concept of “home” is a funny one. I have been pondering it a lot over the last weeks and months and even years. For clergy, just like people in the military, and many other professions, home is something that gets moved on a regular basis, and some of us are better at settling down where we are placed and making it “home’ and others of us, just kind of camp, in a temporary fashion, wherever we are, waiting for the next move. In our study group we were reminded of the fact that in the bible there are a lot of people who are just kind of, temporary residents, or “sojourners”. Abraham and Isaac and others, were only temporary residents, and then the whole of the Israelite people when in Egypt, and then wandering in the dessert. And then they took hold of the “promised land” and stayed there, well for a little while, and while they were there the law of Moses stated, unequivocally, how it was that they were to treat aliens, resident in their land- kindly and fairly and generously- they were to show them hospitality. Then of course, they were carried off, in the two great diasporic events of the Assyrian conquest and then the Babylonian Exile. Eventually some of them came back and from this remnant, up from the root of Jesse, comes Jesus of Nazareth.
Now for people of Jesus’ day the cultural system was tight and binding. And in the background to today’s reading there are two big concepts lurking that need to be understood to make sense of it. The first is that of honour, which we touched on last week. Theirs was a very hierarchical society, in which everyone knew his or her place, not unlike the system that we lived by right up until the industrial revolution changed it forever. A man inherited his work from his father, and with it went his social status. You could beg a favour of someone above you, in the social order and you paid for it, one way or another. You looked after your family, took your place in your community and stayed there. To move, or change was almost impossible and to try was regarded as highly suspect. You knew where you belonged, both in the sense of place, but also in the sense of your position in the world. There must have been great security for people. And this is, I think in part, why the experience of being sojourners was one that was kept alive in Jewish consciousness as part of their rituals. I am thinking particularly of their Passover ritual, where, to this day, the story of the Exodus is told as if it is happening right now. And why also the law, is very careful to specify how it is that you treat sojourners, so that you never forget what it is to be an alien in the land. And along comes Jesus- Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee, who leaves his family, leaves his responsibility as the oldest son who should keep on the carpentry business, and look after his mother and unmarried sisters, and younger brothers, Jesus who should know his place, both literally and figuratively. Jesus, who should be content to work with his hands, in the noble business of carpentry, who instead is roaming around, setting himself up as a teacher, and as a miracle worker, and as all kinds of things that are an affront to his neigbours that have known him all their lives. And back he comes, and we see the insult to him, but perhaps we should try to see it from their side and imagine how they felt about it. They took offense at him, we are told. They must have felt very confused- they thought they knew him, they thought their world was stable and Jesus turned it upside down by flouting the social order, by becoming something that they were not. By doing deeds of power with his hands, instead of building things! And their unbelief or more accurately, “not believing” seems to have inhibited his power. Why, or how, the unbelief of a few provincials could undermine the confidence of God incarnate is hard to say, except for the fact that he was truly human as well as truly divine.
Part of the wider system of honour, was that aspect of hospitality. In a civilization where there were few commercial inns, no travel agents, no tour companies etc. you relied on the hospitality of strangers. If I had time we could look at some famous examples- think for a moment of Abraham offering hospitality to the three strangers, who turn out to be messengers from God in Genesis 18, or indeed, the failure of the men of Sodom to show hospitality in Genesis 19, for that, you know, is the crime of the men of Sodom, a failure of proper hospitality. Hospitality is an absolutely inviolable rule, you must give the stranger a proper welcome, you must feed them, give them a bed and if need be clothe them as well, and they are not to meet with violence while under your roof. These rules were well understood and it was a vital part of your honour to do this. And this kind of behavior still applies, in much of the world, even today. Sadly we have forgotten what it is to welcome the stranger in our wealthy and comfortable society.
Now Jesus, who has not received any kind of hospitable welcome on his return to his hometown, sends out his disciples on their first mission and he tells them to place all their dependence in the welcome that they receive among the people that they go to. He gives each host the opportunity to provide a true welcome and for the disciples then to be able to give the gift of God’s amazing grace- the gift that he has been unable to give because of the poor welcome that he received. The disciples are given authority over evil spirits, thus echoing Jesus’ own very first act of power in Mark’s gospel, which seems to me to be symbolic of the whole of his ministry to this point for Mark. They are going in pairs, for support and so that they each have a witness to the deeds of power that they do, but also to the treatment that they receive. They take nothing, and this reminds me of Jesus’ own testing in the wilderness, they are to depend on God, and at the same time on the kindness and sense of duty of the people that they go to. And isn’t that what our life is all about? Somehow, when we say we depend on God, it is so often our fellow human that meets our needs, but acting out of, I think our likeness to God, the generosity that is part of being made in God’s image. And if they are rejected, they are to shake the dust from their feet, go on, without repining, realizing that the failure is not theirs but a failure of the other to live up to the image of God within. Does Jesus tell them this because of his own recent disappointment?
And they call people to repentance and cast out demons and anoint people with oil and heal them. So they are being Jesus to the people that they meet, aren’t they? They are doing just what he had been doing, and having the same impact on people’s lives. And this is because they have an authentic experience of Jesus, they have met him, lived with him and been empowered by him for the task. They are placing their trust in him but also, they are trusting in the hospitality of other people, and they are able to share God’s power with those around them.
The thing that I find quite confronting here is that this is not about being hospitable to others. We the church have a policy of being hospitable. We hope we are welcoming, we hope that people will come when we invite them, we hope they will come back again, we hope they like us and what we are doing we hope that they will want to become part of our group, but that is not what Jesus is doing here. That part of the story- the coming in part, is a bit of a disaster- Jesus comes in and he is rejected. So then he goes out. Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to be hosts, he asks them to be guests. He asks them to operate not out of the position of power but out of the position of weakness. He asks them to be the askers, not the granters, to take the lower place in the chain that is the honour system and to beseech the one above for help. This is a frightening thought- is it that somehow, in order to perform Christ’s mission, to call people to repentance and to heal them, and most of all to cast out the demons of our society, we have to some how put ourselves into the powerless position? We need to be the guests, not the hosts? Now I am struggling to know quite how this looks, quite how this will work out in our world. We are used to being priviledged and strong but Jesus could do no deed of power coming back into his comfort zone. When he sent the disciples out, totally dependent on the goodwill of others, and dependent on God, as he was himself in the wilderness, they were able to take the Kingdom with them in a convincing manner. The Kingdom of God is, of course, our true home and the place where we will find ourselves both host and guest, one with God.