June 17, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Mission of the Twelve

See Matthew 10:5-42, Mark 6:7-13

Let me interrupt this series about Jesus in the Gospels to say something about the Apostles, although they’re usually referred to as “the Twelve.” I’m doing that because Matthew devotes an entire chapter to the instructions Jesus gave to the Twelve before he sent them (“apostle” means one who is sent) around Galilee. I hope you’ll read that chapter.

Seven columns back, I wrote about the calling of the Twelve. Since then, though, they haven’t done much. They have been with Jesus and observed him, and Jesus explained the meaning of the parables to them, but that’s about all. We have to imagine, though, that Jesus was preparing them for their role in his Church.

Now Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus sent the Twelve, traveling two-by-two, around Galilee. It appears that he wanted them to get their feet wet, so to speak. He wanted to test them. For now, he told them to go only to the Jews, not to pagan territory or to Samaria. They weren’t to take food or money with them, and only the clothes on their backs.

This was probably a nerve-wracking experience for the Twelve. These men had never done anything like this before. Yet Jesus told them to cure the sick, even raise the dead and drive out demons. Imagine the butterflies in their stomachs when they decided to try their first miracle or when they preached for the first time.

But what did they preach? At this stage in their development, they didn’t know that Jesus was God. They weren’t even certain that he was the Messiah; Peter’s assertion that he was came much later. Even after Peter’s declaration, Jesus told them not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

They were told to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But did they understand what Jesus meant by the kingdom? The Gospels indicate that they were not quick learners, to put it mildly. Well after this mission, they would still be arguing about which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom, and even just before the Ascension they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

They were told that, if they were not received, to shake the dust from their feet outside that house or town. This is what Jews did when they left pagan territory. (The word for shaking off, by the way, is intifada, what the modern Palestinians are trying to do to the Israelis.)

And what was Jesus doing while the Twelve were on their mission? Perhaps this is when he went back to Nazareth, a visit that ended with the Nazarenes trying to kill him. Surely the Twelve were not with him on that trip or the Nazar­enes would not have been able to try to hurl him off a cliff.

In the end, we have to feel disappointed that we don’t know any details about this mission of the Twelve. †


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