The sending of the seventy has an ascetic aroma about it. We now associate “ascetic” with self-denial of physical pleasures. That is not the original Greek meaning. “Askesis” is a word from the gymnasium, a word for disciplined exercise and training. The Desert Mothers and Fathers were ascetics in this first sense of the word. They were often described as “athletes” (a transliteration of the Greek word). They trained their bodies, minds and spirits in order to meet the challenges of the deeply disciplined life of faith.
The lack of clothing, bags and shoes is certainly part of the disciplined life, as described in Luke 10. This deprivation by choice (or at least by command) will prepare the missionaries for deprivations unchosen in the future. They will learn just how little they need, not only to survive, but to flourish. This is an exercise in traveling light–a series of workouts to prepare for the challenges ahead.
After Dad instructed me on our mealtime protocol, we went to the house and washed up. Mrs. Turtle beamed with delight as we took our places. They didn’t get much company. We sat at the kitchen table next to a sink piled high with dishes. In the living room, the floor was nearly covered with dirty clothes and old newspapers. Mr. and Mrs. Turtle were well-matched.
She was the kindest and most welcoming host one could imagine. We paused as Turtle said grace over the meal. It was a sincere prayer of simple elegance and devotion. Then the period of testing commenced.
Most of the meal was unremarkably edible. The exception was a serving of brussel sprouts. I was unfamiliar with the vegetable, so I assumed that what I saw was normal. On our plates we each found a dozen small, dark, hard balls. They had either been boiled beyond recognition or picked far too early.
I tried to cut into one. The knife slipped. The sprout shot like a marble across the table and on to the kitchen floor. the Turtle’s family dog had it down before anyone could even comment. I thought that shooting sprouts in the general direction of the dog might be a way out of the dilemma. But a glare from Dad ruled out that strategy. I balanced the BB’s on my spoon and commenced chewing.
They weren’t terrible, but they certainly weren’t good. No amount of salt and pepper could change that fact. the grownups were gossiping about one of the neighbors. I became absorbed in the conversation. Without noticing, I had, as ordered, eaten what was put in front of me. Mrs. Turtle noticed my clean plate and was ecstatic. “Here! Have some more sprouts. They’re so good for you!”
I did not, at that moment, consider the experience an ascetic exercise. I had no idea I was being training in a spiritual practice. Yet, that was the result. My dad went to great lengths to avoid time at the Turtles’ table. When we were captured there, however, he was clear about how to respond. We were guests of kind and generous hosts. We would abide by the rules of the host table. And we would be grateful.
“Eat what is put in front of you,” Jesus tells the seventy. It is the counsel of humility. The missionaries were equipped for deeds of great power–preaching, healing and exorcising. They were quite impressed with their own accomplishments. Lord, even the demons obeyed our commands!
I would have been insufferably arrogant in such a setting. My audience would have been duly impressed and perhaps quite intimidated. But the messenger would have, in my case, masked the message. The mission would have failed. Askesis, therefore, was a necessary part of the experience. Humility, as the desert saints taught, is the prelude to holiness.
I doubt if the missionaries ate badly cooked brussel sprouts. But perhaps they had to violate kosher. They may have eaten meager fair and gone to bed hungry. If they did, they perhaps remembered that the message was more important than the messenger. It was a privilege even to be called into the mission, Jesus reminded them, a privilege just to have one’s name written in the Book of Life.
Perhaps there would be times in the future when they recalled these missionary meals as feasts. Perhaps such training would remind them (and me) that nothing in all of Creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord–not even badly cooked brussel sprouts.
Mrs. Turtle smiled as she waited to refill my plate. I looked to Dad and pleaded for rescue from my inattention.