A Reflection on Luke's Gospel, Chapter 10:1-11, 16-20
Years ago, my husband and I left our young children with his mother and went to see a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Othello. In an attempt to make the 400-year-old play more approachable, much of the cast was dressed in modern day military uniforms. But the language was just as Shakespeare wrote it, and I admit that although we recognized some of the words in the characters’ dialogue, we didn’t understand it. We felt frustrated and clueless, and when the lights came up at intermission, we left the theater and went to dinner.
I’ve felt a bit like that as this Gospel reading percolated in my mind the past few weeks as I thought about what wisdom I could glean from it to share with congregation I attend.
My ruminations raised so many questions that I found myself wishing, not for the first time, that I could ask Jesus for clarification, or put in a request to the Gospel writers for a new edition with contemporary situations, so I’d understand better the meaning behind his words.
I’d like to know how Jesus would word his directives if he were sending the 70 followers out in the context in which we live now: a world of instant global communication where we can seemingly know everything about places we’ve never been and people we’ve never met. A world of letters, books, email, Facebook, Twitter and the Internet, where people can speak to each other across space and time without being physically present or even alive, since our words are preserved and archived in print and The Cloud.
And I’d have questions about the specific details of his instructions:
“Carry no purse, no bag.” No purse? No bag?
I need my keys, driver’s license, phone, cash and credit cards. And a water bottle, lip balm, and a sweater are always a good idea, aren’t they? Shouldn’t my purse equip me with everything I need in order to serve God?
“Greet no one on the road.” Does that still apply in a world of cars and planes? Is speaking to the stranger next to me on the train, plane, or bus taboo? Or is it the modern-day equivalent of staying with a stranger’s household? I hope these small encounters count, because otherwise Jesus’s directives seem impossible to me.
“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you,” and “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.”
I certainly can’t imagine going door-to-door in a town of strangers hoping to become a houseguest forced to eat dairy and wheat, soy and eggs, and so many other foods that would make me sick in order to talk about God. And even back then, what if a host fed one of the 70 pork, which was against their religion? Was Jesus saying they should they eat it anyway? Can’t we buy our own groceries and still profess our love for God?
And, what about being a resident in the towns where Jesus sends the 70 in a nation with motels at every Interstate exit and cities full of Airbnb’s? Am I supposed to open my door to two strangers and invite them to stay for days, doing their laundry and cooking for them while they wander around Union or Shelton looking for people willing to be healed? I have a hard enough time being polite to the Jehovah’s Witnesses I talk to through the screen door.
But, back then, in a culture centered around hospitality, Jesus’s plan actually worked.
The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" And he replied, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”
I wouldn’t even want to ask Jesus about demons, Satan, snakes, or scorpions or “the enemy.” I want to follow him in a world free from supernatural forces, venomous creatures, or enemies.
Would Jesus tell me that today’s demons are addiction and violence and mental-illness? And the venomous creatures are corporate greed and systemic injustice and government corruption? And that the enemy is our own inability to recognize the humanity and belovedness in all people?
If so, I could really use his help understanding how to gain authority over them.
I’d want to talk to him about “Being a lamb among wolves.”
Now that Christianity has become a dominant institution, those of us in the West who consider ourselves Christian are hardly in danger like the lambs Jesus’ followers were. Too often the church has acted like the wolves, preying upon the bodies of children and bilking money from the flock for personal gain, aligning itself with power, currying political favor, and promoting cultural conformity, rather than remaining rooted in Jesus’s teachings of aiding the poor, orphaned, and widowed. In that way, I wonder if we’re any different from the religious establishment of Jesus’ day.
And what’s modern-day equivalent of shaking the dust off my feet when the roads are paved and my feet are safe inside shoes as I walk from home to car to store to car to home? Is it a scathing letter to the editor or shaming on social media?
As you can see, I could go on and on, asking Jesus to explain himself just for me.
In my imagination, I did ask Jesus all these questions. And in my imagination, he is always patient with me—even if he wasn’t with his disciples. I imagined him shaking his head with sad laughter, and telling me that I am so caught up in details and context, that I’m missing the core values and timeless truths behind his words. Like his disciples, much of the time I just don’t get it.
