Shake the Dust Off Your Feet


We read in Matthew 10 that as Jesus was preparing his disciples, there came a time when he commissioned them to proclaim and enact the good news of his kingdom.  So he sent them into Jewish villages with this instruction:  “make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons” (Mt. 10:7b-8a).  Jesus instructs them to bless the homes they enter, refuse payment, and trust in God for provision.  And to any home or community which refuses to accept them, Jesus says “shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city.  I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city” (Mt. 10:14b-15).

That’s simple enough.  Shake off the dust and go.

(Of course, Taylor says it best…)

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus says it a bit differently.  Mark 6:11 says “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”   I’ve wondered about this testimony in the past.  There was a saying, “be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.”[1]  This coveys the idea that a disciple should follow their Rabbi so closely that they are covered by the dust of their feet.  Might the dust of the Rabbi, shaken off as the disciple leaves the unwelcoming home, bear witness to the rabbi (Jesus) himself?

Yet we see this “shaking off” of the dust in another passage.  In Acts 13 we find Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch bringing the good news of Jesus to the Jewish community, who rejects the message.  Paul and Barnabas do not belabor the ordeal, but instead say “We had to speak God’s word to you first. Since you reject it and show that you are unworthy to receive eternal life, we will turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:26).

When the Gentiles received the message of Jesus, the Jewish leaders were upset, and incited persecution against Paul and Barnabas.  “So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium.”

Now shaking off the dust is a warning.  Other translations continue to suggest that shaking off the dust is a symbolic act “against them.”

The key insight for what is taking place is found in a practice followed by some Jews who, when leaving a pagan territory and entering into the Holy Land, would shake the dust off their feet before they entered, so as not to profane the land.  It is notable that when Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust off their feet,” it was after experiencing persecution from the Jews, and after successfully ministering to the Gentiles.

It seems that Paul and Barnabas are making a statement about what is and is not “profane.”  Rather than shaking the dust off of their feet as a sign against the pagan Gentiles, they shake the dust off of their feet as a sign against the unbelieving Jewish leaders.

This may function for us as a reminder to keep our hearts and minds open to the way God continues to move in his world, and to keep in mind how dangerous it can be to have all the answers, refuse opportunities for growth, act as if it is impossible for God to act outside of our preconceived expectations, and remember just how easy it can be to, in our own arrogance, stand in God’s way.

 

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] This saying has to do with the behavior of a disciple, who would sit at the feet of the Rabbi, who taught while seated in a chair.   Rabbi Jose B. Joezer of Zeredah said: Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst. (Aboth 1:4, Danby translation of the Mishnah – a collection of sayings of Mishnah-period Rabbis).  It has also been understood that a Rabbi’s feet would kick up dust as they walked; in which case the disciple should follow closely enough to the Rabbi to find themselves covered in the dust kicked up by his feet.  I include this reference to give the quote about being covered in the dust of one’s rabbi, which has come under speculation, a soft date.  Rabbi Jose B. Joezer of Zeredah was a Maccabean-era rabbi, so if this quote is genuinely his own, it pre-dates Jesus.

 

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