We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
BEING SENT OUT
At its heart, the Gospel is all about proclamation. And now, quite suddenly, the group of men who are closest to Jesus – known by Mark as the Twelve – are commissioned to do just this and are sent out to get on with their work. This little account comes hard on the heels of the faith accounts – both great faith and little faith. In a sense, the Twelve, who have been witnesses to all this, have been prepared for what they will encounter when they go out with the Word: they have been part of those contexts which Jesus himself has worked in, and so have a first hand knowledge of what to expect. Or have they? The question is a good one – what preparation have these itinerant preachers had to go out and do this work? Mark has given us no great detail about how Jesus has instructed them, after all!
There is nothing straightforward or easy about going out into the world of the everyday and preaching the Gospel.
Perhaps it’s good for the moment to dwell upon the details of these few verses and see what exactly Mark does tell us. It’s always important to recall that the evangelist will only tell us what we need to know – idle speculation about what’s not in the text leads us nowhere, since lectio divina is not a hide-and-seek with God.
In the first place the Twelve are summoned by Jesus and sent out by him. This is not a personal or group initiative on their part – the origin of mission for the Twelve lies with Christ himself. So, we can say that, even if they feel a little out of their depth at this stage, Jesus feels they are ready! This is a vital part of our own discipleship, mission sense and call to evangelization – it began at baptism! That was when our call from God first took shape and acquired a form which would never be altered. So it is with the Twelve – Jesus’ confidence in them began with the call which he issued to them, and which they received, personally and to which they each of them responded. That includes, of course, Judas Iscariot – he is one of the Twelve; he is paired up with another of his brothers; he too goes out on the mission to preach and cure and cast out devils. Again, notice that Mark says nothing about the relative success of each individual or each pair – they all went out as instructed and got on with the work of evangelisation, of making the kingdom present by their Gospel-work.
There is no comparing and contrasting here of their work or its respective merits. Our lives and our world are hooked on, addicted to, the comparisons that we make or are made to make with one another. The Chrstian isn’t even in competition with himself or herself – she works at her mission because God has given her this work and she lives it out because she loves God! It is probably the central plank of our Christian living that we are all waiting to realise, and until we realise it – and are filled with the joy which it brings – we will continue to be anxious and concerned about how we are doing and is it good enough – we do what we do because we love God! This is probably the great moment of purification of intention that we all need – I can put all else aside, every value-adding criterion which applies in the world, and recognise and rejoice in the fact that I live my life and vocation as fully as possible out of love for God.
Is any one of us completely ready to proclaim the Word of the Kingdom Reign of God perfectly and in such a way that the whole world, as soon as I open my mouth, converts? Doubtful! I am called to approach my vocation work as myself – it is, after all, the Word that I serve and the Word that I preach, not I who is on display. Of course, the gifts that I have been given come to be of tremendous service for the work of evangelisation that I am called to do – God gives the gifts which are necessary to bring his purposes to fulfillment. So, what are the gifts that I am bringing to this service and work? If I don’t know what they are, perhaps it’s time that I began to identify them, own them, thank God for them, and ask him to give me opportunity to allow them to be put to use.
Going out to preach the Word and bring people to awareness of and life in the Kingdom Reign of God is not a competition – we each of us are different members of the same body, given different tasks according to God’s plan, not our own, and asked to live it as best I can.
The fact that the Twelve are sent out in pairs is very significant. As we know from our discussion on Chapter One of the Rule of St Benedict, very few of us are called to the single-handed combat of the solitary life. We are called to communion and community with others, in which cooperation is a mark of our humanity. There is something very reassuring about Jesus’ practical care for his disciples here – when one is despondent, the other is called to put new heart into their companion and lift them up. And the going will get tough – for all of the moments of success when the Word takes root there will be plenty of rejection, opposition and that very wearying and deflating poison – indifference. Indeed, one of the kingdom workers who collaborates so well with Paul in the course of the history of the Acts of the Apostles is Barnabas, whose name is “son of encouragement”, or better, “son of consolation”. He is one who is ready to carry his fellows when the burden of the apostolate becomes too much.
Encouragement and consolation in the work of the harvest is an essential mark of one who has been suffused with the beauty of the Gospel and the kingdom – and it comes from the deep place of the heart, where the Word has taken root and is bringing forth its fruit. Jesus, while he could certainly upbraid and challenge those who, for their own agendas, chose to attack him and undermine him, is first and foremost one who seeks to build up and comfort. This is an aspect of his own prophetic character, and one in which we ourselves share. And of course, for all of us who are sons and daughters of the Church born of the Spirit we are people who have received the Consoler, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit of love who brings forth his fruits in our lives (Galatian 5:22).
