Following the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead,1 and healing two blind men and a demon-possessed man,2 Jesus began working his way through Galilee, preaching, teaching, healing, and grieving over a populace that was “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”3
The pitiable condition of the Galilean people left them well-disposed toward gospel truth, and in response to that receptive mood Jesus remarked to his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”4 He then charged the disciples to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send forth workers.
In something of a prophetic fashion, Jesus followed his exhortation by sending out the disciples two by two into that very field, empowering them to cast out demons, to heal diseases, and to proclaim the kingdom of God – essentially sending the disciples out as harvesters to work the abundant fields by doing the very things they had recently been watching Jesus do.
The traveling instructions given the disciples included bringing no money with them, no changes of clothing, and no provision of food, relying instead on the receptiveness and generosity of the communities to which they ministered for their day-to-day needs. A nation that embraces Jesus as the Messiah, would also embrace the Messiah’s messengers. For those that did not receive him, Jesus had a less-than-gracious response:
Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. – Matthew 10:14-15, NASB
Similarly, elsewhere, Jesus said:
But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” – Luke 10:10-11, NASB
My home in Washington State is three miles from the Canadian border, and from that proximity, we inevitably get our fair share of Canadian television broadcasts. A few years back the CTV Television Network aired a sitcom called Corner Gas, a program with a storyline that revolved around the only gas pumps within about 40 miles, located at a corner gas station in Dog River Saskatchewan. Throughout the five-year run of this wildly popular show, with every mention of the rival town, Wullerton, Dog River residents would spit on the ground as a show of their vehement disregard for those Wullerton folk.
The insulting practice of shaking the dust out of one’s clothing and wiping it from the feet is somewhat like spitting against Wullerton, and it was a practice that was quite common in this first-century context. When traveling Jews left a Gentile territory, they ritually shook out their clothing and wiped the dust from their feet in a show of breaking ties with that Gentile land,5 and as a preventative measure against polluting their homeland with foreign soil.
The idea that the soil was so identified with the people and the nation that it must remain with them is illustrated in the request of Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram, after he was healed of his leprosy. Upon returning home, Naaman wanted to be able to worship the God of Israel that had healed him, thus he loaded two mules with soil from Israel to use in creating a mound upon which he could worship and sacrifice to the God of Israel from his heathen home.6 In Naaman’s mind, the source of the dirt made all the difference.
The insulting dust-wiping ritual was well known to every Jew, and having it performed against them would be highly impactful. The instruction from Jesus to practice this cleansing ritual against fellow Jews may be intended to convey the idea that the obstinate Jews are now being considered as lower than the Gentiles they despise.
Matthew Henry wrote:
It was to signify, that they were base and vile as dust, and that God would shake them off. The dust of the apostles’ feet, which they left behind them, would witness against them, and be brought in as evidence, that the gospel had been preached to them.7
This is a practice that the apostles carried with them into their missionary work recorded in the book of Acts. Paul and Barnabas wiped their feet against the Jews of Pisidian Antioch,8 and Paul shook out his garments against the Jews of Corinth, saying, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”9
It is clear that there is a point at which Jesus knows enough effort has been expended, the dust is wiped from the feet against the hearers, the pearls are not cast before the swine,10 and woes can be pronounced against entire cities for their refusal to hear and repent.11
According to Jesus, those cities that reject his messengers will suffer a fate worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah12 in the day of judgement. The exasperation of God with them is equal to that of God speaking through his prophets, “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people.”13
Jesus never tells us exactly where that point of futility is. In my own experience, there have been those I have shared with one time and never again thereafter, and others with whom I have studied regularly for years before they came to the point of decision. For me, the difference-maker was my own perception of the sincerity of their interest.
It has also happened that I have reached a point of exasperation with people, only to have others step in where I left off, and from that point they found great success in presenting them the gospel of Christ.
Sometimes the interpersonal chemistry is not right. Sometimes it is the difference between questioning and arguing. When sincere questions are on the table, we can wrestle with those, study, and arrive at answers together. But my experience has taught me that arguing is mostly borne of hard-headedness and hard-heartedness.
Let them know that they have had a fair offer of life and happiness made them, witness that dust; but that, since they have refused it, they cannot expect ever to have another; let them take up with their own dust, for so shall their doom be.
Be at peace with having sown the seeds of the kingdom. Beyond that, the responsibility is not yours.
1. Luke 8:40-56z
2. Matthew 9:27-34
3. Matthew 9:36b, NIV – 1978
4. Matthew 9:37b, NASB
5. Martin, J. A. (1985). Luke. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 228). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
6. 2 Kings 5:17
7. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 1661). Peabody: Hendrickson.
8. Acts 13:51
9. Acts 18:6b, NIV – 1978
10. Matthew 7:6
11. Matthew 11:20-24
12. Genesis 19
13. Isaiah 65:2a
14. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 1789). Peabody: Hendrickson.