The Gospel passage set in the Revised Common Lectionary this coming Sunday tells of when Jesus sent out seventy followers, to engage with people in the villages where they were, sharing a message of peace and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (Luke 10:1-20). This is a critical moment in the development of the movement which was clustering around Jesus.
Throughout his “orderly account”, Luke portrays the inner circle of Jesus’ followers as disciples, committed to the task of learning from Jesus. They provide role models for those in a later generation who listen to the story which Luke has written in his Gospel and strive to be faithful followers of the way of Jesus in their own times. So the stories from long ago are not simply historical reminiscences; they are narratives which provide stimulus and encouragement for us, in the 21st century, as we seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.
Luke reports how, early in the ministry of Jesus, as growing numbers of people show interest in him (4:15, 36, 42; 5:1, 15), Jesus calls three fishermen to form the core group of his followers (5:1–11). Simon Peter is singled out at this point, but his business partners, James and John, are recruited with him to move from catching fish to “catching people”. The tax collector Levi then responds to Jesus’ challenge to “follow me” by leaving everything (5:27–28); these first four named followers thus stand as a pattern for how people were to respond to Jesus (as 14:26 reinforces).
Soon after these early recruitments, Luke reports the gathering of a group of twelve disciples, whom he names and designates “apostles” in recognition of their role in representing his message to those whom they encounter (6:12–16). This is the group that we often have in mind when we talk about “the disciples of Jesus”; but, as we shall see, Luke actually has many more in mind beyond this inner group.
Immediately after this scene, Luke reports at more length the teachings which Jesus directs towards his disciples: “love your enemies…be merciful…do not judge…hear my words, act on them” (6:20–49). The role of the disciples as learners is firmly established; these words are to be programmatic for all that they undertake. So their first task is to listen, and learner. Disciples are learners. (In fact, the Greek word translated as “disciple” actually comes from the root verb which means “to learn”!)
The narrative continues, and as the disciples travel with Jesus, they continue to learn—they witness how Jesus preaches, teaches, heals and exorcises (7:11, 22; 8:1, 9, 22, 45). After a period of such learning in the company of Jesus, this inner group is then commissioned to replicate these activities for themselves, going out in pairs to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (9:1–6). The twelve will later be promised a key role at the ultimate judgment of Israel (22:28–30). This inner circle thus transitions from learners, to leaders.
Sending out the twelve to bear witness to the kingdom is told in the source used by Luke, the Gospel of Mark, as well in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke intensifies the importance of this missionary activity by reporting that, after sending out the twelve, Jesus then sends out a larger group of his followers, to do likewise. There were seventy such disciples (or in some versions, seventy–two) for the role that will later consume their lives: “cure the sick and say to them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near’” (10:1–12; cf. 9:2).
“The disciples” in Luke’s account is a broad, inclusive group of followers. Time spent with Jesus involves not just learning from him—although this is the bedrock of the relationship—but also putting his ethic into practice. So the seventy, having spent time with Jesus learning, are now challenged to exercise leadership within the Jesus movement.
(As Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, also set in this week’s lectionary: “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher”, Gal 6:6.)
Quite significantly, when the seventy are sent out, they are in the region of Samaria (9:51-62). The Samaritans were difficult customers; James and John actually wanted Jesus to invoke the wrath of God and consume them (9:54). Jesus, by contrast, refuses to do this (9:55) and charges the seventy to preach a message peace to the Samaritans (10:5) and to declare the good news, that God’s kingdom is right there, in midst of them (10:9,11; cf. 9:2).
The seventy are thus charged with moving on, from being learners, listening in the crowd as Jesus teaches and tells parables, to become leaders, undertaking activities for which they need initiative, resolve, and capacity. And such leadership means addressing the challenges of the context and plunging into the difficult situations with the message and actions of hope. Samaria was not an easy gig!!
The inner group of twelve is thus not depicted as being isolated from, or elevated above, the others who travel with Jesus in Galilee. They form a kind of model for the seventy, and, by extension, later disciples—right up to the 21st century. We are all called to move from being learners, to become leaders.
Thus, in the following chapters, the teachings of Jesus are explicitly addressed to disciples on matters such as prayer (11:1–4), integrity (12:1–2), the appropriate lifestyle to lead (12:22–34), fidelity to God (16:1–13), forgiveness and preparedness (17:1–10, 22–37) and the nature of the kingdom (18:15–17). In keeping with his focus on those who are poor (4:18; 6:20; 7:22), “give to the poor” is a motif which runs consistently through the words of Jesus (12:21, 33; 14:13, 21; 16:19–31; 18:22; cf. 19:8). All of these teachings were important for the first followers of Jesus. All of these teachings apply to our discipleship, as well.
Strategically, these teachings also include Jesus’ revelation of his own fate (9:43b–44; 18:31–33) and the high cost of discipleship (14:25–35). Jesus emphasizes the distinctive nature of leadership in his movement (20:45–47; 22:24–30). “Deny yourself” and “be like one who serves” provide central motifs for Jesus’ instructions to those who will continue his enterprise after his passion. The twelve and the seventy, who first heard these words of Jesus, thus function as role models for the way that leaders are to operate after the lifetime of Jesus, as we in turn listen to these teachings.
The second volume of Luke’s work shows a range of figures who have learned from Jesus (or his disciples) and are reported as putting into practice the charge which Jesus gave to his disciples, to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”. The followers of Jesus throughout Acts are offering leadership: proclaiming the good news, undertaking acts of mercy and charity, standing up for justice, and other ways of being faithful to the way of Jesus.
Overall, the lines of continuity can be clearly traced from the example of Jesus through the activities of the leaders of the movement. The learners were diligent, and became effective and faithful leaders. May that be the pathway that we each walk, also, in our lives, as faithful followers of Jesus—learners, who now exercise leadership.
The images come from The Seventy-two Disciples (Unknown artist, Provenance Ethiopia, Dated about 1480 – 1520; Tempera on parchment).
[I know they are all male figures; and I am convinced that the first followers of Jesus included many women–see Luke 8:1-3 and 23:49,55, 24:10–but traditions about the disciples have been heavily influenced by patriarchal assumptions throughout the ages.]