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The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

Jesus, the Seventy Disciples, and the New Priesthood


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The 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year C gives us another example of a passage that’s unique to Luke’s gospel. In other words, if we didn’t have the Gospel of Luke, we wouldn’t know about the existence of this mysterious group of 70 disciples that Jesus appoints and then sends out on a mission to proclaim the kingdom of God. It’s something that’s only here in the Gospel of Luke. It’s a really, really important passage. So today we’re going to look at Luke 10:1-12, 17-20, and this is the mission of the seventy or (in some translations) the seventy-two (and we’ll get into that) Disciples. Who are they? What do they mean? What are they appointed for? What do they mean for us today as we look at the Church? So let’s just read through the text and then we’ll unpack it together in light of its Old Testament background.

After this the Lord appointed seventy [or in some manuscripts, seventy-two] others, and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. And he said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace be to this house!' And if a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages; do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.' I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

Now it skips down to verse 17, and it says this:

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" And he said to them, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

Okay, a lot going on here in this passage. The first thing I would say about it is that if you’re familiar with the mission discourse of the Twelve Apostles (so for example in Matthew 10, when Jesus sends out the Twelve and tells them to cure the sick and to cast out demons and to preach about the kingdom of God, and that he’s sending them out as lambs in the midst of wolves), you’re going to notice a lot of parallels. So the mission of the seventy and the mission of the twelve parallel one another. They clearly have the same kind of apostolic and evangelistic function and mission that the earlier mission of the Apostles has, of Jesus giving them the authority to cast out demons and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God as he sends them out two by two into the various towns and cities surrounding them.

So that’s the first point. This is a similar mission discourse to that of the Twelve. However (obviously), there’s a big difference, which is that it’s not the Twelve but this group of the seventy, which only Luke tells us about. Now, as soon as I say “the seventy”, you get into the question of, “is it seventy or seventy two?” Now the Revised Standard Version here has seventy, and then in a footnote it has “other ancient manuscripts read seventy two”. The New American Bible says “seventy two”. So you might be wondering, “Well, wait. How many disciples is it?” The answer is we don’t know. This is one of those discrepancies in what scholars call text criticism, the comparison of ancient manuscripts. When there are discrepancies in ancient manuscripts, at some point an error crept in where one scribe wrote one thing and another scribe wrote another thing, and there’s a discrepancy between the various copies of the New Testament that we have from antiquity. Now this one is actually not a very big deal, it’s pretty easily explained if you know your Old Testament. So a couple of points here. First, there are very reliable ancient Greek manuscripts that have the number seventy here. So Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, these are two ancient copies of the New Testament in Greek that are considered very reliable, very authoritative, from the 4th Century A.D. They have seventy. Other copies of Luke, like Papyrus 75 or Codex Vaticanus, have seventy-two. So the ancient manuscript evidence is kind of equally divided and so (as you might expect) scholars are equally divided about which ones more original. And in this case though, I don’t think we actually have to decide on the original (although I have my opinions), because they mean (basically) the same thing if you know the Old Testament background.

In the Old Testament the number seventy has a significance that’s tied to the priestly elders that Moses appoints during the time of the Exodus. So you might recall in Exodus 24, when Moses is establishing the old covenant, he chooses 70 elders (the Greek word there is presbuteros) to act as (basically) mediators, priestly mediators, between God and the twelve tribes of Israel, and they come up the mountain of Sinai with Moses to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people of Israel. These seventy elders, later on in the book of Numbers 11:16-30, Moses takes these elders and he appoints them to help him administrate and govern this massive number of people as they’re traveling through the desert. You might remember, in the book of Number 11, Moses is basically up to his neck in administration. He can’t possibly do all the work that it entails and his father-in-law Jethro says, well, appoint seventy men to assist you to govern the twelve tribes of Israel. When he does this (this is important), the spirit comes down upon the seventy elders and they’re anointed to lead the people of Israel. They are with Moses at the Tabernacle, but what happens is two other men outside the camp, their names are Eldad and Medad, neither one of those very popular names in later Christian tradition, also receive the spirit, even though they’re outside the confines of the group that Moses has gathered. So what happens is, from the book of Numbers, an ambivalence (or an ambiguity) arises. How many elders were there? How many priestly elders were there at the time of the Exodus? Well you could make the case that it was seventy (on the basis of Mt. Sinai), but you could also make the case that there were seventy two elders on the basis of the book of Numbers. Both are true, right? What matters, though, is that in both cases, the seventy (or seventy two) represent a priestly hierarchy of appointed leaders underneath Moses and then the twelve phylarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.

