This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 10:1–12, 17–20:
At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way. Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’ Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.”
The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power to ‘tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”
Who hasn’t wished for a photographic memory at times? When I was a little boy, I took piano lessons; wouldn’t be nice to instantly recall all of those skills? I’ve learned parts of four different foreign languages over the years, and yet struggle to speak in all of them — and some readers might wonder at times whether I’m doing well in English, for that matter. Memories fade, even the most pleasant of them, or perhaps especially the most pleasant of them.
It would seem nice to have one’s brain act like a reliable computer, one that could instantly bring back those memories and information. It would make it a lot easier to win barroom debates, at least, or family squabbles about who said what to Uncle Whositz at that holiday dinner in 1978. Or was it 1979?
True photographic memory is rare, however, and it’s not necessarily the unmitigated blessing we’d imagine. We might remember more than just the wonderful moments in our lives; we’d also recall every injury, both received and inflicted. That ability to recall might keep us stuck on those moments, defining us even more than the moment did the first time.
Today’s Gospel puts me in mind of this tendency to get stuck on the past when dealing with salvation. This lesson from Jesus does not directly deal with that, although Jesus and the apostles do discuss the need to put trust in Christ when coming to Him for forgiveness. In today’s Gospel, John teaches us about the need for humility and love in evangelization, not force or coercion.
This itself was a revelation, perhaps even a revolutionary concept in its time. The temple elite enforced their version of religion by force or the threat of it. Jesus would pay for His supposed heresy with his life, about as far from the “live and let live” instructions in this passage. As both Jews and Christians would soon discover, the Romans enforced tribute to their gods even more zealously. Most kingdoms of their time did the same, equating religious diversity to treason punishable by the state. And at least until the Enlightenment, that was the norm in Western culture, too. Even here in the New World, the Massachusetts Bay Colony expelled Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson in 1635 for having the temerity to suggest that the Puritans might want to extend some of that religious freedom they preached for themselves to people of other faiths.
This, then, was a revolutionary form of religious conversion — a conversion of the heart, and one open to all. In this specific event, Jesus sent his disciples out among the Judeans alone, but eventually Jesus would command them to “make disciples of all nations.” Preaching the Gospel would be an act of service and gratitude, not an act of imposition and oppression. The truth would set men and women free rather than just putting a different set of chains on them, because the point was to have our names “written in heaven” rather than on dusty monuments and disintegrating tablets.
However, this lesson speaks to me about the process of internal conversion as well. How are we to deal with our sins, both before and after conversion? Jesus understood that we would struggle with this our whole lives. In one sense, ignorance would truly be bliss, for we would be unaware of our offenses before God. Once we have become aware, we are rightly ashamed of them and seek forgiveness.
It’s not so easy to forget as it is to forgive, however, perhaps especially with ourselves. Even if we have sought out forgiveness and absolution, we continue to carry the memories of those sins and mourn the damage they created. If we cannot let them go, we either enter into perpetual mourning or we begin to rationalize them away as minor transgressions, or even worse as not sins at all. The first path locks us into our sinfulness, while the second path locks us out of salvation. Both of those paths carry us away from the trust and faith we need to put into Christ as our Savior and makes us more self-absorbed and isolated.
This is why we need to adopt these instructions for our own continuing internal conversion to Christ as well. Jesus did not send His Holy Spirit to annihilate the unconverted, but to give them an opportunity to seek salvation. The disciples did not go out with the sword to issue a convert or else ultimatum. They went out to give everyone a choice based on truth and to speak the truth about sin.
We must look at our sinfulness as the unconverted part of our lives — the resistant and defiant part of our natures. While still mindful enough of the damage to learn the lesson from it, we seek forgiveness and absolution — and then we must leave those unconverted passages as the disciples left the stubborn villages. We must put our trust in the Lord, shake the dust of that sinfulness from our feet, and march forward rather than looking back.
In short, we have to develop a memory that allows us to put the past where it belongs. A photographic memory will only burden us on our journey, even if it might provide a nice piano accompaniment from time to time. It’s not a question of forgetting as much as it is the need to focus our gaze on what is to come, and not on the dust of what has been left behind and in the care of Christ.
The front page image is a detail from Christ and His Disciples on Their Way to Emmaus, by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 16th century.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.