So, they are sent out in pairs – but Jesus makes three! Can Christ ever really be absent from the mission which we take up? Never! In fact, the sending out begins with Jesus’ giving the Twelve authority over unclean spirits. But this authority is not theirs – it is supremely his, and his by his presence. Undoubtedly, in all that we undertake in our discipleship the first thing that we must recall is that Jesus is the one who is working through us. Perhaps it’s good at this particular juncture to remind ourselves of St Paul’s penetrating insight into himself, and so into us and our nature:
“We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us”II Corinthians 4:7
“I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me”Galatians 2:19-21
“Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth”Ephesians 4:24
“You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received – Jesus the Lord; you must be rooted in him and built on him and held firm by the faith you have been taught, and full of thanksgiving”Colossians 2:6-7
“Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is sitting, at God’s right hand… you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ is revealed – and he is your life – you too will be revealed in all your glory with him.”Colossians 3:1-4
“You have stripped off your old behaviour with your old self, and you have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its creator… There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything.”Colossians 3:9-11
“It is Christ the Lord that you are serving.”Colossians 3:24
So, the disciples have been prepared for this sending out by having already been with Jesus and he with them. Since the time of their calling they have been coming to know him, coming to recognise him, coming to be astounded by him and his power and work and authority. They are ready to go out because they know that, far from being alone, he goes with them. That invitation is very striking for us – to know that Jesus accompanies us in all that we do we have to spend time coming to know him, recognise him, rejoice in his presence within us and in our lives, and revealed to us in both the others whom I meet and in the prayer which allows me to meet him. Each of us accepts that baptismal responsibility when we take the work of the Gospel seriously.
What did they not take? What had they got already? Christ’s instructions about the journey and how the disciples should equip themselves might now seem somewhat more easily understood. They are asked to travel light in terms of their worldly baggage – this will resonate with some of us for whom a weekend away sometimes means packing as if we were moving house! The undertaking which the Twelve accept – and none of them, as far as we know, refused Jesus’ missioning of them – is a tough one; it’s a journey which is like no other journey which they have made before. There is, then, a practical renunciation of the things which are taken for granted in order that they be able to move about, freely and relatively unencumbered, on their preaching mission.
This is a central question for all of us in terms of discerning and realising vocation in our lives: renunciation is a Gospel requirement because the things – both material and otherwise – which we gather up do end up becoming burdensome. And if they are burdensome, they inhibit how we live out our true life. Renunciation is a painful journey in itself – I have to undergo the very real business of separation, and for some, perhaps more than others, that brings a certain anxiety. But also hanging in this renunciation is a question about lived poverty – and that requires an entire piece of itself, since poverty spans a host of ideas and practices.
Renunciation doesn’t just happen once – it is a matter of ongoing conversion and transformation in my life. In a sense, it’s never quite complete – we tend to replace rather than renounce! Again, renunciation is empty unless it is founded on a solid base and justification – I renounce because …. But when real renunciation takes place there is no concomitant emptiness – God provides what I need if I recognise that he knows best of all.
These few verses provide a reality check for us at many levels, not least that we live in a world which, by and large, can be diffident about its welcome of the Gospel. In this instance, very little has changed since the day Jesus preached and then sent out these first co-workers. A little bit like our addiction to comparison with others and to ambition, we tend to measure everything we undertake by success or failure. Jesus lets the Twelve – and us – know that the message will be welcomed in many instances: many will hear and be converted, will take hold of the invitation to enter into the Kingdom already present and join in the work. Those are the times when joy will come most readily to us. But at the same time the Gospel will experience rejection, mockery and persecution, and indifference. Those are moments when desolation, perhaps even pointlessness and dejection can threaten to undermine the work and overwhelm us. Now we need to remember who is really doing the work here, and that he has a plan which will be brought to completion when he sees fit.
One of the most difficult questions to confront is the matter of why God seems to take his foot off the pedal and allow the Gospel message, and even the kingdom and the work, for example, that the Church does, be overshadowed by scandal, failure, corruption and the many other instances of darkness which seem about to smother the light. Very often, as we have seen in our own day, many people come to be hurt, grievously and needlessly, by the actions of those who should be leading through their own humility, brokenness and conversion. Such damage done to persons, sons and daughters of the Father, is unconscionable and inexcusable, and it damages also the Church in her mission and work. But, while we can never hope to repair that damage completely now, we trust that the Father, who can bring good out of even the most desperate of situations, does heal and restore, because he never stops caring for those who have not experienced the care which they should have received. In these senses, the Gospel is even rejected within the body of the Church, and is distorted or twisted to suit the message of individuals. For those of us, so many throughout the world, who are dedicated to the spread of the Kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel in the life of the Church, we must be careful not to be disquieted, or made anxious about this. We are not the measure of the Gospel, and neither are our usual criteria for success. God has his own criteria – the death of his Son should be enough to show us this!
