I was born and raised in Nigeria. I would like to share some of the culture shocks I experienced when I first arrived in the U.S. In the part of Nigeria, I come from, people won’t greet you if they don’t mean to do so; it is either they greet you “properly” or they just don’t greet you at all. And they won’t smile at you if they randomly run into you as a stranger except, they want to laugh at you, which is considered very rude. They smile at you when they know you, and they really smile, not just a flash. When it comes to greeting, it is a sacred function. It takes time. Depending on the age difference, it can go with different gestures like prostrating, bowing, genuflecting, and squatting or a special handshake. The words of salutation go beyond “Good morning,” ‘How are you?” “Fine, thank you.” For those who speak the Igala language where I was born and raised, there is a special kind of refrain that punctuates their greetings. It goes like this: Agba n’ago, agba aaa n’ago. I will try not to translate the refrain as that will water down the beauty of the language. Let me give an example of what a typical greeting session sounds like between two Igala-speaking people. I will use English for the other parts of the greeting, but the refrain will remain in Igala:
Mary: Good morning, Martha!
Martha: Agba n’ago, agba aaa n’ago. How are you doing, Mary?
Mary: I am very thankful to God, Agba n’ago, agba aaa n’ago, andhow is your family, Martha?
Martha: Everybody in my family is doing fine to the glory of God, Agba n’ago, agba aaa n’ago.
The question and answer will continue until they have asked about everybody and everything possible. In the end, the greeting moves into what looks like an ostinato in music. The two greeters will begin to alternate Agba n’ago, agba aaa n’ago, and then there will be a kind of competition for who will talk last as the first to stop talking may come across as rude.
Now, with that background, I found myself in San Diego for the first time a few years ago, and I saw people I had never met before smile at me. I began to wonder whether they knew me, and before I could think of smiling back, they would return their face to a non-smiling position like they were ready to deny ever smiling. I ran into people who would greet “Hello” and before I said, “Hi,” they were gone. I quickly learned how to be the first to say, “Hi,” and some would say to me, “How’s it going?” But before I turned around to tell them how it is going, they were gone. At such points, I would turn around and whisper to myself, “Hmmm, why did you ask me if you were not ready to hear my response?” Two different worlds, right! And which one is better? The African style or the American style? No one is better; it all depends on the context. The lucky one is the one who equips himself/herself with both worlds.
After a year, I was home for a few weeks; I was so glad to hear those words again, Agba n’ago, agba aaa n’ago. I thought to myself; “Exactly, this is how to do it! No place like home!” But there were times I needed to catch a bus, I needed to catch a flight, or I was running late for Mass while with my mom. We ran into some of her friends, and they began what seemed like a greeting contest. I whispered to my mom, “Are we going to spend the whole day greeting and then miss the bus / the flight / go late for Mass?” And she gave me the look of “Keep quiet! That’s rude! Respect the culture!” At such points, I missed the American way of “Hello!” “Hi!” Done and gone! It is all about the context.
Today’s gospel passage presents us with the mission of the 72 other disciples of Jesus. We read this passage today to remind ourselves that we are the present day 72 that are being sent out by Jesus. Before sending us out, Jesus gives instructions regarding what we are sent to do and how we are to do it. As part of the instructions, Jesus says, “…greet no one along the way.” This command sounds like Jesus is teaching us to get rid of good manners. To you as an American, you may wonder, “What is the big deal about greeting?” “Hello, hi, how’s it going? Less than four seconds, and it is over.” That is not the kind of greeting that Jesus is talking about here. As an African, I totally get what Jesus is saying here. It is the kind of African greeting I described above. You see how the greeting alone has taken more than half of the time for this homily. To greet people is not wrong, but when there is an emergency, when there is something urgent to be done, such style of greeting becomes a luxury.
The urgency of the message is clear from the agricultural imagery that Jesus used here, that is, “The harvest is ready.” Time is of the essence here. A lot of investment goes into having a good harvest. And when the harvest is ready, any waste of time can lead to losing the crop. St Ambrose explains this passage by drawing our attention to the fact that Jesus did not just say “greet no one,” but he added, “…on the road.” So, the point here is that there must be no obstacle in the way of serving God. Things may be good in themselves, but if they get in the way of our serving God, they become bad. It is undoubtedly a good thing to greet a person, but it must not be an obstacle in our way of carrying out a divine instruction.
The 72 disciples were sent ahead to the places that Jesus himself would visit. Today, we are the 72 disciples, there are places that Jesus wants to visit, but he wants us to go ahead and prepare the ground for him. We must not be the reason for the delay. He wants to bless your child, but he wants you to go ahead and baptize that child now for him to come in. He wants to bless your spouse, your sibling, your parent, but he wants you to first forgive them. He wants to cure that sick neighbor of yours, but he wants you to first visit them. He wants that co-worker of yours to become a Christian, but he wants you to become more polite and be a window through which that coworker will come to know Jesus. Most times, we know the right things to do, but we postpone them to attend to a few other things quickly. We want to do things on our time, not God’s time.
My dearly beloved in Christ, the harvest is ready! There are many people that Jesus wants to reach today; he needs you, and he needs me for the job. Will you be an obstacle, or will you be a channel?