Saint Ignatius High School

The Seventy-Two

“At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit.” What's the significance of these 72 individuals? Why that many, as opposed to any other number? What do we learn about Christ, and our own calling, from his decision to send 72 people out in His name?
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 66:10-14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 66:1-7, 16, 20
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 6:14-18
Gospel: According to St. Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
I’m not a big fan of numerology, the belief that numbers have a mystical or astrological or occult meaning.  Astrology always reminds me of the saying by G.K. Chesterton that people who believe in nothing will believe in anything.  I buy into that whole “free will” thing, eschewing the notion that since I was born on a certain day at a certain time I was destined to be a curious and energetic extrovert who loves to travel.  But I do believe that very often numbers that appear in biblical stories can have a symbolic meaning, which is something quite different from the “science” of numerology.
“At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit.”
In choosing seventy-two disciples to preach the Good News Jesus is linking His ministry with that of Moses, since in the Book of Numbers seventy-two (actually, seventy and two) were chosen to help Moses in his work during the Exodus experience. Because Jesus knew what He was doing in choosing seventy-two I am assuming that He was making a statement about both the similarity and the difference between Him and Moses.
In Numbers, Moses begs God to kill him rather than have him continue with his leadership of a very grumpy band of Israelites wandering in the desert.  God’s response is one of love – He provides helpers for Moses, seventy-two in all, so that Moses is no longer despairing of his lot in life.
The situation with Jesus turns out to be the exact opposite.  Instead of the seventy-two bailing out Jesus they are part of his ultimate fate on the Cross.  They are sent out to spread the Gospel, a message that resonated with many but ultimately rubbed the wrong people the wrong way.  So just as the seventy-two in Numbers save the life of Moses, the seventy-two in the Gospel help to bring about the death of Jesus.
Another difference arises when we look at the work assigned to each of the groups of seventy-two.  The seventy-two of Moses surround him and are with him in his work, whereas for Jesus the seventy-two are sent out into the world and Jesus, through His Spirit, is with them in their work.  Their role is not in internal administration, but in sales, “on the road” so to speak.  And in this role they are a Gospel version of “everyman.”  They represent us.
For the seventy-two of Jesus the work was sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating, but He took the ups and downs of the job into account by sending them out “in pairs” so that they were able to rejoice together as well as commiserate together.  For Jesus, it was and is always about community, it was and is about never being alone. 
When we are together in Christ, sharing our successes and our failures, sharing laughter and tears, we are experiencing life to the full, just like the seventy-two did.  And if we imitate the seventy-two and commit to ‘selling’ the Gospel by the way we live our lives, then we can rejoice as they did because then our names, like theirs, will be written in Heaven.