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.