Notes on a Revolutionary Life: Part 3, "Take no purse..."

In Parts 1 and 2 of these notes I discussed how Crossan in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography sees Jesus subverting social hierarchies. Jesus does this in two different ways. First, Jesus' practice of open commensality welcomes social and moral outcasts into table fellowship. Second, Jesus' healing ministry challenges the cultic system that divides people into "clean" and "unclean." For Crossan, these aspects of Jesus' ministry suggest that Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God was one of radical egalitarianism, "of an absolute equality of people that denies the validity of any discrimination between them and negates the necessity of any hierarchy among them."

Beyond open commensality and the healing ministry, Crossan also sees evidence for Jesus' vision of radical egalitarianism in the itinerancy of Jesus' ministry, Jesus' refusal to settle down and his wandering from town to town.

Now it's possible that Jesus' wandering was simply incidental. If we see Jesus as a traveling salesman, pitching his product from town to town, then his itinerancy is simply a functional necessity. Crossan calls this functional itinerancy. But Crossan contends that Jesus' wandering wasn't of this sort. Rather, Jesus' itinerancy was essential to his mission and his vision of the Kingdom of God. The wandering of Jesus was a radical itinerancy; establishing the placelessness of the Kingdom was critical to Jesus' message.

How is itinerancy critical to the Kingdom of God? How is it connected to the notion of radical egalitarianism?

In the 1st Century patronage was a powerful social and economic system. The powerful and wealthy would use their influence on behalf of clients who secured favor for services rendered. In this world it would have been natural for Jesus to have settled down in one place, given his reputation as miracle worker, to accumulate prestige, influence, and power. Clients would approach Jesus for favors (healing initially) offering to pay for these services in a variety of ways. Often the patron would simply hold the person in his debt, keeping the favor outstanding until the patron needed something in the future. Through these links of obligation the patron would grow in power. Think of The Godfather.

But Jesus rejects the patronage system by keeping on the move. Jesus doesn't settle down to build up a client base, hording local influence and power. Here, then, we see how the itinerancy of Jesus is radical rather than functional, how the wandering of Jesus was a part of his message. By wandering Jesus doesn't create a power base. The Kingdom of God isn't a hierarchy of influence with clients at the bottom, power brokers in the middle, and the patron at the top. Crossan summarizes:

The equal sharing of spiritual and material gifts, of miracle and table, cannot be centered in one place because that very hierarchy of place, of here over there, of this place over other places, symbolically destroys the radical egalitarianism it announces. Radical egalitarianism denies the processes of patronage, brokerage, and clientage, and demands itinerancy as its programmatic symbolization. Neither Jesus or his followers are supposed to settle down in one place and establish there a brokered presence. And, as healers, we would expect them to stay in one place, to establish around them a group of followers, and to have people come to them. Instead, they go out to people and have, as it were, to start anew each morning. But, for Jesus, the Kingdom of God is a community of radical or unbrokered equality in which individuals are in direct contact with one another and with God, unmediated by any established brokers or fixed locations.
Further evidence for this radical itinerancy is found in the gospels when Jesus sends his followers out to follow in his footsteps. Parallel passages are in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Here is the account from Luke 10.1-10:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

"When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’"
Jesus sends his followers out to wander from town to town, healing and proclaiming that "the kingdom of God has come near you." The Kingdom is scattered among the people rather than localized in a powercenter. This reminds me of the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman:
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."
One can see in all this how radical Jesus' vision was, his refusal to say the Kingdom of God was here over there. Rather, as Jesus preached, the Kingdom of God is among you.

