Proper 9 • Luke 10:1–20 • July 3, 2016
By Timothy E. Saleska
Luke 10:1–20 does not develop an argument but instead lays out a series of sayings that are disparate in structure and content: a metaphor (v. 2); a comparison (v. 3); instructions (v. 4); regulations and brief developments of themes (vv. 5–13); lamentation (vv. 14–15); a wisdom saying (v. 16); a dialogue (vv. 17–20), which has an apocalyptic (v. 17), juridicial (v. 19), and paraenetic (v. 20), tone.¹
In this text, the kingdom of God sounds like it is made of threads and loose ends. Words, themes, and events in this text have connections, or threads, with the Old Testament and various other texts. We can follow the threads to see how this text ties in to a bigger picture of God’s kingdom. The threads also invite us to read forward. That is, they connect us, God’s people now, to God’s kingdom as well.
Loose ends in the text leave us hanging in various ways: tensions in God’s kingdom that still need to be resolved, questions that need to be answered, events that have not happened yet. What follows are some of the threads and loose ends that make up this text:
Loose end: When teaching interpretation of biblical narrative, we often use the saying: “description is not prescription.” In other words, unlike commands, and laws and instructions, narratives do not clearly direct us to do anything. They are not prescriptive in this sense. However, commentator David Brooks offers another perspective on narrative. He writes, “In middle age, it was as a novelist that Tolstoy achieved his most lasting influence. After all, description is prescription. If you can get people to see the world as you do, you have [unwittingly] framed every subsequent choice.”² So, if the text is not giving us evangelism techniques or instructing us in how we must do mission work, what is it trying to do? How is Jesus trying to get us to see the world as he does? How is his view different from other viewpoints that hold our attention? How might this text influence the way we live our lives and live out our faith? These are questions to think about as you prepare to preach on this text.
Thread: In verse 1, the seventy-two “others” (other than the twelve) that the Lord sends out links to the LXX text of Genesis 10 and the number of nations in Jewish thought.³ If this is the connection, then Jesus may use this number to tell us that his kingdom goes beyond the narrow boundaries of the Jewish nation, but extends to all the nations of the world. This thread might suggest that the fulfillment of OT prophecy has begun, and God’s blessing to the nations is at hand (Gn 12:1–3; Is 9:1–9; 42:1–9, etc.). The mission of the seventy-two emphasizes the power of God’s kingdom to defeat the diabolical enemies of his creation and his people (vv. 9 and 18). The language of the text and the miracles it describes suggest that this mission has eschatological implications (i.e., the last days of OT prophecy have broken into the present evil age). The mission of the seventy-two may also anticipate the mission to all the world seen at Pentecost (Acts 2).
Thread: In verse 2, the metaphor of the harvest is usually used in Scripture for the judgment (Jer 51:33; Hos 6:11; Jl 3:13; Rv 14:15), but here it is positive (Is 9:3, Ps 126:5–6). Again, the language suggests that the mission has eschatological implications—a matter of life and death. The metaphor of “mission is a harvest” still guides the church’s thinking about our mission today.
Thread: The metaphor of God’s people as lambs and Yhwh as their shepherd is common in the OT (Is 40:11; Ez 34:11–31; Pss 23:1; 79:13; 95:7), and so is the metaphor of the enemies as wild animals or wolves (Zep 3:3; Hb 1:8). In Isaiah 53:7, the servant of Yhwh is “like a lamb led to slaughter.” Again, this picture guides the church’s thinking about our identity, what we are to expect in this world, and what our relationship with Jesus means. Both the image of the harvest and lambs among wolves occur repeatedly in Christian hymns, prayers, and art as a way of thinking about our place in this world and the nature of God’s kingdom. In this connection, Isaiah 11:6, “the wolf shall live with the lamb” gives God’s people hope that the kingdom we await contains a marvelous reversal of fortunes where lamb and wolf are reconciled.
