Jesus’ instructions to his apostles as he sends them on the road are amazing. On the one hand, he sends them endowed with great power, able to drive out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and every illness, even to cleanse lepers and raise the dead. On the other hand, they are to go about this mission in a most vulnerable way: they are to take no money or backpack, to walk those rocky roads of Palestine without sandals (!) or walking stick. Food is not mentioned in Matthew’s version of the instruction, but since they are told to stay where people receive them, presumably they are to depend entirely on the hospitality (room and board) of those who take them in. Since they are told to combine their healing activity with the proclamation, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” the healing and the deliverance from evil spirits is apparently a demonstration of the presence of God’s end-time Reign present right there in their midst.
It is clear enough why Matthew would include this stunning combination of healing and the announcement of the kingdom’s presence, for that is exactly what Jesus did, and Jesus is sending them as his successors, carrying out the mission that he had begun. But what was Matthew’s audience (or readership) to make of the unusual way of moving about the countryside, so poorly equipped and so dependent on the hospitality of strangers? We know from reading the letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles that most of the early Christians were not itinerant preachers and healers. Some of them—like Paul and Barnabas, Aquila and Prisca—surely were. But most of Matthew’s readers were probably settled urbanites living in places like Antioch and Corinth and gathered in homes once a week to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and enjoy fellowship. What was the message for them as they heard these Gospel instructions about traveling and spreading the good news?
I suggest the message was something like this: whether you are called to be a missionary or to be an ordinary stay-at-home disciple, following our Risen Lord is always a special “journey.” Travel light! Don’t burden yourself with things and stuff. Human life on planet Earth is short. Remember that relationships—with God (Father, Son and Spirit), with other human beings and animals, and with the gifts of the earth—are what it is all about. Whatever we think of our freedom, we are thoroughly interdependent. And our primary dependence—for existence and life—is on God, creator, sustainer, redeemer. Cultivate, live and act in the awareness and you will be profoundly free. Jesus continues to enlighten and heal us, and through us. He invites us now to enter the Reign of God, now and forever. Travel light.