So seventy is a number that’s significant for the elders of Israel, but it gets even better because seventy and seventy-two are also symbolic in another place in the Old Testament. In the book of Genesis (not a lot of people know this, but it’s important), Genesis 11, there’s this long table (or genealogy) of the sons of Noah (Shem, Ham and, Yaphit), where it goes through all the nations that are descended from Shem, and Ham, and Yaphit. Most modern people just skip over it because it’s boring, because we don’t care about genealogy. In the ancient world, they didn’t skip over it, they actually read it very carefully. It was called “the table of nations”, and it was seen as a catalogue of where all the different peoples in the world came from. What’s fascinating is if you look at the Hebrew copies of Genesis 11 and you count up the names of the nations, guess how many nations there are? Seventy nations. Now in the Greek Septuagint it was translated a little differently and if you look at those copies, guess how many gentile nations there are? Seventy-two. So a tradition arose that the number 70 (or 72) represented the number of gentile nations, the number of peoples that there were, so to speak, in the world. So some traditions in Judaism would see the world in terms of the twelve tribes of Israel and 70 (or 72) gentile nations. By the way (while I’m at it), this is also what’s behind the Septuagint. Why do we call the Septuagint the Septuagint? Well, because of a Jewish tradition that 70 Jewish translators went to Egypt and translated the Bible into Greek, the language of who? The nations; the gentile nations. So the “seventy” is the translation of the Jewish scriptures that can be read by the nations of the world. And it’s not just a coincidence that it’s seventy elders. While I’m at it I might as well throw this in too, guess how many members of the Sanhedrin there were in Jerusalem? Seventy. So seventy has a number of symbolic layers of meaning that are associated with it from the Old Testament.

So if you’re Jesus and it’s the 1st Century A.D. and people are saying you’re the Messiah, and you’ve gathered not just a group of twelve around you, but also you appoint seventy other disciples around you, what are you doing? What are you saying? What’s the implication of that act? Well, it’s not just that you’re the new Moses and there’s a new Exodus, but something much more. You are setting up a priestly hierarchy of appointed leaders underneath you, not just to bring the good news to the twelve tribes of Israel, but to bring the good news to all the nations. So it’s an implicit act of claim of authority on Jesus’ part, it’s an implicit establishment of a priestly hierarchy on Jesus’ part, and it’s also an anticipation of the fact that the gospel’s going to go not just to the twelve tribes of Israel, but to all the nations of the world. And if you might have missed that connotation of the seventy, I bet the seventy members of the Sanhedrin (when Jesus was alive) didn’t miss the point. They would have gotten the point, because at the head of the seventy members of the Sanhedrin was the one high priest, so seventy plus one, the high priest. And Jesus isn’t a member of the seventy or the twelve, he’s above them. So he’s making himself like a new high priest.

So if you look on one of the handouts that I have for The Mass Readings Explained, it’s based on a hierarchy that’s based on the Old Testament. So in the Old Testament you had Moses, and then next to him you had Aaron, and then you had Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, the three who go up the mountain with Moses, and then you had the twelve tribes and the seventy elders. So one, three, twelve, seventy; Moses, Aaron, Aaron and his two sons (the three), the twelve tribes and then the seventy elders. Jesus, in the New Testament, what does he do? He’s at the top (Jesus is number 1), Peter is above the twelve (but he’s a member of the twelve), then you have the three (Peter, James, and John), just like Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, then you have the Twelve (the Twelve Apostles), and then only Luke tells us that there’s a fifth group, and it’s the seventy disciples. Now is that a coincidence? Did Jesus know that he was setting up a hierarchy of priestly groups with symbolic numbers that echo the exodus of Egypt? I think so, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s fascinating because when people think about Jesus…I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this in books, “Well, Jesus didn’t establish a priesthood, he didn’t establish a ministerial priesthood, he just had groups of followers and disciples and they all kind of banded about the countryside. There was no organization to it.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You would only think that if you were ignorant of the Old Testament. Any 1st Century Jew who knows the scriptures knows that if this guy’s walking around Judea and he’s got himself at the top, he’s got these three guys that are intimate with him, he’s got twelve, and then he adds seventy to it; everyone knows what he’s doing here. He’s setting up a new priesthood. He’s setting up a new hierarchy of consecrated men to rule over a new Israel, in which he himself acts not just as king, but as the high priest. So the seventy are extremely important because they reveal this implicit hierarchy of Jesus’ disciples, which is going to constitute a new priesthood that’s centered not on the Jerusalem Temple, but on Jesus himself, not on the sons of Aaron, but on the Apostles and the appointed disciples of Jesus
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