Loose end: In verse 6, the seventy-two heal the sick and proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. But this utterance leaves us wanting: wanting to see and experience the same power that these disciples saw. “The kingdom is near”—a foretaste of the salvation that God has promised—suggests that the kingdom is still near, but it seems invisible now. We are still waiting for Jesus to appear again and tie up what seems to be a loose end.
Thread and loose end: In verses 12–15, the mention of Sodom connects to the terrible judgment of that city (Gn 19). Jesus also mentions two cities known in the OT for their idolatry and resistance to Yhwh, Tyre and Sidon. Both of which were eventually destroyed. He mentions these in order to lament the recalcitrant cities of his day and pronounce judgment on them. In verse 15, his pronouncement upon Capernaum is in language uttered against Babylon (Is 14:12–15), a prophecy that came true. But “that day” and “the judgment” that Jesus refers to in verse 12 and verses 13–15 points to a future yet to come. Jesus uses eschatological language of judgment that awaits fulfillment. When will it come? What will it look like? What is the church to do in the meantime?
Thread and loose end: The now versus not yet, and hidden versus seen, tensions that are part of our experience in this age surface in verses 17–19. Here, the seventy-two rejoiced in the power of Jesus’s name to subject the demons themselves. Their success is expressed in terms of healings and exorcisms, not conversion—the visible power of the kingdom is highlighted.4 Yet, we ponder this taste of victory while we are in a continuing struggle against Satan and evil. The victory seems incomplete. The kingdom has come, but not in its full manifestation, and so we must wait for this awful loose end to be tied up.
In the text, Jesus responds, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Again, the language is reminiscent of that used against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:12–15. Jesus also asserts that he has given his disciples power over both physical and spiritual demons. Nothing can hurt them, he says. Clearly, the events of the end time are playing out. Yet, it is true that Satan still exerts his power in this age. Satan has fallen, yet he prowls like a lion. Both are true, a tension that awaits resolution. Furthermore, in this text there is a tension between the image of Jesus’s disciples as lambs in the midst of wolves and the image of his disciples treading on serpents and scorpions and overpowering demons. From our perspective, we long to move from faith to sight so that our lamb-like humility and vulnerability can ease. The now and not yet tension in which we live is palpable. How can both be true? How will the tension be resolved? What does this mean for the church today? We need to discuss these questions.
Thread: In verse 20, Jesus drops an interesting line: “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” He gives his disciples this amazing assurance that God loves them. That God has made them his own. Their names are “written in heaven” gives us assurance that God will not forget about us. But I need to know if I can identify with these disciples. Are Jesus’s words meant for me? How do I know? What promise do I have personally that this is true? This line gives preachers the opportunity to talk about the significance of baptism for the certainty of salvation. In addition, in the words we hear in the absolution and in communion, God tells each of us: Your name is written in heaven. Rejoice.
The text gives us a complex picture of the nature of God’s kingdom. The now-not yet, hidden-visible, law-gospel, and power displayed in weakness tensions are not solved in this text. In the present age, we cannot escape them. We live within them and our experience of them marks the Christian life. By thinking of the kingdom as threads and loose ends, the sermon does not have to solve anything or present a program for action. Instead, it can help people expand their vision of what the church is all about and what Jesus has done and will do.
In many ways, the text keeps us wondering and waiting. That is a good posture for God’s people to take. Jesus reminds us that we are part of something much bigger and farther reaching than ourselves. In fact, it is probably true that threads and loose ends have always characterized God’s kingdom. That is what we are a part of, and we must wait and watch for everything to be tied up on that last day of which Jesus speaks.
¹ Francois Bovon, Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 22.
² David Brooks, “Description is Prescription,” New York Times (Nov. 25, 2010).
³ Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 412, says that the number seventy-two in Enoch 3:17:8, 18:2–3, and 30:2 is reckoned as the number of princes and languages in the world; Bovon, Luke 2, 26, says that the MT of Genesis 10 has seventy instead of seventy-two. The manuscript tradition of Luke fluctuates between reading seventy-two and seventy. See Bovon, Luke 2, 26, footnote 24, for discussion of the variant readings.
4 Bovon, Luke 2, 30.