He charged them to take nothing for their journey.
As someone who spends a significant, even inordinate, amount of time on de-cluttering efforts I am intrigued by this idea of “take nothing.” I know that on my ultimate journey, as on yours, there will be no choice in the matter of what to take: We enter this life with nothing, we depart this life with nothing. There is much wisdom and truth in the saying “You can’t take it with you.”
Today we hear about an important journey for the disciples — their maiden voyage without Jesus. But Mark seems to place more emphasis on the practical details of the trip — travel light, go in pairs, meet people where they are, don’t stick around where you’re not wanted, move on — than on its primary goal: to heal and proclaim the kingdom of God. What can we make of this?
I confess to being a bit confused by this charge to “take nothing” — after all, one might ask, what did the disciples actually have?
Precious little, I imagine. Of the twelve he would call, four — Simon, Andrew, James, and John — had just walked away from their livelihood, their boats and nets, to follow Jesus. Matthew abandoned the booth where he was collecting taxes to follow him. It’s not clear who or what the others left behind. But they had already been traveling with Jesus — from Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, then criss-crossing Galilee to the country of the Gerasenes. So it’s not likely that they had much with them, given his habit of just walking into people’s lives and simply saying, “Follow me.”
Maybe the instruction to “take nothing” is more profound — a warning against attachment to earthly possessions. After all, this is the same Jesus who later will say,
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mt 6:19-21)
Yet there’s also reason to believe that Jesus understood full well the value of material goods: think of the woman frantically searching for her lost coin, the merchant selling everything in order to purchase the pearl of great price.
On the other hand, there’s also the foolish landowner who builds one barn after another, each one larger than the last, to store all his possessions.
From this I conclude that Jesus is not warning against possessions or material goods as inherently evil. Rather, he is showing his disciples and us a way to clear a path — literally and figuratively — to opening our hearts, our lives, to the presence of God.
Traveling without resources or provisions forced each pair of disciples to interact with people they encountered — we might say, they had to mingle. And in this mingling, two things would be revealed: their dependence on the kindness of strangers, and the centrality of their relationship with Jesus. To put it another way, these encounters would show both their vulnerability and their authority: the authority Jesus had given them over unclean spirits — that is, malign, destructive forces; the authority to confront and relieve human suffering wherever they found it.
Traveling in pairs can be seen as a way of preventing loneliness and of ensuring safety. If one is hurt, the other can assist. When the assignment or mission is difficult or frustrating, both commiseration and encouragement can be shared. One can hold the other accountable.
Traveling in pairs also provides what we call a reality check. Ask one person to report on something happened on the road, and you will get one story. Ask two people, and you will get additional details, another point of view, a more rounded narrative.
Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us of the importance Jesus placed on relationships. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Even as you have done unto the least of these…” “Behold your son, behold your mother…” Loving your neighbor is not always easy. If it were, Jesus wouldn’t have to remind us again and again.
Wandering too far from love of neighbor carries with it the danger of believing that walls that divide are more important than bridges that connect. That we can accomplish more on our own than in concert with others. That rather than caring for one another, our primary goal is to protect and preserve what is ours — or what we believe is ours. This is dangerous to our individual spirits, and to the world we live in. Writing in the New York Times a couple of days ago, David Brooks warns that, “A culture of individualism has led people to focus more on individual outcomes and less on the components of each community. We have settled into a reality that is separate and unequal, and we seem not too alarmed about that.”
If you have heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Follow me,” listen now to the same voice sending you out, saying “Bring these words to life. Bring what I have taught you to the world.”
In her book Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a vivid image of this awesome task:
“…If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.”
The disciples did bring with them their most precious possessions: faith in Jesus, a faith still young and green; and their own selves — in the words of the familiar Eucharistic prayer, their souls and bodies. This offering made in imperfect human form echoes and acknowledges the more perfect offering of God’s incarnation. To be a disciple of Jesus means taking on the vulnerability of the crucified and the authority of the resurrected, entrusted to us by Christ Jesus.