Updated: Jul 5, 2022
When I first read this part of the Bible about stepping on snakes and scorpions and not getting hurt, I was amazed. During the summers between semesters in college, I used to work at a Lutheran camp in south Texas, where many scorpions live. I learned to tap the heels of my hiking boots on the ground first before putting my foot into them, since scorpions like to hang out in dark, damp places like shoes.
During one of those summers, I spent the weekend at a friend’s house. She had warned me about scorpions in the house, especially when it’s really dry and they come out looking for water. But one night I got up to walk to the bathroom. In the dark. Barefoot. I put my foot down on something that was not carpet, so I quickly turned on the overhead light—I had stepped on a scorpion.
I wasn’t stung. I didn’t know when scorpions are walking along, minding their own business, they have their tails out flat, dragging along the ground. If I had stepped on the body of the scorpion, its tail would have swung up and stung my foot, so I had stepped on the tail of a scorpion with my bare foot and I was not stung.
I had to stop and process this information. Do I have magical powers? Did Jesus say I have magical powers?
Here’s exactly the point where a human brain can get a person into big trouble: how much power do I really have, and how do I want to use it?
I grew up Lutheran in East Texas, in the Bible Belt, where people used religious language about who is saved or not saved. In junior high, the conversation on Mondays was about who got saved over the weekend, or who got baptized. I had to explain that I’d been baptized as a baby, but it was valid, and I was in confirmation classes to prepare to affirm my baptism as an educated, informed person. I also had to explain that Lutherans are Christians and not a separate cult.
My pastor knew that we faced these conversations, and he gave us a response—when someone asked us if we were saved, we were to say, “Yes, I was saved two thousand years ago, when Jesus died.” This was rarely convincing to the people who believe evangelism requires a verbatim repetition of the sinner’s prayer, or some formula of “asking Jesus into your heart.”
Cole Arthur Riley, creator of Black Liturgies, tells a story about this in her book, “This Here Flesh.” She writes,
“I was sitting in McDonald’s with my first Bible-study leader when I told her I didn’t want Jesus in my heart. I was in my first year at the University of Pittsburgh and she, her last. She was gorgeous to me, even exposed to the fluorescent light rattling around us, but she spoke like the incarnation of a Hallmark card, which both aggravated and saddened me. I told her I wanted God out there doing something, nodding to the street beyond the glass window. Why confined to a heart? …finally she said, That’s where you’re changed, pointing to her heart not mine. And I didn’t have the courage to say, I like my heart just fine.”
There’s a seductive power in changing someone else’s mind—you feel influential, like you have a claim on what idea takes up residence in someone else’s brain or in their heart. You feel control over another person when you can tell them what to do. You can attempt to soothe your own conscience by developing a paternalistic attitude, insisting I know what’s better for the other person. But this is not love—this is about power and control.
All of these things diminish your own humanity, anytime you’re removing freedom from someone else.
Sometimes I make jokes that I can make an entire room of people stand or sit just by raising or lowering my arms. Wow, what power I have! But seriously, that isn’t power. That isn’t responsible leadership. What I do up here is lead worship, which you show up for and agree to participate together. My concern as a worship leader is about what we’re doing together in worship, how to involve the youngest of us, who may be crying or squirming or needing frequent breaks to step out of the room and collect ourselves, to how to involve the oldest among us, who may have trouble sitting and standing or changing positions, and everyone in between.
And I’m not here to hold you captive—you’re free to come and go as you need to. I trust you to take care of your own body, your own family, as it seems fit to you to do. I’m not going to call you out for getting up and leaving the sanctuary, not only because I would be humiliated if someone called me out in front of a whole group, but also because I support your freedom.
If worship runs long and you’re late to meet your friend for lunch, or you have another important event to get to, if you have to leave before the blessing at the end of the worship service, it’s not as if you’ve negated all the good you have done for your soul by showing up for most of the service. Same thing if you arrive late—I don’t believe God is keeping watch over a clock more than keeping watch over your care as a beloved child.
And you know why I say all these things? Because I believe in the freedom that Jesus has given us. The Gospel lesson today is full of evidence that Jesus roots his good news in freedom, and not just freedom as an ideal or a goal to strive for, but a freedom that makes Jesus who he is. He is so free that he can’t help but free others. He doesn’t bind other people to the law; he lets them make that choice for themselves. To do anything less would diminish Jesus’s own humanity, and Jesus appears to have a profound respect for humanity.
Watch how he advises these seventy evangelists being sent out in pairs, preparing the way for him. Don’t take extra baggage, carry only peace. Eat what is shared with you—now is not the time to worry about food purity laws! Receive hospitality! And cure the sick who are there. And say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
What’s the goal of this mission? Shouldn’t these seventy evangelists be teaching confessions? What about saving souls? Who’s getting saved? What about asking Jesus into your heart? Where’s the sinner’s prayer? Where’s the formula for salvation? Where’s the talk about a glorious paradise in heaven as an incentive for good behavior?
It’s not there. Jesus doesn’t say any of that. This mission of Jesus appears to be about building relationships and building capacity for God’s kin-dom, God’s family on earth. And family is not built by force, but by acts of love. God’s delight is not in coercing human response nor abusing power. It really seems this mission is about the kin-dom of God as a kin-dom of healing, a place of supportive relationships, a trust in freedom. We are free to embrace God because God first embraced us with mercy and a deep respect, because God desires a relationship with us.
God gives the law for our benefit, not for wielding power over one another. There’s nothing wrong with the law, unless you’re using it to persecute other people, and that’s where Paul says, “Enough.” It’s more important to be united as a family of faith—let us not grow weary in doing what is right, let us work for the good of all, Paul says. The proof of your faith is not in being circumcised but in being crucified with Christ and becoming a new creation. This is the good news of freedom in Christ.
This is the peace with which Jesus send out the seventy evangelists, to prepare the way for the kin-dom of God—it begins and ends with peace. Peace, not gaining converts and adding numbers of people that you’ve convinced to behave the same way you do. Peace, not condemnation. Wipe the dust off your own feet, that’s as far as it goes.
And if you do serve God by proclaiming the Gospel, and if you do step on a scorpion and are not stung, it’s not because you have magical powers. It’s probably, frankly, an accident or good luck. Because scorpions sting humans sometimes, and getting stung is not evidence of God’s curse against you, either.
Scorpions are arachnids, like spiders, and a mother scorpion will carry her babies on her back, the same way wolf spiders do. Baby scorpions are born white and don’t get any color until the first time they shed their skin, and most scorpions will glow under black light.
But even if you do get stung by a scorpion, even if you bear witness to healing, it’s not you who made the healing happen—healing still happens by God’s power. Salvation still belongs to God, whether you imagine Jesus is in your heart or Jesus is out there working in the world. Either way, the power still belongs to God, who has set you free.
This is how God has chosen to use God’s power. The next question is: how will you choose to use your power? In the words we just used at the beginning of worship, after confessing our sins and being assured of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ: You are free to love as God loves.