In today's Gospel, Jesus is speaking to seventy-two of his followers who 'are going ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go'.
A previous mission had come to grief. Jesus had sent messengers ahead of him. They entered a Samaritan village, but the people refused to receive him. It is not clear whether Jesus was there with them at the time, but James and John were later rebuked for asking him 'to bring fire down from heaven' on the villagers.
At the same time there were others who felt drawn to Jesus but could not summon up the courage to take the first step: I must go to my father's funeral, to a friend's farewell party. The mission had come to grief.
So Jesus chooses seventy-two others, and he gives them a code of behaviour. From the start they must have no illusions:
See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.
So it goes on, take no bribes, be satisfied with what you are given to eat, respond firmly to the discourteous, and so on. Clearly a rigorous programme.
We are not told how long the seventy-two were away, nor everything that had happened to them, but when they did get back they were on a high, 'returning with joy'. They say first what they are proud of: their power and success. 'Lord,' they said, 'in your name even the demons submit to us.'
Jesus answers with the first thing that came to his mind:
I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.
We shall look at that later, but meanwhile Jesus continues,
See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and above all power over the enemy; nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
Jesus puts their minds straight: do not rejoice that you have power and authority, but rejoice that you are God's messengers, names written in heaven.
At that same hour Jesus too rejoices: Jesus Christ, the Word of God, was the First of all messengers sent by the Father. And when he said 'I watched Satan fall...', he was harking back to the time when he was preparing in the desert for his public ministry. In those forty days, Jesus had been challenged and tempted by Satan on three different occasions, at the end of which he had 'watched Satan fall'.
Now we hear Jesus thanking his Father in heaven, and for a moment we are offered an awesome glimpse of the Holy Trinity:
At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, 'I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.'
The 'infants' to whom the Father has revealed these things are Jesus' followers: they have been 'given authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you'.
But they are not to rejoice in this, that the spirits submit to them, in their success and power, but they are to rejoice that their names are written in heaven. So following Christ means more than obeying the Ten Commandments, more than success in all our good works. It means being one of his own people, our names written in heaven.
What does that say to us in the twenty-first century? We are made in the image and likeness of God, and at the same time are part of his creation. We are answerable both to the God who made us and to the world we inhabit - peace and progress come from a creative tension between the two...
May we be able one day to accept that the other fellow is also made in the image and likeness of God!