What is significant about shaking dust from your feet?

If a house or town does not receive the Gospel, you are to shake dust off of your feet:

Matthew 10:12
12 As you enter a house, wish it peace. 13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you. 14 Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.

Luke 10:10-11
10 Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, 11 ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand.

I understand that the roads were not paved, and that people would travel by walking, so their feet would become dirty and dusty. I also understand that this is no longer a practice in some churches, but is in others, and that this was a practice among the Jews before Christ came.

But why? And why dust in particular? Does it have to be dust from that town? Is this act symbolic, or does the dust itself have some sort of effect if not shaken off? If it is symbolic, is it supposed to communicate something to the townspeople (so you would have to do it in front of them), or should it be done in the view of God only, or both?

What is significant about shaking dust from your feet?

The Gospel of Mark explains the dust-shaking a tiny but further.

7 He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. 8 He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts. 9 They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there. 11 Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” 12 So they went off and preached repentance. 13 They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:7-13)

Fr. Robert Barron speaks about this in his sermon from 7/15/12. His explanation, roughly 11 minutes in, is that the disciples are not to linger on or argue with folks who refuse the message. Don't spend time shouting at deaf ears. If they are not received, they shouldn't bother with them -- not even with their dust!

The dust-shaking, if it was at all a literal command, is then the solidification and externalization of the reality that the town had not welcomed them and that the disciples would have nothing to do with them. It's an assignment of a physical action to represent the nature of the departure. In some sense, Jesus made the nature of such departures sacramental, revealing or manifesting a spiritual reality -- and undoubtedly clearing the disciples heads and consciences in the process, freeing them from guilt as they progressed to the next town.

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In short, shaking the dust of your feet is way of indicating uncleanliness.

From the Believers Bible Commentary:

R. Guelich suggests that shaking off dust from the feet, the symbolic act that Jesus’ disciples were to carry out when leaving a rejecting village (6:11), has a threefold meaning (322–3):

• It announces the inevitability of judgment (since further contact and opportunity for repentance is symbolically cut off).

• It declares that the missionaries have done their job and are washing their hands of further responsibility (Ezek. 3:21; 33:1–9).

• It labels that village as pagan.

Of these three, the third is the most provocative. Jews would shake off “pagan” dust before entering the “holy land” (Str.-B, 1:115). Likewise, Jesus’ emissaries demonstrate that villages rejecting them and the one who sent them have lost their inheritance in the people of God.

A similar message is conveyed via John’s symbolic act of baptizing Jews (1:5), an act normally reserved for converts to Judaism. John is thereby symbolically reinstating Jews into the people of God, implying that without his baptism, they are outsiders to Israel. The present text about shaking off “pagan dust,” however, takes this a step further. People are invited to reinstate their membership in the people of God; those who reject God’s messengers are symbolically excluded.

Other NT references to shaking off dust include all three of the meanings suggested above, though sometimes one of them is more prominent than the others (Matt. 10:14; Luke 9:5; 10:11; Acts 13:51; 18:6). Acts 18:6 in particular seems to highlight all three aspects. As he leaves the Corinthian synagogue, Paul shakes the dust off his clothing and says, “Your blood be on your own heads [meaning 1]. I am clear of my responsibility [meaning 2]. From now on I will go to the Gentiles [meaning 3]” (NIV). With his final line, Paul reverses the usual Jewish practice of cleansing their feet before moving from Gentile to Jewish territory. Paul is moving from Jewish territory (the synagogue) to Gentile territory (the house of Titius Justus) and shaking off the dust before doing so. Believing Jews join him as he moves toward a more fruitful mission field.

And from "The New Manners and Customs of the Bible:"

For Jews to shake dust off their feet was a sign that Gentile territory was unclean. In the New Testament this action indicates that those who have rejected the gospel have made themselves as Gentiles and must face the judgment of God. (See also Acts 13:51) To sprinkle dust on the head was a sign of mourning (Joshua 7:6), and to sit in dust denotes extreme affliction (Isaiah 47:1). “Dust” is used to denote the grave (Job 7:21). To lick the dust is a sign of abject submission (Psalms 72:9); and to throw dust at someone is a sign of abhorrence (2 Samuel 16:13; Acts 22:23). To bite the dust is to suffer a defeat. It became a common expression through its use in American movies about the early west.

In particular, I find the linkage between "shaking the dust off your feet" and "biting the dust" to be interesting.
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answered Apr 1 '13 at 17:23
Affable Geek

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When Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom He didn’t say, “Repent because you have been sinning.” Sin is not the issue in the Kingdom. The issue is allegiance. Repentance means to repudiate something you have believed in and clung to in order to believe in and cling to something else. Repentance is the call to change our minds about the rule of our lives. Repentance is the call for us to change kingdoms. The Kingdom of God is spiritual, it doesn’t work in the carnal mind. So whether a man is sinning or being religious he must repent, because the Kingdom only works in the spiritual mind. Kingdoms clash. Every kingdom wants to rule. When one kingdom is in power and another kingdom comes to take the dominion there is warfare. The message of the Christ is repentance unto another Kingdom. Another rule comes into our lives which will cast out the demons and establish the mind of Christ. God has called upon us to repent of the rule of the flesh, the rule of the carnal mind, the rule of the world, the rule of religion, the rule of the church-systems, the rule of laws and external ordinances, and all that pertains to the old order. Repent of sin? Yes! But much more. It is a whole economy, a whole mentality, a whole way of life, an entire system of things that we must repent of in order to enter into the Kingdom Rule of God. When we talk about entering the Kingdom we are changing many things; there must be a change in our whole world of existence, where we think we came from, who we think we are, what we think we are, what our purpose is in this world, how we live in this world, and where we think we are going. All our concepts and realities change. In our natural birth we came from the earth. In our spiritual birth we came from heaven. We are shedding that Adam identity, that Adam delusion, the Adam mind, the Adam life-style, the Adamic wisdom, knowledge and ability.