Jesus' instruction to the Twelve as he sends them off to preach and heal presents a tantalizing set of details: staff and sandals are OK, but no bread, bag, or money belt. What's in this cryptic protocol for us? If the gospel passages dealing with the Twelve are meant to be taken as models (sometimes positive, sometimes negative) for all would-be disciples of Jesus, we are justified in probing the details.
These become more curious when we notice that in the Q version of the instructions, Matthew allows no sandals and Luke forbids a staff. Who in their right mind would travel the rocky and bandit-ridden roads of first-century Palestine barefoot, shekel-less, and without bread or a staff for self-defense? Surely any set of travelers moving along in such an improvident way would call attention to themselves.
That, some commentators think, is precisely what Jesus had in mind. It amounted to another prophetic symbolic action—illustrating that the lifestyle of the kingdom of God entailed nonviolence, vulnerability, and a hospitable interdependence that was deliberately counter-cultural. Such behavior supported the call to a change of heart and made these missioners dependent on a hospitality that would provide opportunities for intimate conversation around the tables of their generous hosts.
But that modus operandi apparently did not endure for long. since the social life of the communities reflected in the letters of Paul is that of settled urbanites who, except for special helpers like Aquila and Priscilla, stay put after their conversions. Now, if Mark was telling the story of Jesus for such a group of Christian city dwellers (probably Romans, in this case), why did he think it significant to record this tradition of Jesus' instructions to his band of itinerant charismatics? It must have had some paradigmatic meaning for his urban readers. Could it have been something like the following: even though you will continue your settled city life, as a Christian you have embarked on a journey following a Master who challenges you to travel light. Central to Jesus' teaching, after all, was the lesson that one's identity and security is not to be found in material possessions or in strategies of self-defense.
If Mark was challenging his urban readers to make an analogous application to their living the way of Jesus in their settled lives, how might we extend this application to our situation as Christian readers living on what we now know to be a small planet in an expanding universe?
To choose one example, it is a fact that our planet is the only one of the solar ones to produce topsoil. It took some three billion years of evolution to do that. And now, even though we know how to farm in sustainable ways, we in the industrialized nations choose mainly to farm in a mode that destroys twenty-five billion tons of topsoil every year. In this situation, what might it mean to travel light?
Is this stretching the text? Not necessarily, when you consider that Jesus, like Amos before him, presumed an Israelite sense of covenant that understood goods of the earth, especially the land itself, as something owned by the creator and held in stewardship by human beings to serve the needs of all, future as well as present.