So, both acceptance and rejection will confront us in our work in this life – and we have to accept both.
There is a radical nature to Jesus’ request about what the disciples carry with them on this journey – and it’s this journey of mission in particular that Jesus is speaking about. He’s really posing a question to us – what do you discern as necessary for your path in life? What will be of greatest service to you and others as you seek to live your vocation fully and fruitfully? What is just garbage that I can jettison? And perhaps he hints at that essential which is companionship itself, shared communion with another on life’s journey – the English word, “companion”, combines two Latin words meaning “the one I take bread with”. So, in companionship there is already an intimacy which means we share the most essential things that we have for the support of the other.
They follow Jesus ‘s own example – first of all, they preach repentance, which is how Mark begins his Gospel, with Jesus’ own proclamation. And they cast out devils, and cure sick people – so they follow the example of the Master in everything that they undertake, and don’t go out deciding that they know better themselves. This is a fascinating model – Jesus gives us an example, and, for our part, we must decide if we want to follow it. I think we would be very foolish to imagine that Jesus’ example is going to come in second best to our own way of thinking and acting. Or would we? Part of the struggle of our lives in discipleship is frequently that we do decide against the Gospel example and invitation and, feeling that we have a better measure of what we need and want, go another way. The greatness of the exercise of our free will lies precisely in the fact that we choose to follow Jesus – he issues an invitation, and we accept or reject. At no stage does Jesus impose. We tend to forget this also about what and how the Church teaches: she presents truth and praxis and invites us to embrace truth and praxis in our own lives. And there is a gulf of difference between imposition and invitation!
Perhaps this lies in the heart of the mission to preach the Gospel, according to Jesus’ instructions to the Twelve here. They are to preach, cure and cast out demons – if their message is accepted, good: stay and deepen the work with those who have heard the invitation, accepted the preached and worked word. But if the invitation is rejected (and perhaps this may be a short term rejection), make a clean break and move on to the next place. Mark is more succinct in this missioning and how it is to be carried out than Matthew and Luke – there is no chastisement or reminder to those who reject the Gospel, no “the kingdom of God is very near to you” – but the preached word remains to do its quiet work, at its own speed, in that rejecting community. This should arrest us – the Word works at its own pace, and will not be forced by us. To each who hears comes also the invitation to accept freely – our duty is to preach, and preach to the best of our ability.
Again, in success and failure we must be careful not to be overwhelmed by either consolations or desolations. In this sense, it may be good to listen finally to the words of St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (originally, by the way, called the Company of Jesus – those who walk in companionship with Jesus!), on consolation and desolation in The Text of the Rules:
Third Rule: The third is of spiritual consolation. I call it consolation when some interior movement is caused in the soul, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and, consequently, when it can love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but only in the Creator of them all. Likewise when it sheds tears that move to love of its Lord, whether out of sorrow for one’s sins, or for the passion of Christ our Lord, or because of other things directly ordered to his service and praise. Finally, I call consolation every increase of hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord.
Fourth Rule: The fourth is spiritual desolation. I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitation and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad, and, as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is contrary to desolation, in the same way the thoughts that come from consolation are contrary to the thoughts that come from desolation.
Fifth Rule. The fifth: in time of desolation never make a change, but be firm and constant in the proposals and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation, or in the determination which one was in the preceding consolation. Because, as in consolation the good spirit guides and counsels us more, so in desolation the bad spirit, with whose counsel we cannot find the way to a right decision.
Sixth Rule. The sixth: although in desolation we should not change our first proposals, it is very advantageous to change ourselves intensely against the desolation itself, as by insisting more upon prayer, meditation, upon much examination, and upon extending ourselves in some suitable way of doing penance.
Seventh Rule. The seventh: let one who is in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, so that he may resist the various agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can resist with the divine help, which always remains with him, though he does not clearly feel it; for the Lord has taken away from him his great fervour, abundant love and intense grace, leaving him, however, sufficient grace for eternal salvation.
Eighth Rule. The eighth: let one who is in desolation work to be in patience, which is contrary to the vexations which come to him, and let him think that he will soon be consoled, diligently using the means against such desolation, as is said in the sixth rule.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-