Jesus asked me to set aside my intellect and literalism and listen for the Spirit’s guidance. To clear my mind, I cleaned my kitchen and bathroom. As I wiped and scrubbed, a few words floated into consciousness from early in the passage:
The reminder that Jesus sent out his followers in pairs.
We are not meant to follow him in isolation, to be guided only by our own interpretations of his words and actions. Whether we are two or twelve or seventy, we are meant to live out our faith in community.
How better to understand what Jesus means by saying, “The kingdom of God has come near to you,” than to walk alongside someone for an hour, a day, a year, or a lifetime, and to learn about and share in their experience of faith, of questioning and struggle, of hope and celebration.
Personally, I’ve been blessed to have a prayer partner for 25 years, a woman I met at church in California, who moved to Washington a year after me. Together, we confess our transgressions, share our joys, wrestle with God’s call in our lives, pray for others, and listen for the Spirit. All things I can imagine the pairs of 70 followers doing on their journeys to the nearby cities.
The other thought that came to mind as I cleaned is what Jesus asked his followers to say as they approached strangers and how to handle the strangers’ response.
Greet them by saying: “Peace to this house!” We come to others with words of blessing, of kindness, not of condemnation, guilt, or coercion. Offering peace—however we might phrase that today—we extend an invitation to speak about the things that really matter in life. An invitation the other is free to accept or not.
Jesus says, “And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.”
When I step back from the feeling that I need to interpret and follow the words of the Gospel correctly, I remember that Jesus is always more interested in relationships than right beliefs. That he is always extending the circle of God’s love wide enough to include everyone who responds to his invitation. An invitation offered by the desire for human flourishing, not as a matter of force or fear motivated by the need for power and control.
Growing up in a family fractured by divorce four times, I strove to be perfect so that I would be loved enough not to be left. But I could never be good enough. When I accepted the unconditional love God offered, I began healing the brokenness in my own life. As that old wound has been healed by faith, I’ve longed for some of my dearest loved ones who are trapped in pain and suffering to experience the freedom and peace I’ve found.
And yet, the words I’ve offered about God and the healing power of love haven’t “worked.” My dear ones are still suffering and not at peace.
For a long time, I believed I’d failed them and God by my failure to save them, or win them to Christ.
But in this scripture passage Jesus offers me the much needed reminder that his peace can remain with me if I accept it—no matter how others respond.
There is so much richness to be mined from this Gospel passage, especially if we can look beyond the questions of how to translate the culture of the time to 21st century circumstances. I encourage you to spend more time with these words this week, to let them percolate in your life and see what emerges.
May the timeless truths of Christ continue to reach through time and space, blessing those who listen with open hearts and minds. May we be among them.
On the last Sunday of June, I stood in the backyard of a Victorian house in Loveland, Colorado, surrounded by 85 smiling, tearing with joy, happy people all dressed up and gathered to celebrate the wedding of two kind, smart, funny, and generous humans incredibly dear to us—one of them being my oldest daughter.
I’d convinced myself, as the bride’s mother, that I’d cried all my tears several days before the ceremony when I wrote letters to my daughter and her betrothed. And, walking her down the aisle with my husband, the three of us were all smiles. My smile at moments looked more like a grimace, the eyes-screwed-shot-nearly-maniacal grin of the insanely happy, caught on camera.
Everyone laughed at the best man’s speech; and the maid-of-honor, who’s been my daughter’s best friend since the age of three, gave a delightfully funny and sweet toast. Everyone guffawed when my husband, who used to work in high tech, rose and joked about not being able to use PowerPoint—a platform our daughter and her friends employed in high school to bolster their request to make an unchaperoned road trip—and became weepy when he spoke of his mother, who met the groom once when he and my daughter had first started dating, and had predicted their wedding long before they made that decision—as she had with my husband and me.
The time came to read the poem I’d written, a blessing for two precious people, and emotion wracked my voice.
This moment, this leap of love
this saying yes spills from the lips
of our beloved bride and groom
words shimmering with joy.
Together we celebrate the wonder
of life in which these two
so precious to each of us
have found and chosen each other
and today have pledged their lives
to one another’s keeping.
What a gift it is to journey
alongside them in a world
made sweeter by the kindness
and generosity of their love.
Cherished ones, may your marriage
continue to bring out the best
in each of you and each person
blessed to know you now
and in the years to come.
