“I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves … carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road … cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:3, 4, 9). So Jesus instructs a group of his followers, preparing them to replicate the mission that he himself has commenced in the region of Galilee. It’s part of the passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday.
Bearing witness in Samaria
It is important to note that this group of seventy disciples is sent out while the group is, presumably, in the region of Samaria. The earlier sending out on mission, of the twelve (9:1–6), was located in Galilee. The activity of Jesus, to this point, has been amongst his own people: in Galilee (4:14, 31; 5:17), in Nazareth (4:16 and presumably in 8:19–21), in Capernaum (4:31; 7:1), in Nain (7:11), and in synagogues in various towns (4:15, 33; 6:6; Galilee is inferred in 8:1; and the textual variant of 4:44, Galilee, is surely to be preferred). After a short sojourn across to the other side of the lake (8:22–40), Jesus returns to Galilee; soon after this mission of the twelve, he is in Bethsaida (9:10).
Just a little later, still in Galilee, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51), and thus he and his followers move south, into the region of Samaria (9:52–55). After some interactions relating to discipleship “follow me/you”, 9:57, 59, 61), Jesus sends out the seventy (10:1). So Samaria is the location for the mission of the seventy. And Samaria is the region where many hear the good news and respond in faith.
There is some debate as to whether there were seventy, or seventy-two, followers sent out by Jesus. Seventy represents the purported number of nations—as listed in Gen 10—or the number of Israelites who travelled to Egypt with Joseph (Gen 46:27)—or the number of elders appointed by Moses (Num 11:16)—but is found in only a small number of older manuscripts. There is a list of the names of the 70 disciples, drawn from later church traditions, at https://www.christian-pilgrimage-journeys.com/biblical-sources/christian-history/the-seventy-disciples/)
Seventy-two, found in most of the older manuscripts, is sometimes seen to correlate with the 72 scholars who translated the Septuagint, as the Letter to Aristeas reports: “In the presence of all the people I selected six elders from each tribe, good men and true, and I have sent them to you with a copy of our law. It will be a kindness, O righteous king, if you will give instruction that as soon as the translation of the law is completed, the men shall be restored again to us in safety. Farewell.” (Letter to Aristeas 46; the names of the 72 translators follow in Aristeas 47–50).
These seventy followers were 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. And it is set in Samaria—not in Galilee, not in Judea, but in Samaria! In response to the call of the disciples to “call down fire from heaven” on some Samaritans, Jesus instructs his followers to move around the region, proclaiming the good news of the coming kingdom.
From learners to leaders
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.
Sent out to bear witness
An account of the sending out the twelve to bear witness to the kingdom is found in the source used by Luke, the beginnings of the good news (Mark 6:7–13), as well in the book of origins (Matt 10:5–25). 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 rigour with which the seventy are sent out reflects the rigour required of the twelve before them: “no purse, no bag, no sandals”, intent on filling their purpose, instructed to “greet no on on the road” until arriving at the house of destination (10:4–5). The twelve were instructed to “take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic” (9:3).
One part of the instruction, to “greet no one on the road” (10:4) evokes the instructions of Elisha to Gehazi, “if you meet anyone, give no greeting” (2 Kings 4:29); another instruction, to say “peace to this house” (10:5) evokes the directions of David to ten young men to salute Nabal, “peace be to you, and peace be to your house” (2 Sam 25:5–6).
The overall portrayal of those sent out in both scenes, the twelve and the 70 (or 72), is reminiscent of the way that Cynic philosophers roamed the countryside, touting their philosophical teachings; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/29/just-sandals-and-a-staff-and-only-one-tunic-mark-6-pentecost-6b/
On the comments relating to the moments when “you enter a town and they do not welcome you”, when Jesus instructs them to “go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you’”, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/30/shake-the-dust-off-your-feet-mark-6-pentecost-6b/
Alongside these moments of non-receptivity to the message, there are times when the message is accepted and believed. It is indeed striking that the success of these seventy, reported with great joy (10:17), occurs amongst the Samaritans. As we have seen, the Samaritans were difficult customers; James and John had 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). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/20/through-samaria-heading-to-jerusalem-luke-9-pentecost-3c/
The prayer of thanks that Jesus offers (10:21–22) and the blessing that he bestows upon his disciples (10:23–24) recognises this startling fact: Samaritans have responded positively to the good news proclaimed by the followers of Jesus! (This is similar to the successful witnessing to the significance of Jesus that is reported in the book of signs, at John 4:39–42, after Jesus had engaged with a Samaritan woman beside Jacob’s well, at Sychar, 4:4–6.)
“The disciples” in Luke’s account is a broad, inclusive group of followers—including Samaritans! 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.)
The seventy have been 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!!
Teachings to deepen discipleship and strengthen leadership
The inner group of twelve is thus not depicted as being isolated from, or elevated above, the others who travel with Jesus in Galilee and on into Samaria. 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), the challenge to “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. They deepen their discipleship, expand their understanding, and strengthen their leadership skills. All of these teachings apply to our discipleship, as well, and help to us make the move from learners, to leaders.
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 cover images come from The Seventy-two Disciples (Unknown artist, Provenance Ethiopia, Dated about 1480 – 1520; Tempera on parchment).
Based on excerpts from a 64-page study booklet, From Learners to Leaders: an exploration of the Gospel for Year C, by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine (self-published, 2014)