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 Jerusalem religious authorities 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.’ Outrage at a society that sought wealth and comfort and oppressed the poor and deprived the needy lies at the heart of Amos’s prophecies. It was a time very like our own, in which our present Pope continually stresses the need for ‘social justice’.
Barré explains that the word translated as ‘sycamores’ is not the tree familiar to us in the UK, which doesn’t need care, 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. Are we listening and ready?
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.
It is a commentator’s quip that the Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians is not by Paul and not addressed to Ephesus. That place name is missing in some of the best manuscripts that have come down to us. The style and some of the content is clearly different from the recognised Pauline letters. Yet it is inspired and inspiring – many call it their favourite of the New Testament letters. The words linking it to St Paul show the common practice of that time which named an honoured predecessor whose views inspired the new work.
A good summary of the Letter is by Paul J. Kobelski, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. It is ‘a theological discourse addressed to several churches ….in terms familiar to the readers – of the exaltation of Christ and the church over all heavenly and earthly powers and the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the church under the headship of Christ, and it encourages them to celebrate their unity by appropriate conduct.’
The selection we hear today is a good example of the writer’s style, dense with meaning and calling for reflection. It is actually one sentence in Greek, and following it is made easier by some translations which break it up into lines or ‘bullet points’. It moves from eternity through our time, from past to future, tying all into Christ as the centre but closely united with the Father and the Spirit. It is usual to think of eternity as endless time, but the ideas of modern physics with a ‘fourth dimension’ may make it a little easier for us to see it as outside our time, and this can be expressed in time terms, as ‘before’ and ‘to come’, but all as one Now.
The style of a benediction – Blessing God – is common in the Older Testament, and taken up in the New. It expresses a human reaction to the goodness of God. The content of this section moves in great circles around Christ as redeemer, as ‘head’ of the church, all under the eternal Father and the ‘seal’ or guarantee of the Spirit. I have found reading it over and over still leaves further richness to be experienced – in understanding and thanksgiving.
We will hear more in coming Sundays from the later parts of the Letter, but reading it as a whole during these weeks will bring more appreciation of its sense of joy and communion with God and others in and through God as we experience the presence of Christ and the Spirit among us.
Mark does not note the 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 Dominion of God (‘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 (Mark chapter 1) and in the section immediately following this sending out, Mark tells 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 be concerned about their own comfort and convenience nor to focus on their preparation. Rather they can trust to God to provide for them, and in the traditional hospitality of the time, to accept whatever is offered for them. 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’ –to show that by rejecting God’s messengers, the people are putting themselves outside the ‘Dominion 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, 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. Every Christian is ‘called’ by God although their role might not be preaching and healing. Paul in his Letters speaks of many different gifts that together build up the community.