I was born too late for “Sesame Street,” which is just as well, since my fear of numbers helped me end up as a priest rather than a doctor or anything else that required more than a passing grade in math and science—and I am really very happy being a priest.
But today I’m going to take a “Sesame Street” approach to my homily. Our number of the day is seventy.
Seventy really jumps off the page when you read today’s Gospel. Why seventy?
For starters, the number seven “is significant in almost every culture,” though no-one really knows why. Someone suggested it’s because traditionally there were thought to be seven planets, but seven was significant among peoples who didn’t know that.
In the Bible, though, seven signifies “totality, fullness, completeness.” [John L. McKenzie, SJ, Dictionary of the Bible, “Seven,” p. 794.] There are far too many examples to mention, but we in the Old Testament we recall right away the seventh day on which God rested after creating the world and in the Gospels the number of times Jesus told us to forgive and the seven loaves he multiplied.
Let’s look, though, at seventy. The Book of Genesis states that there are seventy nations in the world and seventy in the family of Jacob. Most important, the Book of Numbers recounts how Moses appointed seventy elders to share his burden.
Luke, therefore, had good reason to tell us there were seventy disciples assigned to go ahead of Jesus and to heal the sick while proclaiming the Kingdom of God. The number tells us three important things.
First, it tells us that this mission is not for a chosen few. Just one chapter earlier, Luke records the sending-out of the Twelve. Jesus gives the Apostles the same mission he later gave the seventy others. It would be easy to say that there was something exclusive about the mission of the Twelve, not so easy when that same mission is almost immediately shared with a much larger group.
Second, it tells us that the mission is for everyone. It’s not enough to say that it isn’t exclusive; we can see it’s actually universal. The seventy disciples stand for all of us. To be a disciple of any sort is to be called to proclaim the Kingdom of God to others and to heal their wounds.
Third, the number seventy reminds us that our mission—given to us by Christ—is a sharing in the mission of the Apostles. While our call is individual, we respond within the Church, united with the successors of the Apostles to whom is given the task of coordinating and overseeing the works of the apostolate. Just as Moses was given the help of seventy elders, so are the bishops assisted—not replaced—by the dedicated collaboration of priests and the lay faithful.
So what do these conclusions mean in our parish?
To answer that question, I started to type the names of everyone in the parish who I knew was taking an especially active share in our mission. And when I was finished with my random list, I numbered it.
What do you think the number was? Sixty-five. Just five short of the magic number.
Are you on that list of those who are preparing the way for Jesus? If you’re not—there are five spaces left!
We need to pray for those who dedicate themselves specially to the work of this parish—catechists, teachers, ministry coordinators, Alpha organizers, RCIA team members, and many others. But equally we need to ask the Lord of the harvest for more labourers—more parishioners willing to share the peace and joy of Christ with others.
Obviously, there are many who live out their baptismal calling without active involvement in parish ministries. For instance, parents of young families often must build the Kingdom at home—it’s no small challenge to say “Peace to this house” when the house is filled with screaming children!
But in some sense, all of us are represented by that number seventy; all of us are part of the great company of disciples whom the Lord has called to share the mission he received from the Father.
It’s not always easy to respond wholeheartedly to the particular assignment Christ has given us. The wolves of social disapproval growl at us. Purses and briefcases heavy with possessions and duties weigh us down. And sometimes our efforts to share the Good News may cost us a friendship or a promotion.
To all this, Jesus simply says: “Know this: the Kingdom of God has come near.”