After dinner, I’d learn that I’d made some of the bridesmaids “ugly cry.” Three of the “mom friends” in attendance, who’ve known my daughter almost as long as I have, were brought to tears as well. One couldn’t finish her meal.
I know it wasn’t that my words were so exceptional or powerful, it was because love was overflowing, spilling out of us on this “happy, happy day,” to quote one of my daughter’s childhood friends.
But on this happy, happy day there was still recognition of our human frailty: photos of the grandparents who’d died were on display next to the guestbook. And at 5,000 feet altitude some guests faced challenges: one with cancer suffered from the lack of oxygen, and even some who were healthy had headaches and trouble breathing, but they were all there; they’d come to celebrate love.
One of the young bridesmaids was widowed less than a year ago, and despite her grief she hasn’t lost her riotous sense of humor as her infectious laugh rang throughout the weekend. I’m sure there were quiet moments that brought back bittersweet memories and sadness. I also know, that surrounded by her closest friends, she could be herself exactly as she needed to be in that moment.
It wasn’t only the love of the bride and groom for each other that drew the wedding guests together and made the day so rich; it’s the love and care that this bride and groom have for their friends—the way they keep strong relationships over the years, the way they make new friends wherever they go, the generosity and kindness shown to others.
We celebrated in a spirit of joy and abundance, and in those days of travel and celebration, I took a break from “the news of this world,” returning to it heartsick over all the ways we separate ourselves from love as a society. Outside of our circle of family and friends, we’re often fearful of others. We treat them in ways we’d never treat those we love, or those we just met at a wedding reception, or sadly even our unruly pets.
I want to hope that the gifts gleaned from my daughter’s wedding overflow into my behavior in the world: that I might see each person as a bride or bridesmaid, groom or groomsman, or the family, friends, parents, and children who love them and extend hospitality. And I want to hope that my small bit of generosity and kindness combined with your small bit of generosity and kindness can make a difference in the life of others—strangers and friends alike.
The following is the message I delivered to my congregation on the Lectionary Scripture:
Last week’s gospel reading ended with the resurrected Jesus exhorting Peter to “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; and feed my sheep.” Today’s Gospel reading moves back in time to Jesus’ ministry before his death and resurrection, and the words John writes about Jesus’ identity as the Good Shepherd.
The scripture opens with Jesus observing the Festival of Dedication we call Hanukah in Jerusalem. “Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’”
Of course Jesus and his followers were Jewish, so “the Jews” that John refers to are those who oppose Jesus, those with authority—likely the scribes and Pharisees—who are expecting a messiah; and they’re looking for a messiah who will restore them to their homeland and free them from the power of the Roman empire. Maybe they were hoping for a politically savvy rabbi, or someone who would organize a rebellion and take on the Roman soldiers. It’s likely they are expecting a rabbi who has spent a lifetime steeped in the Torah, studying and applying the laws of Moses.
And I would imagine that they’re looking for someone who will recognize and reward them for their faithfulness in following the rules, keeping the commandments, interpreting God’s laws rightly and effectively, and for instituting policies, and procedures to ensure that the true faith is preserved without dilution or assimilation.
But Jesus isn’t acting like the messiah the groups in religious power have imagined. He’s the son of a carpenter who hasn’t been properly educated, he’s lax about the laws of purity, he associates with questionable people, and dismisses the concerns of those in power. He doesn’t praise the scribes for their accuracy or applaud the Pharisees and their rigidness; he challenges them instead.
Jesus has attracted a band of riff-raff, from hard core devotees, to crowds of thousands, curious about his charismatic style, his turn-everything on its head teachings that are peppered with stories, satire, and humor, as well as his miraculous ability to heal every imaginable ailment.
The Pharisees see these things, but they don’t understand them, and confront Jesus again and again. Who is he? What’s his agenda? Where did he get this authority?
Jesus seems to grow tired of the same religious people asking the same questions over again, not really interested in the truth, wanting the answer to be the answer they want to hear—an answer that will either expose Jesus for being a fraud, or one that will get Jesus to agree with those in power and adopt their limited agenda rather than continuing to challenge it with his own expansive and inclusive invitation.
“Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;’”
Jesus answers with a rebuke that upsets them, that lets them know Jesus thinks they’re asking the wrong questions, that their priorities are misguided. He’s told them who he is. “You don’t get it. You don’t listen, he tells them. It’s not a matter of keeping them in suspense.
