Jesus sent out missionaries. Scholars have asked how they compare with the Cynic philosophers of their day. Here I point to some similarities and differences.
The earlier post described what Jesus seems to have meant by the Kingdom of God. Because of high taxes, village life was collapsing. Farmers were going into debt, and then having to sell up. More and more people had no income and were starving. As fear gripped the villages of Galilee, people fell out with each other. Jesus persuaded them to put aside their grievances against each other, cancel all the debts, and just make sure everybody had something to eat, as in ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. He did this by appealing to laws in the Old Testament.
This week’s Gospel reading comes soon after last week’s reading. According to Luke the order was: first he sent twelve supporters round the villages of Galilee with the message of the Kingdom. This way his movement got established, and then he set his face to go to Jerusalem. They would be walking about 100 miles. He appointed seventy missionaries to go ahead of him to whip up support for the travellers and invite people to join them.
What were the missionaries doing, and how did it work? On setting them off, Jesus says:
The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few… See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.
So he is sending them out with absolutely nothing, completely dependent on whoever they meet. It’s worth asking why.
In classical literature the nearest we get to this is the Cynics. Classical philosophy offered advice about how to live. Cynicism was one of the most popular philosophies, often described as a poor person’s version of Stoicism. In the ancient world there were always a great many beggars. Some of them became Cynics. They walked from city to city begging, and offering Cynic wisdom in return.
One of the most famous Cynics was Diogenes. We cannot be sure that all the teaching attributed to him was actually said by him, but some of it is familiar to us. Here are some examples.
The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.
We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less.
When asked where he came from, he said he was a citizen of the world.
A lot of his teaching was about the virtue of poverty. He said:
It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike people to want little.
Poverty is a virtue which one can teach oneself.
Diogenes lived at the same time as Alexander the Great, who was at the time the most powerful person in the world. The best known story about Diogenes is when Alexander came to visit him. Alexander said ‘What would you like me to do for you?’ Diogenes replied
I have nothing to ask but that you would move to the other side. Where you are you are blocking the sunshine, taking away from me what you cannot give.
Another story says Alexander the Great found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained,
I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from the bones of a slave.
The word Cynic comes from the Greek word for ‘dog’. Nobody knows why the movement got that name, but some Cynics came up with explanations. Here’s one:
There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.
That was the Cynics. When Jesus sent his missionaries round the villages with a message about how to live, this was the kind of thing Cynics did. Today we don’t expect a complete stranger to turn up on the doorstep expecting to be fed, and offering in return advice about how to live. In Jesus’ day that’s what Cynics did. So when Jesus’s missionaries went out to the villages with their message, what they were doing was socially acceptable.
In some ways they were different from the Cynics. One was dress. Cynics had a distinctive appearance: a cloak, a leather bag and a stick. They did their philosophising and begging in cities, so they walked long distances from city to city. Hence the need for a stick to fend off wild animals, and a bag to carry any food or money they were given.
Jesus, on the other hand, did not tell his missionaries to look different. They would have looked like ordinary people. Jesus sent them much shorter distances, between the villages in a small country. So he says
Carry no purse, no bag.
In other words they are to depend completely on the generosity of the people they meet. They can’t even keep leftover food for the next day.
The other difference is the message they are bringing. The Cynics of Greek and Roman paganism had no equivalent of the Jewish teaching that the world had been made by one god who provided enough resources for everyone. They had no concept that justice was a matter of making sure nobody went without.
So it seems likely – although we don’t have enough evidence – that the Jesus missionary, on arrival at a new village, was doing something ethically different from the Cynic philosopher. The Cynics offered their teaching. If the audience liked it, they got invited to pay for the service provided. It they didn’t like it, maybe they might donate a crust of bread out of sympathy.
The Jesus activists had a rather different message. Their message was about how God had designed everyone to live. Justice was about making sure nobody went without. So here I am, I’ve just walked five miles barefoot from the next village, as you can see I have nothing with me except my ordinary clothes, like you I’m concerned about the state of the country with so many people starving, and I’ve come to propose a practical solution. If you’re interested I’d welcome something to eat. If you’re not interested, be assured that the Kingdom of God has come near.
Did it work? Luke tells us that the seventy returned with joy, saying ‘In your name even the demons submit to us’. It worked.
We live in a very different society. Jehovah’s Witnesses still turn up at the doorstep with a message, though without expecting to be fed. Even so, many people think it’s an odd thing to do. The way messages can be presented varies from one society to another. There is no blueprint in the Bible telling us how to go about presenting the Christian message. We have to judge the method for every time and place.