Christians from the evangelical tradition, we need to talk. And yes, I mean you, even if you’re from a denomination or group that isn’t technically a member of the National Association of Evangelicals (which The Church of the Nazarene is not, by the way. Does that surprise you?) I’m talking to anyone for whom winning other people to belief in Jesus Christ is a major part of their faith.
Is that you? Good. We need to talk.
Because in Luke 10:2, Jesus makes a statement that has long been seen as central to our belief in evangelism and missions: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (NIV). Both this and the identically-worded parallel in Matt 9:37-38 come within the context of Jesus sending out disciples, either the original 12 (Matt 10:1-16; Luke 9:1-5) or, as here, the sending of 72 others to announce the coming of the kingdom.
Jesus then goes on in both Gospels to give some pretty specific details about how disciples on this mission are to conduct themselves. Let’s take a look at some of these.
First of all, he tells them, “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road” (v. 4). That last bit may seem rather unfriendly to us, but the point here is probably not that they shouldn’t talk to other people they meet, but rather that they should focus on the task at hand and not get distracted. In the ancient world, and in some cultures today, greeting someone formally is not a short task. I was fortunate enough to live in Kenya for a few years and quickly learned that a “greeting” there is not just a quick “Hello, how are you?” It would begin that way. Kenyans would then proceed to ask about your family, your friends, your neighbors, and want detailed descriptions of what you’ve been up to lately. Then, of course, you were expected to ask your friend to do the same about his life, and before you knew it, 15 minutes had passed and you’d “gotten nothing done” except small talk. (“Small talk” is anything but “small” in these kinds of cultures; it’s rather an important social mechanism. But I digress.)
Jesus’ disciples lived in a society with similar social expectations. So greeting every person you met on the road could easily eat up your whole day while you made little progress toward your destination. So here Jesus is probably trying to press on them the urgency with which they need to carry out the mission. His instructions to not take a “purse or bag or sandals” is also probably not literally meant, but is supposed to indicate that they should not be weighed down by possessions, which would slow their progress and possibly draw their focus away from the goal.
Once they reach the destination, they are instructed to give the house a blessing of Peace (vv. 5-6). This was a typical salutation when entering someone’s house. As such, it had likely become rote and drained of meaning for most people. However, just as Paul often took standard secular greetings and benedictions and infused them with Christian significance, Jesus and the disciples would have read more into this common courtesy. For them the word ‘peace” wouldn’t mean just “I hope you all are doing ok,” but would have deeper connotations from the Hebrew word for “peace” (shalom), which included the ideas of wholeness, completeness, and fullness. In other words, it was a wish for everyone and everything in the household to experience life as the best, most full version of what it could be, in every area, both physical and spiritual. (Put a sticky note here, we’ll return to this in a minute.)
After a few other instructions about how best to carry out their mission, Jesus finally gets to the crux of it all in v. 9: “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (NIV). The final instructions involve what to do if they are rejected by a town (vv. 10-11). Note that prior to and after v. 9 all Jesus’ directions have been practical in nature–HOW to go about doing what he has called them to do. Verse 9, is where we arrive at the actual WHAT of their mission–the thing they are sent to do.
Do you notice anything missing from these instructions? Is there anything you expected to find that you did not? Because when studying this passage deeply for the first time I was taken aback to realize that this section, which begins with the famous and oft-quoted “harvest” passage, mentions nothing whatever about converting people.
As Evangelicals (however you define that term) we often fall into the trap of thinking that God’s mission for his followers is mostly, if not solely, about “winning souls” or “preaching the message of salvation.” Therefore, the “workers” we ask God to send to the “harvest” are understood as those who will introduce non-Christians to the gospel message and help get them “saved.”
I’m not at all trying to diminish the importance of preaching the message of salvation. But, as this passage demonstrates, the “harvest” Jesus speaks of represents far more than that. The passage doesn’t say, “Lead the people in a prayer of repentance and tell them the kingdom of God has come near to them.” It says to “heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you’” (v. 9). This is consistent with what Jesus tells the 12 when he sends them out in chapter 9: “he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (9:1-2; see also Matt 9:35-36; Matt 10:1, 7-8). “Proclaiming the kingdom” in these passages seems to be embodied in the idea of restoring people to physical wholeness rather than in convincing them to ascribe to a particular set of beliefs.
So the mission Jesus sends his disciples on, both then and now, involves far more than simply “saving souls.” It means bringing the restoration of God to every part of a person’s life, physical as well as spiritual. Indeed, Jews of this period would not have made a distinction between physical and spiritual healing because they believed a person was not made of distinct parts (body, soul, mind, etc.) but rather was a whole; one part influenced the other. Therefore, in a real sense physical healing was part of spiritual healing.
If this is what we are called to, I propose that we as evangelicals need to re-center our focus. Instead of thinking of feeding the hungry, providing medical attention for the sick, or shelter and other necessities for the poor as “secondary” tasks– “compassionate ministries”–we need to view these as primary goals of the kingdom, as ministry, period. They are every bit as important as evangelistic services, prayers of repentance, and altar calls. They should not replace the preaching of the gospel, of course, but should always accompany it, and at times, perhaps, even be practiced on its own.
Let’s remember God’s ultimate goal in the salvation of the world is not just to see how many people he can convince to believe in him. It’s to restore all of creation to the perfect whole it was when it was created (see Rev. 22:1-5)–to fullness, completeness. Disciples are called to remember this mission each time we encounter a new person. Just as Jesus’ followers proclaimed “peace” to each house they entered, (see, told you we’d return to it!) we must not lose site of our ultimate goal of helping God bring shalom to every person in the world.