The sending of the seventy-two (or seventy) parallels the sending of the twelve in Luke 9:1-6. Jesus. Jesus extended his own ministry (Luke 8:1) by deputizing his disciples and sending them on the road under his authority.
To understand this story, you need to know two things. The first is the ancient code of hospitality. Travelers didn’t eat in restaurants and stay in motels. It was the duty of the people of the town to provide food, lodging and a warm welcome.
The second thing you need to know is the basic outline of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. For Jesus, healings and exorcisms weren’t just healings and exorcisms. They were signs that the Kingdom of God was breaking into the world (Luke 11:20). God was being gracious in offering his Kingdom to a sinful world. Someday, the Kingdom would come in power bringing peace, justice and healing for all creation, but even now – in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples – the power of the kingdom was evident.
Taken together, these two insights point to Jesus’ village-to-village ministry – and that of his disciples – as kind of a living parable. Jesus’ disciples came to town with the message of the kingdom and a demonstration of its power for healing and wholeness.
The coming of the Kingdom of God, then, was also an offer of the grace of God. That grace, however, demanded a response for those who heard Jesus’ words and saw his actions. How the villagers responded to the disciples – by offering hospitality or withholding it – indicated how they were responding to the work of God in their lives. That’s why Jesus sent the disciples without the means to support themselves. Their dependence on the grace of God and the kindness of strangers was an integral part of the mission.
Also see A Traveling Band for a more detailed discussion of the mendicant nature of Jesus’ on-the-road disciples.
1 Seventy-two – In a textual variant, some manuscripts read 70 instead of 72. Based on the table of nations in the Hebrew version of Genesis 10, many ancient scholars said that there were 70 nations in the world. Early Christian scholars reckoned the number to be 72, based on the Greek version of the same text.
1 Two by two – Since the mission may result in divine judgment for the people of a town if they reject Jesus’ disciples, Deuteronomy 19:15 requires the testimony of two witnesses. Also, perhaps, no one person alone can fully represent Jesus. The mission is a team effort. Of course the two can also support and encourage each other.
2 Harvest – Jesus’ metaphor points to the coming of the kingdom as the context for the mission.
3 Lambs among wolves – The disciples would be utterly defenseless; their only protection would be the grace and power of God.
4 Do not take a purse, a bag, or sandals – The disciples would be penniless and without resources other than the grace of God and the kindness of strangers. The humility and vulnerability of Jesus (culminating in his crucifixion) and his disciples are signs of God’s costly self-giving and self-abasement for the sake of our salvation. Compare this episode with Jesus’ sending of the twelve in Luke 9:1-6 (which also prohibits taking bread, money, a staff or extra clothing).
4 Don’t greet anyone on the road – Don’t dawdle or get distracted. You’ve got kingdom work to do.
5 When you enter a house – The disciples depended upon the hospitality of the townspeople for lodging. Extending hospitality to travelers was the custom of the time. Hotels and restaurants did not exist. Compare Luke 9:4.
5 Peace to this house – While this was a customary greeting, Jesus’ mission truly did offer peace to the people he and his disciples encountered.
7 Eating and drinking – The disciples also depended on the hospitality of the townspeople for their food and drink. Their survival depended upon a welcome reception.
7 Do not move around from house to house – The disciples were not to seek more comfortable accommodations or hosts with greater status.
8 Eat what is set before you – The disciples were to accept whatever level of hospitality that was offered. The mission’s purpose did not include getting the best food or the best lodging in town. The hospitality of a poor person was no less (and probably more) significant than the hospitality of a rich one. “Whatever is set before you” could include even non-kosher food, another sign that this passage foreshadows the coming mission to the Gentiles.
9 Heal the sick – Jesus’ traveling disciples carried his authority and performed similar deeds of power, including the power to heal and cast out demons (see Luke 10:17-20 on the return of the 72).
9 The kingdom of God is near you – The miracles were not simply displays of power intended to prove Jesus’ identity, but signs that the coming Kingdom of God was already present in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Their acts of power (culminating in the resurrection) are previews or foretastes of the age to come. Compare Luke 11:20.
10 When you enter a town and are not welcomed – The arrival of the disciples forced the townspeople to decide for or against Jesus’ message of the kingdom. Their decisions mattered. Jesus said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me and who rejects you rejects me and who rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Luke 10:16). Compare Luke 9:5.
11 The dust of your town that sticks to our feet – The wiping off of the feet was a visible, symbolic act of judgment. Prophets sometimes used dramatic gestures in addition to words. Compare Luke 9:5.
11 Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near – The townspeople who rejected Jesus and his disciples have missed their opportunity to be recipients of the kingdom’s grace and power.
12 It will be more bearable – The future destiny of those who heard Jesus message depended upon their response to the disciples. If the townsfolk welcomed the disciples traveling in Jesus’ name, that presaged their inclusion in the people of God in the age to come. If they refused Jesus or his disciples hospitality, that signified their rejection of God’s offer of grace, and their exclusion from the kingdom.
12 On that day – The coming eschatological Day of Judgment. For Jesus, the day of the coming of the Son of Man (Luke 21:27). For Luke, the day of Christ’s return (Acts 1:11).
12 Sodom – The prototypical wicked city (Genesis 18:20) which God destroyed in judgment (Genesis 19:24-25).