Subsistence Discipleship

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
September 11, 2022
Luke 10:1-20

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, September 9, 2022

At the beginning of worship

Do you ever want to do something big for God? 

You know, when we try to impress someone, we often try to do something that’s over the top. We buy our sweetheart the largest and best decorated heart filled with chocolate for Valentine’s Day. We buy gifts for our kids. 

For some people, this idea of doing something big goes for God. After all, we’re called to love and glorify God and we, the church, are to be the “bride of Christ.”[1] But what if I tell you, that’s not the way God works? 

Pleasing God 

God doesn’t need us to do something big for him. God can do everything for himself. What pleases God isn’t the size of our effort, but our hearts. Do we love God? Do we trust God?  Are we faithful?

You know, when you’re a kid, you do things for your parents that doesn’t really make their lives better. But they’re pleased with whatever craft item we create for Mother’s or Father’s Day. It’s like that with God. The size of our efforts isn’t what pleases God; it’s what’s in our hearts. Are we faithful to the calling of Jesus? Do we trust in God? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. 

Before the reading of scripture:

Last week we saw that Jesus expects humility and cooperation from his disciples. Today’s text will build on those concepts. 

Remember, too, that for Luke, the disciples were more than just the 12. The 12 created kind of an intergroup. This week, we see that Jesus sends out a larger group of disciples for a chance to put into action their humility and cooperation. Jesus sends out this group to tell and show that the kingdom of God has come near. 

70 or 72?

Most of our Bibles will tell us that Jesus sent out 70 

disciples, two-by-two. But if you have any kind of study Bible, you’ll see there’s a footnote indicating some ancient texts says it was 72 disciples. While it really doesn’t make much difference, the discrepancy provides insight into its meaning. 

70 probably points to us to the number of nations descended from Noah and listed in Genesis 10. In the Hebrew text, it’s 70 nations, but in the Greek Old Testament, translated a couple of centuries before Jesus, it was 72. The actual number isn’t that important. 70 or 72 just indicates a large number. And with this link to the list of nations, there may be a subtle hint of where Luke is going with his story. As we know, Luke continues with Acts which tells of the church moving out into the nations of the world.[2]

Today, I’m going to read this text from The Message translation. It’s a fresh way of hearing the gospel and you might compare it to the translation in your Bible or the one in the bulletin. 

70 or 72?

Read Luke 10:1-20

A few weeks ago, in my e-news, I mentioned the death of Fredrick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and popular author. One of the early books I read by him on the Appalachian Trail was Treasure Hunt. This book is part of his fictional series about a character named Bebb. While I don’t remember a lot about the book, and I lost it before finishing it, I do remember Bebb’s desire to do something big for God. Longing and struggle fill his life. His struggles are often of his own making. Looking back with a tinge of disappointment, he wonders if the best work he did for God was when he was a student and sold Bible’s door-to-door.[3]

Does God want us to do something big?

While there is nobility in wanting to do something big for God, I suggest it puts too much focus on us and not enough on God. After all, what can we really do for God by ourselves? Our God, who can call on the stones to praise him, is self-sufficient.[4] God doesn’t need us to accomplish anything, instead God desires our hearts, our trust, and for us to do our part.

“The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few.” Jesus must have looked at my tomato garden, where I’m having a hard time getting them all canned and frozen for the winter. However, this saying implies that the job ahead requires a lot of people. It’s not up to just one or two disciples. The disciples are encouraged to humbly do their parts while praying for more laborers.  

Subsistence spirituality

In a newsletter I read this week, the author tells of hearing Barbara Brown Taylor speak of subsistence spirituality.[5] I like that term. She links it to the idea of being lean enough to survive a trek in the metaphorical wildernesses in which we live. We are empty, but we survive on the goodness of others and the gracefulness of our Savior. And that’s what the 70 or so disciples are called to do in today’s story. 

Comparison to Jesus sending out the 12

If you remember back about almost two months ago, when I began our exploration of Luke 9, we looked at Jesus sending out the twelve disciples.[6] Like this group, Jesus sent out his core group of disciples without much, for the purpose of building relationships. In Luke, when Jesus refers to disciples, he’s often talking about a lot more than the 12 that we often think of. Luke points out that there are many, including women, who are following Jesus around.[7] And now he’s putting them into action by sending them out, like he did the 12, to spread his message. 

Expectations Jesus places on the disciples

Interesting, however, Jesus sends out this large group even more unprepared than he sent the 12. While the 12 were not to carry a purchase or staff or bag or bread, at least it appears they could wear shoes or sandals. But the 70 are sent out barefooted. They get to feel every rock along the road and must be extremely careful they do not step on a cactus. So, they are sent out without anything but the clothes on their backs and the blessings and instructions of our Savior. 

