In the Gospel reading for the fifteenth Sunday in ordinary time (also, 6th Sunday after Pentecost in the the RCL), Jesus summons the Apostles and sends them out two by two. This passage embodies a classic “sending” narrative where Jesus sends the Apostles, and they are commanded to do various things: preach, heal the sick, and drive out demons. All of these actions anticipate the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Unsurprisingly, the term “apostle” comes from the Greek root verb ἀποστέλλω (apostello) which means I send (Strong’s 649).
The Twelve: Called, Chosen and Named
It is interesting to note that Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Jesus gathered the twelve and sent them on a mission before the Resurrection. Some scholars argue that the choice of twelve apostles reminds us of the twelve tribes of Israel, which were divided after the Kingdom of David and Solomon fell apart (see 1 Kings 12 for an account of the split). Here, the twelve are chosen and gathered by Jesus, not by religious or ethnic tradition.
This sending narrative is a trial run of sorts, as there is no Good News to preach, yet. But each of the three Sacred Authors tell us that the twelve were commanded by Jesus to do various things in order to herald the Kingdom of God. It may strike some as surprising that the only power granted to the twelve, which is explicitly mentioned by all three Sacred Authors, is the power to cast out demons (Mk 6:7; Mt 10:8; Lk 9:1). Matthew and Luke tell us that the twelve received further authority to heal, with Mark telling us after-the-fact that the Apostles cured the sick. Matthew and Luke also tell that us the Apostles are given authority to preach, while Matthew continues that they have further authority to “raise the dead” (Matthew 10:8).
Mark and Luke separate the brief section where the twelve are appointed (Mk 3:14), or to use Luke’s language, the twelve are called, chosen and named (Lk 6:13). This Lucan theology is so elegant that I will present the text in the original:
And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles…
This action of “calling,” “choosing,” “naming,” and “sending” of the Apostles precedes the Cross. There has been no Resurrection, so the Apostles do not preach the kerygma of the gospel – “Christ Resurrected.” But they do preach the good news of “repentence” (Mk 6:12). This is the same message preached by John the Baptist (Mk 1:4), who warns the pharisees to “make straight the way of the Lord,” because the Messiah is coming. Jesus too, preaches repentance in Mark 1:15.
Besides telling them what to do in these “sending narratives,” Jesus asks the Apostles to keep the mission simple. He tells them to take neither food, nor sack, nor money. They are entirely dependent on the grace of God. While Matthew (10:6) tells us that the Apostles preached to the “lost sheep of Israel,” Mark and Luke do not tell us to whom the twelve are sent. But the general impression we have is that the Apostles preached in the towns of Judah and Galilee. We see confirmation of this as Herod (who ruled Galilee) expresses concern about the works of Jesus and his followers in Mark 6:14.
The Great Commission
The sending of the Twelve in today’s Gospel passage anticipates a more formal commissioning that the Apostles will receive after the Resurrection. In the pre-Resurrection narratives, (as is the case in this account, Mk 6:7-13) Jesus gives the simple verbal command to the Apostles to preach, cast out demons, heal the sick and raise the dead. And we are told that the Apostles accomplish these things.
After the Passion of Jesus, we have sending narratives where the the Apostles are commissioned and receive the Spirit. For instance, Matthew 20:18-20 is commonly known as the Great Commissioning of the Apostles. But the post-Easter sending of the Apostles, and their reception of the Holy Spirit, is most diligently and carefully recounted in John 20:19-31 (see my blog post here).
At the Last Supper, Jesus first says “I will send the Spirit” (John 15:26, 16:7) to the Apostles. Then, after the Easter event, Jesus appears to the eleven in the Upper Room. There, Jesus “sends” the Apostles (again), but perhaps equally important is the fact that he breathes on them and commands them to receive the Spirit (John 20:21-22). Jesus also gives them formal authority to retain and forgive sins.
In Hebrew, breath (ruach, Strong’s 7307) is symbolic of the Spirit of God. To be sealed with the Spirit is to be favored by God, or even to be commissioned with a particular task, or to be given a specific gift or charism by God. In Isaiah 11:2, for example, Isaiah tells us that the “Spirit of the Lord” or “Breath of the Lord” shall rest on the Messiah. Jesus extends the gift of the Spirit to the Apostles when he breathes on them in John 20:21.
A Trial Run
After the Resurrection, Jesus tells the Apostles that they have the power to act with the authority of Jesus and retain and forgive sins. The Apostles are told to preach the Good News and make disciples of all nations. The Apostles are no longer to preach to the Jews, but to the entire world. Our passage under consideration today, in Mark 6, is simply a “trial run” for the Apostles, who are authorized by Jesus to preach repentance and the Kingdom of God.
Gospel Mk 6:7-13
and gave them authority over unclean spirits.
He instructed them to take nothing for the journey
but a walking stick–
no food, no sack, no money in their belts.
They were, however, to wear sandals
but not a second tunic.
He said to them,
“Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave.
Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you,
leave there and shake the dust off your feet
in testimony against them.”
So they went off and preached repentance.
The Twelve drove out many demons,
and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.