Laborers for the Harvest

OVER THE NEXT FEW WEEKS we will hear a sequence of narratives that follow one after another in Luke, chapters 9 through 11. Christ gathers His first twelve followers and sends them forth “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1). In the next chapter the Lord sends seventy others in advance “into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1).

Most Christians know the Twelve as “apostles” and the Seventy as “disciples,” but the Gospel makes no such distinction here. Luke calls the first group simply “the Twelve” whom the Lord “sends forth” (in Greek, apesteilen). In Matthew’s Gospel they are called dodeka mathetais (twelve disciples) in one verse and dodeka apostolon (twelve apostles) in the next (Matthew 10:1,2).

Luke speaks of “seventy others” (Luke 10:1) whom He “sends forth” (in Greek, apesteilen – the same word used for the Twelve). They were evidence that the total number of Christ’s followers was growing to the extent that a second circle of more committed followers could be formed. Matthew does not mention the Seventy at all.

Luke’s Gospel does not identify the Seventy and the early Christians speculated on who they might be. Several early Christians are called apostles in other New Testament books, however, including Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus, Junia, Silas, and Timothy (St Paul’s Epistles). Paul considered himself an Apostle called by the risen Christ as were the apostles in the Gospels. The evangelists Mark and Luke, not numbered among the Twelve, were considered by many early Christians to be among the Seventy.

In the Byzantine Churches both the Twelve – with Paul – and the Seventy are called Apostles. Many of them are commemorated individually throughout the year. The Twelve are celebrated together on a common feast day (June 30) while the Seventy are remembered on January 4.

The Disciples’ Mission

Luke is very specific about the mission of these respective groups. The Twelve, who were the first and closest followers of the Lord, were given “power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases” and were sent forth “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1,2). On the other hand, Jesus sent the Seventy “two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go… heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:1,9).

The Twelve may have been well known as Jesus closest followers, while the Seventy were not. This may explain why the Seventy were specifically sent out in pairs. At least two people were required to confirm the truth in serious matters (cf., [cite-pericope]Deuteronomy 17:6[/cite-pericope]).

The Seventy were given the role of advance men, preparing the way for Christ’s immanent visits. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, there were over 200 villages in Galilee at the time. To spend a few days in each one would have taken the better part of a year.

Some early writers saw the mission of these disciples as foreshadowing the role of Church in proclaiming the Kingdom of God by its preaching and in healing the sick by its sacramental ministry. By the sixth century many had come to see the Twelve as prefiguring the Church’s bishops and the Seventy as images of the presbyters.

Others stressed the continuity between the ministry of Christ’s disciples and the Church of their own day. Thus St Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “…these are things we see ourselves possessing. Blessed are our eyes and the eyes of all who love Him, We have heard His wonderful teaching. He has given us the knowledge of God the Father, and He has shown Him to us in His own nature. The things done by Moses were only types and symbols. Christ has revealed the truth to us: that not by blood and smoke but by spiritual sacrifices we must honor Him who is spiritual, immaterial, and beyond all understanding” (Homily 76, On Luke).

Instructions for the Mission

In sending forth the Twelve, Christ gave them some specific instructions.” “Take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money; and do not have two tunics apiece. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart” Lk 9:3, 4). The Apostles from the larger towns along the Sea of Galilee were sent to the out-of-the-way villages in Galilee’s interior. The Lord insists that they first of all share their hearers’ way of life, dressing simply and eating what they eat. They were to accept whatever hospitality was offered, not to look around for better accommodations. As St Ephrem the Syrian commented, they were to be perceived as heralds and evangelists, not merchants or opportunists.

Christ gives similar instructions to the Seventy when they are sent forth, adding “greet no one along the road” (Luke 10:4). They were on a spiritual mission, not going to socialize.

God’s Love for All

Christ sent His followers throughout Galilee to preach that the kingdom of God was at hand. The coming of the kingdom was an act of love on God’s part and everyone was welcome to respond to that love. Not everyone will be open to God, but everyone must have the chance to respond. He tells the Seventy, “But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5,6). As St Augustine of Hippo commented, it is not for us to decide in advance who should be invited into the Kingdom : “Since we do not know who is a son of peace, it is our part to leave no one out, to set no one aside, but to desire that all to whom we preach this peace be saved” (Admonition and Grace 15, 46).

For those who would not, the Lord’s response was uncompromising: “Whoever will not receive you, when you go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet as a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). To the Seventy He added, “I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day [when the kingdom comes to pass] for Sodom than for that city” (Luke 10:12).

Reactions to the Mission

When the Lord’s followers returned from their mission they were overjoyed: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” But He said to them, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17, 20). It is too easy for the successful apostle (or pastor or teacher) to become overly proud of any seeming accomplishments they have achieved when it is God who has been working in them. If we have any cause for joy, it is that we have been called to be in the Kingdom.

Christ’s words to His companions remain true for us today: “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2). Pray for vocations.