“These were his instructions: ‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff- no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.’” Mark 6:8-11
There are few animals more endearingly stupid than sheep. A couple years ago, my husband and I were in Scotland celebrating our tenth year anniversary. The sheep were everywhere. In just about every strange configuration. I even saw one sheep literally standing on all fours on the back of another sheep who was herself standing on all fours. No joke. If there were a sheep circus, those two would have been in it.
I tried to make friends with the sheep but could never get quite close enough to pet one. They were skiddish. It was like they were always running off to another more important engagement, when in fact all they ever really seemed to do was eat, sleep and poop. (But then again, I guess food, rest and regularity are pretty important in the scheme of things.)
In addition to being a bit dim, scared and skittish, sheep do not have a very good sense of direction. Have you ever heard of a sheep that takes directions well? I mean, while my directional sense is poor, (and I mean really poor), try telling a sheep how to get from point A to point B. At least I can ask for directions. Sheep have to be herded with a big stick and even then they bleat and bump into each other like bumbling, blathering fools. Endearingly stupid at best.
Which is why Jesus’ declaration here, just when he is sending out his disciples on a dangerous mission into potentially hostile territory, is just plain weird. Even a bit insulting really. Hardly the kind of phrase that the U.S. army would use to recruit new soldiers, for instance- unless they were kamikazes.
But, is Jesus ordering his disciples to be like sheep here? Is he telling them to be bumbling, blathering fools running all over the place eating, sleeping, and pooping and having to be herded with great, big sticks? Is he charging them to be timid babies sticking close to their mothers? I don’t think so.
More likely Jesus is describing a reality. The reality that anyone who believes in Jesus above all else and seeks to answer God’s call to go into the world with the message that God is here and on the way is going to face obstacles. Is going to be near the bottom of the food chain. Is going to appear naive and powerless by all external appearances. Is going to look like the next good meal for those who would cynically prey on the poor and vulnerable.
Because by virtue of our being sent into the world with a message that God is here redeeming lives, we are making ourselves vulnerable. We are putting ourselves “out there,” by telling people God loves them. And, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, if we don’t “get a return” on our words, “that’s a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.”
To tell our world that God is here and that God loves us and cares about how we treat one another and is intimately invested in our lives is a claim that can seem silly and downright outrageous. And it can require a whole lot of humility and courage- especially when we ourselves are not the message. And just to drive this point home, Jesus instructs his disciples to “take nothing for the journey.” “No bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” As if by virtue of having these things we might mistaken ourselves and our resources for the message itself. A message we’re bringing about One who saves.
These instructions that we travel light are, I suspect, especially hard to hear for those of us who have spent our lives justifying our existence through our possessions. The best education. The highest accolades. The well-paying job. Like money and clothes, these are stamps of worldly success. They can send a message about who we are. Or at least who we would like to think we are.
But Jesus won’t let us take refuge in these petty minutiae. Because at the end of the day they really are like “chaff that the wind blows away.” When the world as we know it falls apart, when chronic illness strikes, or we lose a loved one, or all of our life’s savings dissolve with one swing in the stock market, we can quickly be left with nothing. We can feel lost, like a pathetic, helpless sheep bleating on a hillside.
And this is where God shows up. In that nexus between our desperate inadequacy and a cruel world that scorns the weak, God issues the assurance that God’s sheep will never be lost and will never perish (John 10). Because a Shepherd came and laid down his life for the sheep and pointed them in the direction of Love. He was God’s own great, big matzo ball hanging out there, broken for us.
I call that naked love.