A Challenging Journey
Jesus has "set his face to go to Jerusalem," and he told fellow-travelers that the journey requires their single-minded purpose (9:51-62). Jesus sends seventy ahead of him and prepares them for what lies ahead. The laborers are few and the risks are great. Jesus sends them in pairs with no provisions for the journey. No conversing with those they meet on the road. They will depend on the hospitality of strangers. He instructs them to move on if a town does not welcome them, with a sign of judgment against that place.
Several years ago I asked seminary students to envision themselves as one of the seventy and imagine what would be most challenging about this journey. Many responses were predictable: not taking any money even for emergencies, no change of clothes, no food, depending on strangers for food and lodging, not being able to choose one's traveling partner, judging people who did not accept the message. But one student who had not spoken in class previously said, "Eat what is set before you." (verse 8) Silence, then a bit of nervous laughter followed. He repeated, emphatically, "Eat what is set before you," conveying by his tone that he was serious.
When I invited him to elaborate, he told us that his father had been a pastor in a rural, very poor area in South Dakota. The family was often invited for dinner by parishioners, most of them farmers. He recalled that he and his siblings were admonished to eat whatever was served. I supposed that he referred to a child's finicky tastes or disdain for green vegetables. But he went on to say that people on remote farms often relied on whatever they could kill or catch nearby for food, even for company. He added, "We just never knew what we would have to eat." Then I understood. I recalled my father's stories of growing up in such a place during the Depression. As a young boy, he often hunted squirrels, rabbits, and other wild creatures. I could not imagine eating such things, but they did.
In our classroom discussion, our readings of this text were informed by social location. Most of us defined the challenges of this mission from the experience of privilege. Our imaginations were limited to concerns of comfort and compatibility. We were most threatened by the loss of control or ability to make choices. As I recall the conversation, several obstacles were related in some way to dependence on others for basic needs. No doubt at all that I would prefer a per diem allowance and the privilege of choosing my travel companions, where I slept, and what I ate.
One student spoke from a cross cultural experience. As a child he had learned something about social location, though he would not have named it this. In a formative time in his life he experienced first-hand the customs and habits of life without the choices many take for granted. He crossed from "eat what is known and preferred" to "eat whatever is on the table," often unknown and unimaginable at home. This experience informed his reading of this text. And for the rest of us, his insight raised awareness of the way the experience of privilege informed our interpretations.
Since that class discussion, I think about the challenges of the mission differently. I observe that some of the imagined challenges centered on hospitality, especially in the role of recipient. Hospitality is a prominent theme through Luke and Acts and is at the center of this text. But I imagine that the customs of hospitality evident in Luke are not those commonly observed by most Christians who hear our sermons.
Hospitality According to Luke
A commentator once observed that, as Luke tells it, Jesus is either on his way to eat, eating, or just leaving the table. (See 5:29ff; 7:36ff; 10:36ff; 11:37ff; 14:1ff) This is an overstatement, of course, but it does capture the prominent place of table fellowship in Luke. According to this gospel narrative, sharing a meal defines hospitality. As Luke tells it, however, the emphasis is on being a gracious recipient.
Jesus dines frequently, but he never gives a dinner party. He is always a guest. Even at the Passover meal at which Jesus presides, someone else prepares it (22:7-8). In today's lection, Jesus instructs those sent forth to accept the hospitality of those who offer it, for as long as they offer it, "eating and drinking whatever they provide" (verse 7)
This model of hospitality transgresses common customs of hospitality as I know and understand them. Where is the notion of reciprocity? If I invite you to dinner, I will notice if I do not receive an invitation to dine at your home. And what about overstaying one's welcome? We have unflattering names for people who "take advantage of" our generous hospitality. The name "free-loader" comes to mind. In our seminary class discussion, we disassociated ourselves from the behavior Jesus advocates here.
But perhaps our generally accepted rules of hospitality inhibit a practice of hospitality that is more mutual. The student who was challenged as a child to "eat what is set before you" experienced what it meant to be a gracious recipient of hospitality. When I heard his story, I pondered an underlying assumption that those who have more extend hospitality to those who have less. It occurred to me that he also experienced a culture in which social class did not prevent mutual hospitality. In my world, sharing a meal is most often a social or community occasion that generally follows boundaries of social class. And in the congregational life with which I am most familiar, hospitality means a warm welcome for a newcomer to worship services. Sharing a meal might come later, after a few visits and becoming better acquainted.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he invites us to walk with him. His words here speak to every generation of Christian disciples and inspire a sense of urgency about bringing God's realm near. As we begin, we are called to examine customs we create to protect our comfort and ease, beginning with the practice of hospitality.