gathers his faction (the Twelve) and sends them out with
authority over unclean spirits. This is an astonishing authorization
which moves these Twelve up a notch in their honor status.
People in the ancient Mediterranean world not only held a strong belief in the
existence of spirits but also ranked them according to power. At the top of the
list was “our” God, then “other” gods, sons of god, or archangels.
In third place were still less powerful nonhuman persons: angels, spirits, and
demons. Humans were in fourth place, and creatures lower than humans in last
By giving the Twelve power over unclean spirits, Jesus moves them up from level
four at least into level three. Greeks called hostile spirits “demons,” while
Semites called them “unclean spirits.” When Jesus expels an unclean
spirit (Mark 5:2, 8) out of a possessed man in pagan territory, the people of
that region call the man a demoniac (Mark 5:15-16).
The authority over unclean spirits also extends to conditions believed to be
caused by these spirits, namely, sickness. That the distinction between possession
and sickness is fuzzy in the ancient world is evident in the story of Peter’s
mother-in-law. In Mark (1:30) she is “sick with a fever,” but the context
of Luke (4:38-39) indicates that the “high fever” that grips her is
actually a demon named “Fever” whom Jesus “rebukes” and expels.
Travel and Hospitality
In the ancient world, travel was deviant and dangerous. It was deviant because
there was little reason to leave one’s ancestral dwelling where one was normally
surrounded by extended family network. Everything one needed or desired was here.
It was dangerous because robbers waited to ambush travellers, particularly those
travelling alone (Luke 10:30). For this reason, Jesus tells his newly authorized
faction members to travel in pairs. Very likely these pairs joined larger caravans
for greater safety.
The instruction to travel lightly (no bread, no money, etc.) is not unusual.
The needs of travellers (lodging and food) were to be provided chiefly through
hospitality. Jesus continues his instruction with special attention to hospitality
(e.g., “receiving” or “welcoming”).
In the Middle Eastern world, hospitality is a value extended exclusively to strangers.
(Relatives and friends are extended steadfast loving kindness.) The process involves
three steps: the stranger is taken under the protection of a host for a given
time, transformed into a temporary guest, with hopes that the two will part friends
(but parting as enemies is also possible).
The host provides lodging, food, and especially a safe haven or protection from
the suspicions and possible attacks of villagers. After all, strangers are always
suspected of being up to no good and plotting damage to the village.
Failure to extend hospitality in the Middle East is a serious breach of honor.
Jesus’ advice to “shake off the dust on your feet as a testimony against
those who would not extend hospitality” is a major insult. It effectively
writes these people out of the human community. The gesture implied total rejection,
hostility, and an unwillingness to be touched by anything the others have touched.
These culturally different understandings of spirits, travel, and hospitality
challenge Western believers to gain a well-founded grasp of Middle Eastern culture.
Contemporary books about angels and other spirits tend to reflect modern Western
theological or spiritual concepts that sometimes have slim foundation in the
Middle Eastern biblical texts. A sound, cross-cultural approach to reading and
understanding the Bible can lay a much stronger foundation for the commendable
exploration of these traditional topics.
John J. Pilch is a biblcal scholar and facilitator of parish renewals. Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch
exploring the “cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
Copyright © 1996
by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The Liturgical
Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321
The complete text of the above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 109-11.
Art by Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training Publications. This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection
in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/