Shaking off the dust seems somewhat rude, somewhat akin to showing the recipient the sole of your foot or shoe. Elsewhere Jesus commends washing the dust off people's feet as an act of love (John 13:5-8) but here he commends active rejection as a "testimony against them". So what are we to understand by Jesus' words?
"And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, 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)
"And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!" (Mark 6:11)
"And whoever will not receive you, when you go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet as a testimony against them." (Luke 9:5)
"'The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.'" (Luke 10:11)
Dust is symbolic of a number of things in Scripture. Man was created from the dust (Genesis 2:7) and to dust he will return upon death (Genesis 3:19). The Serpent in Eden was punished by being sentenced to a dust diet (Genesis 3:14). People would often cover themselves in dust as a sign of mourning or repentance (e.g., Joshua 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:2; 15:32; Job 2:12; Nehemiah 9:1). Dust was also associated with poverty (Psalms 113:7). Indeed, God calls Israel, through the prophet Isaiah, to "shake off your dust" and to "rise up":
"Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, O Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, O captive Daughter of Zion." ( 52:2 NIV)
In Mark's version of Jesus' words are combined the features of Matthew and Luke's sayings. Mark and Luke certainly seem to take Jesus' words even more negatively than Matthew by emphasising that the action is as a "testimony against them", similarly in Luke's additional passage, "we wipe off against you". Although, this is tempered by the phrase "Nevertheless, know this that the kingdom of God has come near to you", yet effectively, they received it not. Robertson regards the whole thing as quite violent:
"'Shake off the dust' (ektinaxate ton koniorton). Shake out, a rather violent gesture of disfavor" (Robertson's Word Studies, on Matthew 10:14)
The continuation of the saying, comparing the folk of the unaccepting towns to "Sodom and Gomorrah", is equally judgemental, for according to an early passage in the Jewish Mishnah, "the men of Sodom have no share in the world to come" (Mishnah, Sanhedrin, 10.3). Jesus compares not just the temporal but perhaps too the eternal fate of these towns to Sodom.
In the Middle East travellers would often arrive with their feet caked in dust and hence foot washing was quite traditional. The Jews made this a theological and sacred issue though. Jewish customs and traditional teaching believed that any land outside of Israel was defiling, or at least its dirt was. This presumably caused some questions of conscience and consternation for those Diaspora Jews living outside of first century Palestine. Jews were to "shake off" any dust or dirt from outside lands when returning to Israel, or even off any imported fruit and food. The dust of a gentile land was equivalent to the defiling brought about by coming into contact with a corpse. F1
"The very dust of a heathen country was unclean, and it defiled by contact. It was regarded like a grave, or like the putrescence of death. If a spot of heathen dust had touched an offering, it must at once be burnt. More than that, if by mischance any heathen dust had been brought into Palestine, it did not and could not mingle with that of 'the land,' but remained to the end what it had been - unclean, defiled, and defiling everything to which it adhered. This will cast light upon the meaning conveyed by the symbolical directions of our Lord to His disciples (Matthew 10:14), when He sent them forth to mark out the boundary lines of the true Israel - 'the kingdom of heaven,' that was at hand: 'Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.' In other words, they were not only to leave such a city or household, but it was to be considered and treated as if it were heathen, just as in the similar case mentioned in Matthew 18:17." (Edersheim, Sketches In Jewish Social Life, ch.2; cf. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol.1, pp.643-44)
Given the prevalent attitudes to gentile grit and grime one could think that Jesus was suggesting to his disciples that if their Jewish hearers rejected the gospel then they should treat them as gentiles, shaking them off, and move on to more fruitful ground. This does appear to be what he is saying, however harsh. It was fully observed by Paul:
"...they [Paul and Barnabas] came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts. But they shook off the dust of their feet against them, and came unto Iconium" (Acts 13:14,50-51)
"After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, 'Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.'" (Acts 18:1-6; cf. Nehemiah 5:13)
By treating them as dust or judged like Sodom, according to contemporary Jewish teaching, his disciples were to treat the towns' people as corpses, already dead, with respect to the Kingdom. Shocking! No hanging around to win them over by love and good works over a long period of time, just move on. Moreover, it was a far cry from the restoration promise offered in Isaiah 49:23: "They shall bow down to you with their faces to the earth, And lick up the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD". Instead of Israel's enemies licking the dust from her feet her own dust was being shaken off by Jesus' Jewish disciples and the towns treated as heathen.
F1 See Mishnah, Tohoroth ('Cleannesses') 4.5; 5.1 and Oholoth ('Tents') 2.3; 17.5; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 12a; Shabbath, 15b
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