The readings are from the catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headlines are chosen to keep my thinking real:
STAFF PAY TRIBUTE TO INFECTED EBOLA NURSE
2 Timothy 4:10-17
Demas has deserted me for love of this life and gone to Thessalonika, Crescens has gone to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia; only Luke is with me. Get Mark to come and bring him with you; I find him a useful helper in my work. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus in Troas, and the scrolls, especially the parchment ones. Alexander the coppersmith has done me a lot of harm; the Lord will repay him for what he has done. Be on your guard against him yourself, because he has been bitterly contesting everything that we say.
The first time I had to present my defence, there was not a single witness to support me. Every one of them deserted me – may they not be held accountable for it. But the Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the pagans to hear; and so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
Many bibles present this letter as Paul’s Letter to Timothy. Almost all respected modern scholars are agreed that neither this nor the other so-called pastoral letters (Titus, 1st Timothy) are by Paul. They show crucial differences in vocabulary, style and content from the genuine letters of Paul, and are best seen as attempts by later writers to use Paul’s reputation to carry their message. This was not considered odd or wrong in ancient culture and there are many examples of it.
In the present passage the author has taken some care to give personal details of Paul’s situation. This is partly to gain credibility but also to project an iamge of Paul for a new generation of believers. In this case Paul’s unflinching courage in the face of official arrest and the abandonment of colleagues is meant to be a model of discipleship. Reliance on the Lord who never deserts his disciples is shown to bring endurance.
Probably the letter comes from the beginning of the second cenury CE and reflects the life of Greek-speaking churches in the Roman Empire, for whom the twin dangers are government persecution and false teaching. The character of the great apostle, who may have been revered as a martyr by this time, is used to define the nature of the true faith, and to give courage in the face of opposition.
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches use saints as a constant means of refreshing and challenging the life of the church. Reformed churches such as mine have not done so, although the reading of the lives, say, of great mssionaries, was a feature of piety still in my childhood.(1940’s). The reformers had rightly criticised the elevation of saints as mediators with God, invoked in prayer. But the exclusion of sants has left reformed churches without the wealth of human witness available to Catholic believers. I have my own private catalogue of saints, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers to Martin Luther King, which includes official saints like St. Martin, but also very unofficial ones like the Jewish teacher, the Baal Shem Tov. Along with Biblical saints such as Paul, they keep me, more or less, on track.
The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of him, in pairs, to all the towns and places he himself was to visit. He said to them, ‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest. Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals. Salute no one on the road. Whatever house you go into, let your first words be, “Peace to this house!” And if a man of peace lives there, your peace will go and rest on him; if not, it will come back to you. Stay in the same house, taking what food and drink they have to offer, for the labourer deserves his wages; do not move from house to house. Whenever you go into a town where they make you welcome, eat what is set before you. Cure those in it who are sick, and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.”
Luke reports that Jesus thought the situation advantageous when he had a seventy odd supporters. He didn’t think that this was a tiny proportion of the population, but rather of how many others might be gathered into God’s rule. He was sending his people to announce “God’s Rule” namely, God’s goodness breaking into the world, in his own ministry. His messengers were to announce this arrival in word and action. Their mission has four charcteristics:
1. They are to be poor, possessing nothing and dependent on hospitality
2. They are to offer “peace”, which is God’s blessing on the people they meet.
3. They are to heal the sick.
4. They are to announce the breaking -in of God’s goodness.
Those who offer themselves as skilled and unskilled staff to deal with the Ebola outbreak are true successors of the seventy two. It’s worth noting that missionary priests and sisters have been early victims of the virus. When churches think about their mission, this passage, and the example of Ebola volunteers should guide them away from methods of indoctrination and sentimental evangelism.