The Priesthood and the Seventh Sunday of Pentecost

The Gospel for today is Luke 10:1-7:

After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. Then He said to them, “The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves. Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road. But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the labourer is worthy of his wages. Do not go from house to house.” (NKJ)

One striking yet often overlooked aspect of this passage is how Our Lord says: “… whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you.” Why does Our Lord say that to the disciples, and what does it mean, that if there is no “son of peace” (huios eirēnēs) in the house, that is, if there is no peaceful person in that family, the peace which is offered by the two disciples returns to them? 

How can a greeting of peace return to someone? I think that the answer is this: the entirety of this passage is based on the premise that the disciples are the patterns of true priests, and like priests, they have a special charism. In other words, when priests offer their peace then a real power flows, and being a true energy, it can be received or it can be rejected.

First, the number of these disciples connects them to the tradition of the elders to whom God gave the spirit in order to be with Moses in the tabernacle (Numbers 11):

Moses … gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tabernacle. Then the Lord came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders; and it happened, when the Spirit rested upon them, that they prophesied, … But two men had remained in the camp … Eldad and … Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them.

Since Our Lord was the new Moses, this means that these disciples had a ministry of standing in the House of God with Jesus Himself, that is, they were the models for what would be Christian priests. (Fr Thomas J. Lane comes to a similar conclusion for slightly different reasons in The Catholic Priesthood, pp.101-103.) [Note for bible scholars: the fact that some texts have “70” and others “72” suggests that the ancient copyists realised that the parallel with Numbers 11 was intended, and hence they were unsure whether to write 70 for the men in the tent, or to make it 72 to include Eldad and Medad.]

The next lines spoken by Our Lord, about sending labourers into the harvest, has long been accepted by tradition as meaning that we must ask God to give us good priests. Because they have a work to do, they are not to stop and speak with people on the road. So too, when the prophet Elisha sent Gehazi on a mission of life and death, he told him: “… if you meet anyone, give no greeting, and if anyone meets you, do no answer.” (2 Kings 4:29) [For bible scholars, the Lord’s words about the labourer being worthy of his hire were picked up by the later tradition, especially by St Paul, to explain why priests should accept something from the faithful. This is another sign that this entire passage is intended for the priesthood which Our Lord knew He would institute.]

Their greeting of peace is a real event, and not just a friendly wave and a hello: when they say “Peace be to this house,” a real power is sent forth. This peace-giving power is one of the gifts God gave the priesthood, even if we under-appreciate it. Perhaps the fullest theological dictionary says that: “The greeting of the apostles who are endued with exousia (authority) … (equals) dynamis (power) is thus a sacramental action.” (TDNT I, 499).

The greeting of peace is still a sacramental action in our Divine liturgy, even today, as when the priest says: “Peace be with you,” and the people reply, “And with your spirit.” Once more, this is not an ordinary friendly exchange. Giles Quispel wrote that the priest was believed to have a “special charisma” which was “enhanced” by the prayer of the people that God be with the priest’s spirit. It is sometimes said that when a man becomes a priest, or takes on any serious vocation, he is given by God an additional guardian angel to help him.

The priest can offer peace to the people because the priest is an intermediary, a bridge between heaven and earth: so when the priest offers them peace, he offers them the peace of God which surpasses understanding. And if any of the people accept that peace, they show this by saying “And with your spirit.” The ordination of a priest is a supernatural action, like all the sacraments: it is not just a formal way of marking an administrative action. If we had spiritual eyes we could see how, especially in the Eucharist, something miraculous happens.

This peace we meet in the mystery of the Eucharist is not an ordinary peace: it is, as I have said, a positive power. Therefore, at the end of each Divine Sacrifice, the priest gives the final blessing, that the faithful may go in peace in the name of the Holy Trinity. He then kisses the altar and prays silently:

I leave you in peace, holy altar, and I hope to return to you in peace. May the offering I have received from you be for the forgiveness of my faults, and the remission of my sins; that I may stand without shame or fear before the throne of Christ. I do not know if I shall be able to return to you again to offer another sacrifice. I leave you in peace.

This is not any ordinary peace: he is not just saying “we have finished, the church is empty. It is quiet.” Something has been done. The holy sacrifice has brought a power. Peace is said to be the “tranquillity of order.” Peace is that calm which comes from order, and order means an action of putting the highest things first and then everything else in its proper place. That is what has happened at the altar. The priest has been part of the most extraordinary action possible. It has been done, God willing, in a reverent and holy way. After this action and the distribution of the Eucharist to the faithful he can leave the altar in peace. It is not just calm, it is a positive state of holiness because of what has happened.

In the Anaphora of St John Chrysostom, the priest says this prayer: “May we always speak words of peace, think of peace, and work for peace.” The lesson here is that peace is both an action and the result of one. That does not mean we go out on demonstrations, or sign petitions: it is a spiritual word, thought, and action. Our daily lives as Christians are to be loves of peace, of order, prayer, putting God at the start of the day and devoting our day to God.

So, the disciples are the patterns of priests, and when they go to a house, they will offer the peace of God, and if they have the desire to share it, then the priestly blessing finds a home. The seed of peace is planted, it grows in their souls. This miraculous phenomenon is due to God, not the priest, yet it could not happen without the priest.

The whole of this passage is about the priesthood, and shows its greatness, if only it is understood correctly. If we really valued the peace of God, we would bring it into our lives, we would be people who receive the peace if God, so that His peace may rest on us. That would be something.

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