Packing my cases for a trip is one of the chores I hate most. I like travelling light, but usually I have to take more stuff than I personally would like to, and I end up with a case just a few milligrams short of the airline’s allowance and with hand-baggage pulling my arm out of its socket. I suppose I’m not unique in this respect, particularly now, in the middle of the summer holiday season.
In today’s gospel Jesus sends his Apostles out in pairs on a particular mission: they are to cast out devils and call people to repentance. He gives them the necessary authority to fulfil the mission, and he instructs them what to do and how to behave. Among these instructions is a piece of advice regarding their luggage: ‘take nothing for the journey: […] no bread, no haversack, no coppers, no spare tunic.’ There are only two items they should take with them: a pair of sandals on their feet and a staff in their hands. They are to be modestly equipped, even by the standards of ancient Palestine; they are to travel really light. On the other hand, they don’t risk being charged at the check-in desk for excess luggage…
A pair of sandals and a staff – these are the only two items listed in a positive manner for the journey in this passage of the gospel. Both have symbolic meanings; that’s why they are mentioned, and I’m going to present these briefly. Sandals were the most common footwear in the Middle East, worn by all classes of society in Palestine, even by the very poor. They were dispensed with indoors, and were only put on by persons about to undertake some business away from home. In the Old Testament sandals were normally worn by an official, a soldier or a messenger. These three roles are present in the mission on which Jesus sends his Apostles: they are representing Him, they are fighting against the enemy (Satan) and they are proclaiming the kingdom of God. The staff refers to Moses, the father-figure of Israel. He was sent by God to liberate his people from Egypt, and he used his staff to perform miracles, like turning the waters of the Nile red, parting the Red Sea, or providing fresh water from the rock in the desert. His staff is a symbol of authority and power granted by God to Moses in order to represent God.
Jesus in today’s gospel is not a trip advisor, concerned about the Apostles’ convenience while travelling. His instructions actually address their attitude, rather than their luggage. In St Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells his followers not to worry too much about food or clothing, ending with these words: ‘seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ In their mission the Apostles are to rely on Jesus only, nothing else. And that’s the hardest bit.
In our everyday lives we have, and we use, many things and services. Some of them are indispensable, some of them make life easier, and some of them are means of entertainment. We ought to be grateful that we are lucky enough to have access to many of them, unlike so many others around the world. But these bits and pieces, so useful and helpful, can give us an illusion of power, independence and self-sufficiency. The more we become attached to them, the greater is the risk of missing what really matters: friendship, companionship and mutual love. At the end of the day these are the things that really matter when we travel through life. It’s not about your luggage, it’s about your attitude. It’s not what you have that makes you great; it’s who you are.