Furthermore, they are to avoid conversations along the road. This sounds harsh, although maybe the pairs were allowed to talk to entertain themselves while on the highways. But why wouldn’t Jesus want them to share his message along the way? It appears, Jesus wants his message to be brought into homes, on a one-on-one encounter.[8]

Focus on in-home ministry

Jesus doesn’t send out his disciples to create large rallies, crusades, or revivals. Instead, the focus is on the individual and the family in the most intimate place for a 1st Century Jew, around their kitchen table. There, they are to accept the food that is placed before them. Again, bringing out this point, Luke may be foreshadowing the work of Jesus’ followers as they took the message out into a gentile world, which was far different than the kosher world of 1st Century Galilee.[9]

Handling rejection

Furthermore, when the evangelists are not welcomed, they are to leave. Yes, by shaking off their feet, they make a statement about the community in which they’ve visited, but they don’t leave without reminding the people that the kingdom of God has come near. 

Curse upon the Galilean town

While those Jesus sent out were traveling, Luke shifts his focus to Jesus who prophecies against several towns in Galilee. This region, which he’ll soon leave for Jerusalem, plays a prominent role in his ministry. Bethsaida is home for three of the disciples: Peter, Andrew, and Philip. These cities are warned. Even though they have seen and heard from Jesus firsthand and have produced disciples, they have rejected Jesus’ message. 

We know that not long after Jesus’ ascension, there was little church activity in Galilee. The early church began to focus on Jerusalem and later into Gentile lands. One of the interesting dynamics of the early history of the church is the shift from the agrarian Galilean hills to the urban centers of the world at that time.[10] The warning here can apply to us, too. If we have had a chance to witness Jesus’ grace and power and then deny him, judgment will be more severe than those who never heard of Jesus.

The result of the disciples’ missionary activity 

We’re not given any details of individual encounters, of which they must have been many as there were 35 or so pairs of disciples spreading the message. Their accomplishments are great for Jesus recalls seeing Satan cast from the heavens. The returning disciples are joyous. Jesus then ends this section with a warning to those returning. They are not to rejoice in their newfound power from Jesus. Again, as we saw last week, Jesus is ready to nip pride in the bud. Instead of rejoicing over their accomplishments, they are to be content that they have a reservation in heaven.

Wars won by many small actions

Jesus’ witness of Satan’s fall comes, not after any big battle that the disciples won, but by a lot of small actions that together make a real difference for God’s kingdom. It’s like a war. Winning a big battle may not result in ultimate victory. Again, our role as followers of Jesus is to carry out these small actions—showing the world that God’s kingdom is near and that it makes a difference in our lives. Furthermore, we should show the world that we trust in God. The disciples went out with nothing, but because God was with them, they accomplished much. 

Conclusion

Earlier, I used the term subsistence spirituality.” Such a spirituality is built on trust, on knowing that God is enough. The disciples experience this, going out barehanded to do the work of the Master. When it comes to building the kingdom, it’s not going to happen because we work hard. It’s going to happen because God works through us. So, keep following Jesus, and trust in God. Amen. 


[1] Revelation 21:1-2.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 302-305; I. Howard Marshall, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 414-415; and Norval Geldenhuys, The International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984 reprint), 303-304. 

[3] Fredrick Buechner, Treasure Hunt (1977).

[4] Luke 19:40

[5] MaryAnn McKibben Dana quoting Barbara Brown Taylor. See https://mailchi.mp/49fd14c9f901/sabbatical-was-not-restorative?e=c107924306  Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and college lecturer has been considered one of the most effective preachers in America. 

[6] https://fromarockyhillside.com/2022/07/building-relationships/

[7] Luke 8:1-3. 

[8] Edwards, 307.

[9] Ibid. Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 145. 

[10] See James R. Edwards, From Christ to Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the Church in Less than a Century (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2021)

Yesterday morning, before the rain

8 thoughts on “Subsistence Discipleship”

  1. Wow, “The Message” translation was really different. As someone who was reared on the King James Version of the Bible, it was almost jarring. I’m going to remember your term “subsistence spirituality.” It’s perspective speaks to me. Good luck with your tomatoes, Jeff. I have a friend who just finished canning 300 pounds of tomatoes. I can’t even imagine.

    Reply
    • The Message is a good paraphrase that makes reading the Bible easier. I will do a post on my garden. I put up 25 pints of salsa, 12 pints of soup canned and another 25 frozen, along with 6 pints of chow chow (using green tomatoes).

      Reply
  2. Well, “big” is relative, right? A small act of kindness could be a big thing for someone in despair, or for a grumpy person to do. I suppose “for God” is relative and up to interpretation too. When we do things for other humans, that’s for the whole universe. “Save a life, and you have saved the world.” <–Talmudic verse.
    B'shalom, Jeff.

    Reply

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