Shaking the dust off

Posted: November 5, 2011 by J in Mission

But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,  ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’  I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.  (Luke 10:10-12)

Jesus is sending out his disciples (the twelve, then the seventy) to do mission. And this is part of his instructions: if they won’t welcome you ‘shake the dust off your feet against them’. A symbolic act: God will shake them off in the same way. Perhaps also the judgement on that town will be so severe, you don’t want any connection with it, not even with its dust.

It’s the last act in the severing of the relationship. It says, ‘We’re finished with you guys. We’re moving on. God’s grace is passing you by, we’re leaving you to his judgement.’

It’s pretty extreme.

What sort of application could this have to mission today?

Where I come from the evangelical way of applying this seems to be, ‘When you meet people, try to bring up the gospel with them fairly soon. If they respond well, keep it going; if they don’t, you’ll probably need to find someone else to talk to. No point in spending too much time with that person. They’re not open.’

So we usually only invest in people’s lives as long as they show a real interest in the gospel. We’ll stick with them, as long as they stay keen. If they lose interest, we’ll find someone else to focus our attention on. That’s our version of ‘shaking off the dust’. We move on.

Is that a good application of Jesus’ teaching to our setting?  I don’t think so.

Here’s some exegetical considerations:

1. Jesus’ teaching is given to itinerant evangelists, not to ordinary citizens. Both times this instruction is carried out in Luke-Acts, it’s in the context of itinerant ministry (Acts 13:51, 18:6).

Most of us are not itinerant evangelists. Application for us will mean taking account of our more ‘settled’ setting. We can’t literally ‘move on’: my neighbours will still be there tomorrow!

2. The towns Jesus sends these evangelists to are not just any towns. They are Jewish towns. Two ways those towns are different from my town. First, the inhabitants are the heirs of the covenant with Moses. They have 1400 years of history with Yhwh, 500 years of prophetic expectations for the coming of Messiah. That’s a lot of preparation time. When the Messiah is announced, they’d better be ready.

Second, Jesus has done great things in many of their towns already. The seventy are going through the towns of Galilee, the scene of Jesus’ ministry so far. When Jesus gives his ‘shake the dust’ instruction, and threatens, ‘I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town (Luke 10:12) – he immediately makes it clear which sort of towns he’s thinking of:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.  14 But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.  15 And you, Capernaum…  (Luke 10:13-15)

These are towns that have been given every chance. They’ve been singled out for the privilege of having the Messiah living and ministering amongst them for a long time.

We know Jesus didn’t treat all towns like this:

52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;  53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  55 But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:52-55)

The Samaritans hadn’t had all these privileges. (Neither has Sydney.) And when they reject him, Jesus doesn’t give them the ‘dust off the feet’ treatment.

It’s a fact that both times this instruction is carried out as recorded in Luke-Acts, it’s Jews who are being ‘shaken off’, not Gentiles. Gentiles never get this treatment in the Gospels/Acts.

3. This instruction comes at the end of Jesus’ Galilee ministry. He’s now leaving, heading for Jerusalem. He’s not coming back. It’s their last chance. It’s in this context that the ‘shake the dust’ instruction is given. This was probably not Jesus’ normal modus operandi over the previous three years.

These considerations make it hard for me to imagine Jesus giving us the ‘shake the dust’ instruction for general use on our neighbours here in poor pagan Sydney. Exegetically, I can’t see any justification for applying the practice to them.

But here’s an interesting thought: would anyone be valid recipients of this treatment today? And if so, who?

I’d love to hear people’s ideas.

  1. Dan W says:

    Who would suggest such a thing to you Jono?!


    I’ve had an inkling that that idea is dodgy, nice to have you spend some time showing why it’s exegetically dodgy.

    Would Hebrews 6:4ff be a candidate for it’s application today? Bit different though…

    It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

    • Jonathan says:

      Yes Dan I like your link with Hebrews 6:4ff. Thinking it over, that’s just the argument of Hebrews, isn’t it?

      ..if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Heb 2:2-3).

      If Israel was judged for neglecting their inheritance in God’s kingdom, won’t the Church be also?

      18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, if not to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
      Heb. 4:1   Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.

      Israel is our example, as a warning against disobeying the Word we have received. They are the original “land that drinks in the rain often falling on it…but…produces thorns and thistles…and is in danger of being cursed”. (6:7-8)

      This becomes very explicit in ch.10:

      Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 29 How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

      This is a ‘how much more’ type argument. If God will shake off disobedient Israelites under the first covenant, how much more those who are disobedient to the glorious gospel of his Son Jesus, and reject the perfected covenant?

      So then, Dan are you suggesting that the valid application of the ‘shake the dust’ instruction may be to people in churches? Or rather, to people in churches where the Scriptures are taught and the truth known. Their privileged position parallels that of Israel in the first century: they have the word of God. Is that your point?

      Should we then only apply this practice to bible-believing evangelicals?!

      • kristanslack says:

        Obviously I’m coming to this post very late – sue me, I live overseas and I don’t blog in my spare time much. But this one has parallels here with some of the groups of people we work with.

        Isn’t the fact that Hebrews was possibly written to include some of those people also possibly a check on us using Hebrews to justify locating what people can have the dust shaken off our feet.

        What I mean to say is – the author of Hebrews doesn’t shake the dust of his feet. He writes a letter. He’s still engaging with them – even if they some in their midst are under the possible accusation of being those group. But then he always hopes, always believes, and is persuaded of better things concerning them.

        The use of the hypothetical in this book and elsewhere with the indefinite pronouns should also give us pause I think.

        My $0.02. Very late.


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