And he called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.Mark 6:7 (RSV)
He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.Mark 6:8 (RSV)
Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food.Matthew 10:9-10 (RSV)
And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.Luke 9:3 (RSV)
To take a staff or not to take a staff? That is a question Church Fathers and commentators have puzzled over for centuries in their quest for Gospel harmony. Mark alone says to take a staff, while Matthew and Luke command the opposite.
The Greek word rhabdos in the Gospels can mean staff, rod, scepter, or walking stick. The Hebrew equivalent is matteh/mattah or shebet. A staff symbolized authority in ancient Israel. Shepherds guided their flocks with a staff (Psalm 23:4), and kings ruled their subjects with a scepter (Psalm 45:6 or 7). Rhabdos in the Gospels literally refers to a walking stick for a journey. However, given the multiple dimensions of the staff, theological harmony can be found through poetic coalescence.
The answer to the question—To take a staff or not to take a staff?—is yes! The apostles are shepherds of the Shepherd and thus take a staff to gently guide the sheep back to the Father’s fold. On the other hand, humble shepherds recognize that all authority comes from the Chief Shepherd, and thus empty-handedly allow the “rod and staff” of Christ alone to guide the flock (Psalm 23:4). Christ and his shepherds work together in the synergy of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said to his disciples after the resurrection: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, RSV).