When I was in kindergarten , I remember our teachers would get us to line up in twos before moving from place to place. I don’t think I ever thought much about this, partly because I was annoyed at being placed at the head of the line as I was the shortest boy in class at the time. Putting us in pairs might have made it easier for the teachers to keep track of us or for us to move around within the school. In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus sending the disciples out on mission to heal the sick and to cast out unclean spirits, and they were told to do so without carrying anything much on them. Much has been said about the need to travel light, and how this showed their true reliance on God while on mission. What’s also significant is the fact that the disciples were sent out in twos, for reasons that would probably have been very different from why we were put in twos in kindergarten.
The first reason I can think of for sending the disciples out in pairs is the mutual support that being with a companion can afford. Being out on mission is very challenging in itself – going out to new and unfamiliar places, proclaiming the good news that might not be so well received, and being blessed with new abilities that are beyond one’s understanding. All these can make a daunting experience and thus, in the Lord’s wisdom, the disciples were not sent out alone, but with a companion, so that they never felt alone and were available to support each other, especially when the going gets tough. For most of us religious these days, we’re rarely sent out alone because we recognise the importance of community and how as a church, our strength lies in our sense of the communal whole.
The second reason is that, especially for the people in Jesus’ time, valid witness comes when two people corroborate each other. This comes from the book of Deuteronomy 19:15 where it’s said that a single person’s testimony will not suffice and that it takes two or three witnesses for a statement to be believed. The sending of the disciples to spread the good news in pairs was not just about support, but to ensure that the word gets out reliably, and that those who listen to the word would accept the witness and testimony of the disciples. I’m sure many of us have had the experience of hearing something very interesting, but not being quite so sure of its provenance, yet getting much more convinced when we hear the same thing from a different source. The wisdom of sending the disciples out in pairs is clear given this reason – to make the good news that much more acceptable and believable.
In our lives of faith, we’re invited to emulate the example of the disciples in spreading the good news and the reality of the Lord’s healing to all whom we meet. This task is never easy, and just as the disciples were sent out in pairs, we’re also not sent out alone, but as members of a faith community. We gain confidence from the friendships and connections we make with those whom we pray and work with, always remembering that the Church is not just a collection of individuals, but that we form the body of Christ. In the same way, our testimony of the good news and the reality of how the Lord lives in us, is at once personal, and also communal. We rely on the experiences and testimony of those around us to paint a fuller picture of how the Lord continually invites us to be missionaries, not just in word, but in deed. Pope Francis, in an address some years ago, exhorted us to be “missionaries of God’s love and tenderness”, and it’s very apt that we recognise that this is never done alone, but as part of the loving community that is the church.
Fr Stanley Goh, SJ