“But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus tells them, implying that though they’re educated men, they don’t know much. They know less than Jesus’ outcast band of followers. They know less than a flock of lowly sheep.
In a blog post at “Journey with Jesus” Reverend Debie Thomas writes:
“At first glance, Jesus's reply might appear to suggest that belonging to him depends on believing in him. But in fact, what Jesus says is exactly the opposite: you struggle to believe because you don't consent to belong. In other words, belief doesn't come first. It can't come first. Belonging does…. And therein lies our hope and our consolation. According to this text, whatever belief we arrive at in this life will…come from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus's flock.”
Two thousand years later in our industrial economy, most of us haven’t seen a flock of sheep of the size that would’ve been common in Jesus’ time and hardly any of us are employed as shepherds.
A few of us who still live a rural lifestyle may have kept a small flock of sheep, but most people in the US have probably only seen a few on a farm as we’re out for a drive, or seen some raised by 4H kids in pens at the County Fair, or patted a few at the children’s zoo.
But many of us have memorized the twenty-third Psalm, made cotton-ball sheep in Sunday school classes, and sung along with various renditions of “Savior, Like a Shepherd lead us.” The metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is familiar. It sounds sweet and romantic until we think about what it really means to be sheep:
Sheep have no agency. Sheep have no control over where they live and roam, where and what they eat, who they live with, and how they spend their days is limited by the environment someone has chosen for them. And when turned loose in a pasture, sheep have a reputation for being dimwitted. They appear to blindly band together and make bad choices in adverse weather and when being confronted by predators. They seem to get stuck in branches and thickets and won’t cross streams when necessary. They need their heads anointed with oil to keep away flies. They wander off and can’t find their way back and need to be rescued and tended by a more intelligent life form in the form of a shepherd.
I don’t know about you, but I want to have agency. I want control over where I live and work, where and what I eat, with whom I live, and how I spend my time. I want to think for myself. I want to be independent, to follow my own desires wherever they might lead.
I want to believe that I choose wisely in adversity. I want a reputation for being smart, dependable, innovative, someone who is never lost, someone who can always lead the way, someone who freely offers assistance and knows exactly what to do to help others, but never needs help and never has to rely on anyone other than myself. I pride myself on following rules and doing things the right way—and the right way, incidentally, is always my way.
Given those traits—I think I would’ve been a fantastic Pharisee, the kind of person who didn’t understand what Jesus was up to.
I can’t know for sure, but I imagine the Pharisees are motivated by faith, by their love of God and the laws that God has given them for right living in relationship with God and with other humans. I suspect that they strive for absolute obedience to the law and perfection in its interpretation because it will bring them closer to God…not just themselves individually, but the entire Jewish community.
I’m the daughter of a father who became a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County at the age of 21, just three months after I was born. A man, who before he retired had been promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, captain, inspector, commander, division chief, and assistant sheriff—the highest non-elected rank possible. Though I didn’t live with him after I was ten, his belief I the law and devotion to law enforcement were deeply ingrained in me as was the expectation that I would be a leader, too. When I went to college, I majored in Political Science Public Service and worked in local government after graduation, training to be a shepherd, not a sheep.
Like my father, I strived to serve the greater good, believing that my dedication and hard work would or should result in accolades and external rewards. I grew up a modern-day Pharisee, with the government as God, but eventually I, like some of the Jews felt as though something was still missing in my life and became both intrigued by and resistant to Jesus’ message.
Earlier in this chapter of John’s gospel Jesus calls himself, “The Good Shepherd,” and says, “I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
To accept my belonging as one of Christ’s sheep, to enter through the gate and to take my place as a member of the flock, to become part of the beloved community, is a gift beyond measure.
But it is also an ongoing process of surrender:
It means surrendering my ego and my desire to be special or set apart—I am loved no more and no less than any other sheep. It means letting go of my tendency to think solely or mostly about myself and my needs—and how I can get others to meet those needs.
It means considering the welfare of others and contributing to the greater good not because I want to be helpful or share my expertise or abundance with the less fortunate, but because cooperation is simply my role as part of a flock a whole that is interconnected and interdependent, where the health, safety, and welfare of every single sheep is of equal importance.
It means surrendering my desire for rewards and praise and affirmation by society for a job well done. It means recognizing that external validation is meaningless and hollow, that is does nothing to satisfy the deep desire of the soul.
