Why Seventy[-two]?

Reflections on the Roman Catholic lectionary for 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle C

The gospel as I heard it proclaimed states 72 disciples. The NABre renders the number “seventy [-two]”, with a footnote stating that

important representatives of the Alexandrian and Caesarean text types read “seventy,” while other important Alexandrian texts and Western readings have “seventy-two.”

In today’s gospel reading from Luke, Jesus commissions 72 disciples to go before him, out to every town and village, to prepare his way. The homilist at mass commented that everyone always wants to know, why 72? And, he said, it’s very simple: Noah had three sons, who had a total of 72 children, whose names were the names of all the great cultures and civilizations. In other words, this was symbolism for the whole world. (See Gen 10, which also wobbles a bit as to whether the number is 70 or 72, but is consistent as to the symbolism.)

This immediately made me think of the Pentecost passage from Acts, where Luke observes that “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem at that time. The gospel spreading out to the whole world is an important theme in Luke’s writings.

The homilist also observed that the burning issue in the church when Luke wrote was “who’s in and who’s out”. Certainly that’s what the passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about.

These two items — the whole world, and insiders/outsiders — create a context in which the gospel passage looks entirely different to me. The instruction to “eat what is set before you” is, first in general anthropological terms, an injunction to eat whatever weird food they eat in this other town, politely and even gratefully. More specifically, it looks like an injunction to eat without regard for the kosher laws that deem some foods kosher and others unclean.

I normally hear the instruction not to take any stuff with you as an instruction not to rely on your own resources but to trust in God. But in this context, it looks like rendering yourself vulnerable and therefore unthreatening, not a potential source of trouble that must be guarded against. In a way, it’s an enactment of the instructions given in Lk 14, voluntarily taking the lowest place at table. It also means leaving behind most of the stuff produced by your culture. Clothes, shoes, even money, are cultural markers. To strip yourself of your cultural identifiers before entering another place is …as far as can be imagined from entering a place in triumph. Wow.

I really loved the image of going into a house and invoking peace on the house; if the people there are peaceful people, then the peace will rest on them; otherwise it will come back to you.

The priest chose to read the abbreviated passage, so we didn’t get the more challenging text about shaking the dust from your sandals and they’ll be worse off than Sodom. Nor the key Girardian text “I saw Satan fall like lightning from the sky” in response to the 72 returning rejoicing telling tales of their success and power.

I had a hard time connecting this text to the incredibly maternal imagery of Jerusalem as a nursing mother in Is 66. At first I thought the connection might be through “all the nations”, if this Isaiah passage referenced all the nations coming to Jerusalem; but at least in the lection, it does not. I suppose it could be from abundant breasts to abundant harvest … ? Maybe comfort, “in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort”?

Or maybe this text is… an inversion of the Isaiah passage? In Isaiah, we must all go home to Jerusalem to be fed and carried and comforted and gladdened; in Luke… ah, in Luke the disciples go out and bring the reign of God to people wherever they are, in their own homes.

The Isaiah passage tells us what the reign of God will look like — no, will look and taste and feel like:

As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms,
and fondled in her lap;
as a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.

When you see this, your heart shall rejoice
and your bodies flourish like the grass

In Luke, this abundant, extravagant goodness overflows Jerusalem, and reaches everyone who welcomes its messengers.

And say to them,
‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’

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One Response to Why Seventy[-two]?

  1. Theophrastus says:

    Interestingly, there is a similar disagreement about whether the Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch was made by 70 or 72 translators.

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