In looking over the sending texts in Matthew, Mark and Luke Crossan goes on to make an interesting observation about Jesus' directives. As recounted in Luke, Jesus directs his followers to take neither "a purse or bag or sandals." According to Crossan this is an important detail that also reveals a truth about Jesus' message regarding the Kingdom of God. Specifically, Crossan argues that the specific mention of purse, bag, and sandals by Jesus is highlighting a contrast between Jesus' followers and other itinerant preachers and philosophers. Crossan specifically highlights the contrast between Jesus' followers and the wandering Cynic philosophers. The Cynics were also itinerants who preached inner liberation through a renunciation of the world. Importantly for our purposes, the Cynics were individualists. They were proudly independent. Consequently, the standard outfit of a wandering Cynic was their "purse" (think: knapsack) and staff. The staff was a sign of the wandering life of the Cynic. This was a shared feature of their lifestyle and the method of Jesus himself. But a point of distinction centers on the purse or knapsack. This was essential gear for the Cynic as it symbolized his independence. In his omnipresent purse the Cynic had all he needed. In fact, the purse was the Cynic's powerful indictment of the populace. The Cynic was free. Everything he needed he could carry with him. The Cynic was not tied down by material goods. We all want to be free, but, according to the Cynics, we tend to act like Steve Martin in The Jerk. We can't let stuff go and remain enslaved:

In contrast to the Cynics, Jesus explicitly tells his followers to not carry a purse. What does this symbolize? Where the Cynics were radically independent Jesus' followers were radically dependent. Jesus' followers were to be sustained by receiving the hospitality of others. They were to remain with a house "eating and drinking whatever they give you." In short, the Jesus-movement, in contrast to the Greek Cynical and Stoical movements, was to be radically communal. Crossan summarizes the connections between itinerancy and communal dependence:
Since commensality is not just a technique for support but a demonstration of message, [Jesus' missionaries] could not and should not dress to declare itinerant self-sufficiency but rather communal dependency.
To conclude, all this makes me think about how far the church has drifted from the gospels. This isn't to say we should take Crossan's analysis at face value. But I think his analysis does make us think about how churches often set themselves up as a patron with clients, seeking to become a location of spiritual brokerage. Churches becomes providers of goods and services. In light of that, people have to come to us. The church becomes localized, no longer sent out into the world.

I think the missional church conversation is trying to come to grips with this situation. To see the church as less a deliverer of religious goods and services and more a place of sending. It's an attempt to reclaim the itinerant and dependent nature of Jesus' mission. To become a church sent into the world with our one-word sermon of "peace." Accepting hospitality where we find it. Taking no purse and eating what our hosts set before us.

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3 thoughts on “Notes on a Revolutionary Life: Part 3, "Take no purse..."”

  1. You are historicizing an ancient myth into today's modern paradigm, and it doesn't fit (unless one wants to put their head in the sand or in the air ).

    Patronage can be a useful way to understand business partnerships. And equality is about 'unions" protecting the rights of the worker. That is, if you believe in organizing "protective measures" to insure security, which not everyone does.

    It really upsets me to read or hear about such belief structures, because it puts people in a place of irrationality, and irresponsibility. And I say irresponsibility because the modern paradigm believes in taking responsibility for one's life. And to take responsibility means that one makes rational choices, as well as affirming life's emotional commitments.

    People in ancient times did not have the same circumstances, as we live in an enlightened society, which believes in individuality, not collectivity, unless one is a political ideologue.

    How one views and frames their understanding of life is in question, here. And Kant was useful for understanding the modern paradigm, wasn't he? in cognitive science?

  2. Angie,

    Sorry you are upset. I suppose these lines from John Donne upset you as well:

    No man is an island entire of itself; every man
    is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
    if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
    is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
    well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
    own were; any man's death diminishes me,
    because I am involved in mankind.
    And therefore never send to know for whom
    the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

    Your worry about "collectivity" is misplaced. It is precisely the "modern" paradigm of the autonomous individual that is unreal. We belong to one another and are responsible for and accountable to each other. There is no one who is self-made.


  3. Does Crossan give reasons for thinking that Jesus' itinerancy could not have been both "functional" and "radical" in the senses he means? I like his use of the theme of radical itinerancy to highlight important aspects of the gospel, but can't read Mark and see the urgency depicted there in going from town to town as focused on living out an inclusive vision.

    BTW: The Steve Martin "All I Need" shtick is a long time favorite in our household. Thanks for sanctifying it for me.

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