I thought I would start this morning by making a confession of sorts. I don’t think it will surprise you if I tell you that as I am preparing my homilies, I check the internet to see what others are going to say about the readings for each particular Sunday. Each of the respective preachers chose to introduce their ideas in a different way on this 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time. One priest used the movie “Accidental Tourist” to launch his thoughts about the mission Jesus gives to his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel. Another recalled that it was fifty years ago this month that the United States fulfilled a mission begun by President Kennedy to land a man on the moon. A third looked at the Gospel through the joyful perspective of Isaiah who, in the sixty-sixth chapter of his writings looked at the return of the captive Israelites from Babylon.
The story that we hear in the Gospel today is remarkable because it only appears in St. Luke’s Gospel. The other Gospels tell of how Jesus sent the Twelve to preach, but St. Luke includes a second story in which Jesus commissions the seventy-two disciples to preach that God is near.
As I have mentioned before, St. Luke, unlike Sts. Mark and Matthew and John, was not a Jew. Whereas Sts. Mark and Matthew send the Twelve to preach to the children of Israel, St. Luke sends an additional seventy-two disciples. As we heard last week, Jesus has resolutely set off for Jerusalem realizing that the time for his being taken up had arrived. Almost the first thing he does after making this resolution is to commission the seventy-two disciples.
The number seventy-two tells us a great deal about St. Luke’s intent in this story. In the Book of Genesis, chapter ten, the sacred writer records the names of the descendants of the three sons of Noah. You might have guessed it already – there are seventy-two descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth. In the Book of Numbers, chapter eleven, God directs Moses to share his spirit of prophecy with the seventy-two elders of the tribes of Israel and goes on to relate that two of them fail to show up for the big moment. The number seventy-two is also significant because at the time of Jesus, there were but thirty-six known countries in the world. So by sending them out two by two, St. Luke seems to intend that the Good News is to be shared with the whole world. As the sole Gentile evangelist, St. Luke is concern with the evangelization of the whole world.
Jesus asks the disciples to announce, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.” This is the very same message that Jesus himself has been preaching as he makes his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus obviously trust them enough to share his personal mission with them. He warns them that they are going like sheep among wolves. He knows that his message has not been well received in some quarters and that they will receive the same kind of hostile response. He gives them the power to heal the sick and to expel demons but also tells them that they should carry nothing with them.
When they return, the seventy-two are full of joy, reminiscent of the joy that Isaiah expresses at the thought of the return of the Babylonian captives. Jesus rejoices with them; but as he is aware of the cross that awaits him in Jerusalem, he also cautions them to rejoice not in what they have accomplished but in what awaits them in heaven. St. Paul reminds us today that the cross is the focus of our preaching in the passage we read from the Letter to the Galatians this morning.
In the past two decades there has been much to dampen any spirit of rejoicing. However, there is also a cause for joy. When we stop to realize that men and women have brought the message of Jesus to every corner of the earth, when we look at the many who have given their lives to spread the message of Jesus, when we realize that there are an estimated 2.2 billion Christians living in the world today, we, like the disciples who returned to Jesus, can and should rejoice in what has been accomplished. This past week on July 2, I am happy to report that ten young men professed their first vows as Franciscan friars. They remind us that hundreds of thousands have gone before them and lived as followers of Jesus in the footsteps of St. Francis. In the twenty centuries since Jesus, men and women have consecrated themselves to religious life, to following the footsteps of Jesus. In addition there is no telling how many couples have lived out the grace of holiness through a faithful response to their wedding vows. Yes, even in the midst of the sorrow that we experience because of past scandals, there is cause for rejoicing.
So as we come to the altar today to share communion with one another and with the Lord Jesus, our hearts are full of gratitude for all that God has done for and through us and the billions of people who have come before us.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.