Spies for Jesus

No one did. So I guess I’m going to have to have a go at writing one myself.

I’ve been reading these passages over and over, and the more I do the more obvious this seems. So much so that I can’t imagine I’m the first to have thought of it. But, as I said, Google’s bringing up nothing.

In many Bibles the story in Luke 10:1-24 is titled “Jesus Sends Out the Seventy-Two”. In every church I’ve ever been part of that’s been taken to mean seventy-two evangelists.

I don’t think they’re evangelists. I think they’re spies, sent to check out the lie of the land as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem.

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

First things first: I’m using the NRSV, which refers to seventy, not seventy-two. The footnotes (and Wikipedia) tell me this is because older sources say seventy. Now, it might be unwise to form a theology from something you read on Wikipedia, but seventy is also the number of descendants of Noah named in Genesis 10, representing all the tribes of the world. And it’s here that we find our first parallel with, and divergence from, Numbers 13.

The Lord said to Moses, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites; from each of their ancestral tribes you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.”

So, whereas Moses sends out twelve men to represent every tribe of Israel, Jesus sends out seventy, representing every nation of the world.

But why would Jesus need spies anyway? And what land is he being given?

In 9:51 Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”, the centre of Imperial power in the region. One village they encounter on the way refuse to receive him. Thus far in the gospel narrative Jesus has been careful to keep his identity and mission secret. And with good reason: John the Baptist has been beheaded! Despite the crowds that follow him everywhere he goes, Jesus is justifiably cautious about letting his whereabouts be known. He wants to remain among friends.

In order to do that he needs to know what’s up ahead. Does he have allies out there? Will he be welcomed on the road, or will every potential stopping point risk a rerun of the events in that Samaritan village? Will he be run out of town, or worse still, handed over for beheading before he ever reaches Jerusalem? The disciples are taking a major risk to protect him:

See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

“The way of peace” is the characterisation Luke gives to Jesus’s coming teaching in the prophecy he records at the end of chapter 1. That is, the prophecy spoken by Zechariah—father of the same John the Baptist already executed by Herod, Rome’s representative in Galilee. And the prophecy which declares Jesus a saviour who will rescue Israel “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”

And this “kingdom of God” that has apparently come near? Well, Luke’s story opens with a declaration that “the Lord God will give [Jesus] the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” At the news, Jesus’s mother says that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” When the infant Jesus is presented in the temple, a man we are told is “guided by the Spirit” tells his mother “[your child] is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.”

As an adult this Jesus draws crowds of thousands wherever he goes. Besides simple Galilean peasants, he numbers Roman Centurions among his supporters, as well as bureaucrats instrumental to the operation of the Roman state like tax collectors. He turns fearsome legions into comedy swine. And on top of all that he can allegedly perform miracles ranging from healings to controlling the weather.

You can see why the Empire might not want him taking Jerusalem!

Go up there into the Negeb, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold, and bring some of the fruit of the land.

Moses sent out his spies at harvest time, and they came back with pomegranates, figs, and a bunch of grapes so big it took two men to carry it on a pole between them. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” says Jesus, whose first followers were fishermen recruited when he showed them how to catch so many fish they needed a second boat. “From now on you will be catching people”, he told them: we’re building a movement. “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest”. Send out more people like yourselves from the towns and villages you visit!

At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.”… Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

Moses’s spies returned with great tales of the land they had been sent to spy out, but weary and cynical. It could not be done. Jesus’s spies returned overflowing with excitement from the victories they had already won. Whereas the Nephilim were an insurmountable obstacle to the whole nation of Isreal, before the people of the way of peace even the demons submit.

The implication is clear: where only the faithful two of Moses’s spies would live to see the promised land, for the spies of Christ victory is assured. The kingdom will come. This, now, is the year of the Lord’s favour.

As Simeon, that man guided by the Spirit, said of the infant Jesus:

for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

Footnote: As I write this I realise that, but for the two year gap and complete change in interpretation, this could look like a deliberate follow up to my last post. Coincidences!

Footnote 2: This post was edited 21st October 2015 to correct a case of mistaken Herodian identity.

Do you know what I see? Kids posturing with a Wikipedia summery's understanding of myth.
Image from the awesome The Wicked + the Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.