Today’s readings might be titled ‘unlikely messengers’, some who are different from the usual expectations for leaders, but come with a new kind of authority. The prophet Amos had no role in the official religious structures when he was called by God. The twelve apostles also were not part of the Temple ‘establishment when Jesus sent them out to preach.
This book was written in the period following the death of King Solomon, when the northern and southern parts of his kingdom separated, and were at times at war with each other as well as subject to invasions from outside. The northern section was called Israel, and the southern Judah. Amos was from a small town in Judah, but he prophesied at Bethel, one of the main cult centres in Israel in the northern kingdom. Jerusalem was the religious and political capital of Judah. The contempt of Amaziah in our reading today, reflects their hostility between the two kingdoms.
Michael L. Barré, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, writes that ‘Amos is the first of the “classical prophets,” the first whose oracles have come down to us in the form of a book. Amos’ career took place during a period of great material prosperity for Israel, but also a period of social and religious corruption.’ Barré also explains that the word translated as ‘sycamores’ is not the tree familiar to us in the UK, which doesn’t need ‘tending’, but the ‘mulberry fig’ which does.
In saying that he was not a prophet, Amos points out that he had no role in the temple or cult structures, where the priests would pronounce oracles. Rather, in a totally unexpected place and time, he was working with his flocks and trees when received his call from the Lord to preach. In our gospel today, we will hear Jesus send out his disciples, and Mark has told us that they, too, were not part of the religious hierarchy. Four of them were fishermen and one a tax collector. God’s call of people to speak his word does not always appear as expected.
The kingdom of God is characterized in this psalm with its emphasis on mercy, faithfulness, justice and peace. It prepares us for the positive message to follow in the second reading.
Scholars are divided on whether the Letter to the Ephesians was written late in St Paul’s life and thus represents his late ideas, or whether it was by a follower of Paul well-acquainted with his teaching and explaining it for a succeeding generation. It has similarities with the undisputed Pauline letters, but also some clear differences. Whoever the author, this book of inspired scripture offers much to reflect on.
Today the opening section is in the language of Old Testament ‘benedictions’. Next the author lays out a long-term vision of God’s saving intent. The phrase ‘every spiritual blessing’ is frequent in this letter. The union of Jews and Gentiles is typical of St Paul, but union of the earthly and heavenly worlds is distinctive to this Letter. The author has taken over the idea of Chosen People from the Old Testament, and applied it to the Christian community, who are further identified as ‘adopted children’. Central to this blessing is the role of Christ as saviour and the one in whom all things would be gathered together at the end of time. The sealing of Holy Spirit, recalling baptism, is our sign of this future reality.
Mark omits any note of time or place of this sending, or of the location and duration of the mission. Some see it as a ‘training mission’ for the time after Jesus has gone, but it might be that they were going to places that Jesus would visit after them. Others suggest that Mark is anticipating how the apostles will carry on after Jesus resurrection, a time which will not be reported in this Gospel. Mark has not so far called the group ‘apostles’; here he uses the term ‘the Twelve’. But the Greek verb he uses for ‘sending out’ is apostellein, the root for ‘apostle’ so we have the hint of that title.
He gives them authority over unclean spirits, but only a short message, a simple one of a call to repentance. There is not even a mention the ‘Kingdom’, as Jesus spoke of it. Perhaps this is because they still have much to learn – as Mark will show in the remainder of the Gospel – before they understand what the ‘Good News about Jesus’ means. Their message of ‘repent’ is that of John the Baptist (chapter 1) and in the section following this sending out, Mark will tell the story of John’s death.
Jesus does not give a reason for the restrictions on what they are to take and to do, nor does he make it clear whether the practice differs from how the disciples and Jesus had been going about together. The point seems to be not so much to give details of what is allowed, but to show that they are not to provide even the least excess for themselves trusting that they will be taken care of while doing God’s work. Not moving from one house may mean that they are not to waste time looking for the best place to stay, but to get on with the mission.
‘Shake off the dust’: commentators note this was the custom of Jews returning to the Holy Land from abroad. Here it is done as a ‘testimony’ – by rejecting God’s messengers, the people are putting themselves outside the ‘kingdom of God’ which will replace the physical land of Israel. The sign of dust-shaking is a last chance given to to the people to reflect on the need to change their lives to be ready for what is to come.
Anointing with oil for healing: Jesus does not use oil in his healing in the gospels, but oil was used symbolically in the OT, and will be taken up by the later church, see James 5:14.
This story is simply told, but as with so much in Mark done in simple style, there is a deeper meaning, too. Jesus did not come as a lone heavenly Saviour, or a King to be served, but one who created a community – or in his words, a family of ‘brothers and sisters’. They are to support each other and carry out his mission when he was no longer present. That extends beyond his death and return to the Father, with each generation of Christian ministers who are also called and sent. There is a sense is which every Christian is ‘called’ by God although their role might not be preaching. Paul in his Letters speaks of many different gifts that together build up the community.