by Father Mike Stubbs
Tourists who have visited farms while traveling abroad sometimes will have to step into an antiseptic solution to cleanse their shoes upon returning to the United States.
The custom agents at the border wish to prevent contamination from foreign livestock from entering our country. They are worried about a possible outbreak of disease.
That practice parallels a similar custom referred to in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 10:1-12, 17-20. Jesus instructs the 72 disciples sent out on mission: “Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’”
The lands inhabited by the Gentiles were considered ritually impure. An Israelite returning from traveling there needed to shake the dirt from his feet, before crossing over into the land of Israel, lest he contaminate it.
We wipe our feet on the doormat on entering a house. Shaking your feet of foreign dust amounted to much the same thing, except that it was not a matter of aesthetic cleanliness or hygiene. It was a theological statement.
The towns that Jesus was sending the 72 disciples to visit were ostensibly Jewish towns. On the other hand, by shaking their feet of the dust of a town, the disciples would be treating that town as though it did not belong to the land of Israel, as though it were in reality foreign territory. The disciples would be making a theological statement.
In effect, the disciples would be proclaiming that a town which rejected them, and which rejected the message that they were bringing to that town, did not truly form part of Israel. Instead, they would regard it as pagan.
That proclamation would set into motion a judgment against the town: “I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.” We ordinarily associate Sodom with sexual sins. At the same time, the Old Testament also condemned that city for its grievous lack of hospitality toward visitors. In the incident described in Gn 19:1-10, the inhabitants of Sodom attempt to have sex with the mysterious strangers who turn out to be angels. It is a sexual sin, but also a sin against hospitality.
Jesus’ judgment against the towns that would reject the 72 disciples places that rejection on the same level as Sodom’s sin against hospitality. It is not merely a violation of the laws of etiquette or even of the basic dignity of the human person. Those towns that would reject his disciples also reject Jesus himself. And in rejecting Jesus, they reject God.
That is the point that Jesus makes a few verses later in the Gospel reading: “Whoever listens to you, listens to me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me. And whoever rejects me, rejects the one who sent me.”
These words place a huge importance — and, hence, a huge responsibility — not only upon the mission of the 72 disciples, but, by extension, upon our own mission as followers of Jesus Christ. When we share our faith with others, it is a matter of life and death.