When I was a student, one phrase always sent my spirit sinking, “group work.” Invariably I would be assigned a partner or two who, to my mind, were only there to drag me down or distract my self-esteem by their more finely formed intelligence and work ethic. “Couldn’t we just do these assignments on our own?” I would ask myself. I wanted to be in sole control over anything I had to surrender for the teacher’s scrutiny. So focused was I on the state of my own GPA that I dreaded the idea of having to compete with, or worse still, depend on another. “Surely,” I thought, “real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
I think it is safe to say that we live in a culture that suffers, to varying degrees, from this pivotal misunderstanding. While cooperation and mutuality are concepts routinely praised from the political podium, in classrooms, and in many an ideological platform, at the end of the day, we still notice something unsettling: individualism and individual choice, the right to be an island, and the desire for private ownership still guide so much of the world around us as goods in themselves. It is clear that we know we should temper these behaviors, but we still manage to miss the mark. We seem to be uncomfortable working beyond our own, or our community’s, assumptions. We want to be in control.
“Surely real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
There is a lesson for us and for our culture in this morning’s gospel, and it requires us to train ourselves to let go of the control we think we have. It asks us to admit we need one another.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony to them.”
This model of mission makes no accommodation for self-reliance. No bread, no bag, no money, no spare clothing; stay not where you might expect to find better accommodation, but where you are received; resist violent retribution when your ego is bruised; and it begins by being sent out not alone, but with a partner—a fellow student of love. I cannot imagine that each of these disciples got along well with their partners at every moment. We may imagine some were strangers. Jesus gave them to each other for nourishment, and each would have to learn to depend upon and trust the other in order to do the work given them. They would have to learn to see their Lord in each other as they walked the road to do Jesus’ work of love.
To enter the road and walk with Jesus is to admit, freely and without shame, our deep need for relationship and cooperation even amid our tendency to resist the call to relate. A call, which God speaks to us by the direct gift and encounter of our neighbor. “The road which leads to [our] fulfillment,” writes Christopher Bryant, “is one that brings [us] to an ever-closer oneness with God, [our] author. But God’s presence, unseen and unknown, is with [us] from the beginning.”And is with us most discernably, I will add, not when we are left to ponder the mystery on our own, but when we come face to face with it in another. The “sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,”which cried out for vengeance, is the blood of Jesus, which freely shed and shared, brings access to God here, in you and in your neighbor.
Surely real life is a journey, not a test; and it is a journey best traveled with company.
Mark 6:13—11 New Revised Standard Version.
Christopher Bryant, The Heart in Pilgrimage: Christian Guides for the Human Journey(New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 4.
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