Taking my place in the flock means letting go of my expectations and desire for control over my own circumstances, and accepting the reality that is before me as it exists—not as I want it to be. It means coming to the realization that control itself is an illusion. I do not have power over events or people in my own life, or in the lives of others, but I have the power to accept Christ’s invitation into a belonging that can never be taken away. Following Jesus doesn’t guarantee wealth, health, or happiness or any worldly tangible reward; but it offers an abundant life for the soul, an intangible connection to God through Christ, something that can’t be seen and isn’t always felt, but is always present.
Theologian Bruce Epperly writes that “Jesus reveals God’s nature to us, and calls us to be his own, aligned with God’s vision…. No one is excluded from God’s love, and yet we experience this love only when we accept the path of Jesus…. Grace is given to all, but some may turn away, forfeiting the experience though not necessarily the reality of grace.”
Most of the Jews referred to in John’s gospel turn away and forfeit the experience of grace, but others come close.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus says. When I, when we, respond to that voice and enter the gate becoming part of the Good Shepherd’s flock we are held by a shepherd who said he would lay down his life for us and did. We are shepherded by one who promised that no one will snatch us from his hand.
No human endeavors, no amount of excellent law enforcement or absolute rule following or acts of community service can earn us what Jesus promises: the grace of unconditional love and eternal belonging. Yet Jesus offers these gifts freely to absolutely anyone who will follow.
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd,” he says earlier in this chapter of John’s gospel.
One shepherd who, even today, gathers us up and into one flock. It happens something like this:
Jesus walks through the neighborhood on a Sunday morning
calling us from our homes and our cares.
Curious we follow behind him dragging our worries
in shopping carts and red wagons,
jangling our woes like pocket change
as if he’s the Pied Piper and we can’t help
but fall hypnotized by his flute.
Strange that we hear him over the buzz
of power mowers, the hiss of cappuccino makers,
the roar of TV sports, the pounding bass from car stereos.
Odd that he appeals to the retired hi-tech VP
with shrinking stocks and irritable bowel, and to the single parent
on food stamps renting a room in another family’s house.
Strange, that we gather at the corner church,
as if Jesus is a convenience store and we need what he’s got--
a quart of milk, a pack of cigarettes, a lottery ticket.
We come freshly showered, fresh from cancer, fresh
from marriage, fresh from divorce, fresh from college, fresh from grief.
Jesus opens the gate for us, we step through it,
crowd next to each other and him
take refuge in this pasture, gathered up, gathered in
by the Good Shepherd—free in this moment,
from anxiety and the uncertainty of what comes next.
We pray, we sing, we listen, we share bread and wine.
We watch the sun stream through the clouds
shafts of light teeming with tiny insects
life abundant suspended in the air all around us.
Funny that before he gathered us into one flock
we shared the illusion that we were alone.
As we respond to the Good Shepherd’s invitation to follow and listen, may we, the sheep of his flock, carry out the directive Jesus gave to Peter to feed and tend one another.
Behr paint is hiring a Color Explorer to tour the U.S. and Canada this summer taking photos of natural beauty and cultural celebrations and naming paint inspired by the experience. They're marketing it as "Your Dream Job" and they're right!
I just submitted my application for the position, which along with having a passport, is based on my answer to this directive: "Tell us what color inspires you most and why—in 150 words or less."
I don't know if this is the type of answer they're looking for, but it was fun to write, so thought I'd share:
Blues bounce from sky to water ever changing as the sea reflects clouds’ grays and whites, trees’ greens and browns, sunsets’ pinks, reds, and purples in the Puget Sound kaleidoscope where I make my home as poet, writer, teacher, photographer, home renovator, realtor, and collector of paint sample cards that become gallons for project houses and imaginative names for writing prompts. I brush robin’s egg on a wall, royal on a headboard, photograph cerulean expanses. Faded blue jeans and navy deck shoes, the favored blues of my first road trip, pre-teen explorer under sapphire skies from Mammoth Hot Springs to San Francisco Bay. Still curious about our pale blue dot, attentive to beauty in natural and built environments, cobalt skyscrapers to azure streams, my blue eyes open wide, wander in wonder discovering possibility and connection in blues—water, sky flowers, birds—novel and new, that always paint peace, become home.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.