Sep 26, 2021: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

1st Reading – Numbers 11:25-29

The LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses.
Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses,
the LORD bestowed it on the seventy elders;
and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.

Now two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad,
were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp.
They too had been on the list, but had not gone out to the tent;
yet the spirit came to rest on them also,
and they prophesied in the camp.
So, when a young man quickly told Moses,
“Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,”
Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses’ aide, said,
“Moses, my lord, stop them.”
But Moses answered him,
“Are you jealous for my sake?
Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!
Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

The book of Numbers takes its name from the two censuses of the Israelites that occur in it, one near the beginning (Chapter 1) and the other near the end (Chapter 26) of their journey in the desert.

The name is misleading, however, because the counting of the people doesn’t comprise much of the book. Numbers is really a continuation of the story in the book of Exodus and describes the thirty-eight-year period from when the Israelites camped at the base of Mount Sinai to their arrival at the border of the Promised Land.

Today’s reading is an unusual story about the bestowal of the spirit of prophecy.

The LORD then came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses.

The event described is a theophany: a visible manifestation of God.

What has preceded this event is that Moses has been feeling very burdened. The people have been complaining and Moses does not feel able to respond to their needs, and he has cried out to God (Numbers 11:11, 14).

In response, God tells Moses to assemble the elders, saying “I will also take some of the spirit that is on you and will bestow it on them, that they may share the burden of the people with you. You will then not have to bear it by yourself” (Numbers 11:17).

Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, he bestowed it on the seventy elders; 

God follows through on his promise and provides the help that Moses needs.

and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.

This is understood as enraptured enthusiasm, like that described in 1 Samuel 10:10-13 and 19:20-24, rather than the seventy becoming actual prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. This also occurred in the early Church, as in Acts 2:6-11 and 1 Corinthians 14.

Now two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp. They too had been on the list, but had not gone out to the tent; yet the spirit came to rest on them also, and they prophesied in the camp.

The tent of the meeting was located outside of the camp. Two men who had been designated for the conferral of the spirit missed the gathering and remained in the camp, but they still received the gift.

So, when a young man quickly told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses’ aide, said, “Moses, my lord, stop them.” 

Some, like Joshua, saw the absence of Eldad and Medad from the site of revelation as a disqualification from the prophetic office. He seems to think that spiritual gifts are a matter of prestige rather than a matter of service.

However, God himself is the source of the spirit and he can give it to whomever he chooses, irrespective of human qualifications.

But Moses answered him, “Are you jealous for my sake?

Moses immediately challenges Joshua on his motive for making this request. With these words, Moses names Joshua’s real motive, jealousy, and makes it clear that his actions are not really in support of Moses at all.

Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Moses overflows with gratitude that the Lord has answered his prayer.

For his part, he has absolutely the right attitude: he has no desire to monopolize or control the spirit. He seeks only the people’s welfare and is delighted to see signs of the spirit in others; indeed, he would like all the Israelites to have it.

Spiritual gifts are given so that the recipient may serve others, not to give prestige to the person who has received the gift.

2nd Reading – James 5:1-6

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;
it will devour your flesh like a fire.
You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.

This week we conclude our study of the Epistle of James for this year.

In this reading, the author severely criticizes the unjust rich who have accumulated their wealth by grinding down the poor. He reproves their greed, warning them that the judgment of God is near at hand.

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.

These “miseries” were not brought on by outsiders — they have fallen victim to the corruption of their own ways.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. —Luke 6:24

Your wealth has rotted away,

Wealth is precarious and does not endure.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. —Matthew 6:19

your clothes have become moth-eaten,

Fine clothing was the principal form of wealth in antiquity and is only eaten by moths when it is not worn. In other words, they have not only amassed more than they need, they have also failed to share their abundance with those who are without.

your gold and silver have corroded,

Precious metals don’t actually corrode, but the image of them gathering rust suggests a lack of use. As with their fine clothing, they have been busy accruing money rather than sharing it with the poor.

Spend your money for brother and friend, and hide it not under a stone to perish. —Sirach 29:10

and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire.

Instead of assuring the rich a comfortable future, their wealth will assure them of judgment. Their selfishness and greed will be a testimony against them.

You have stored up treasure for the last days.

“Last days” probably refers to the final judgment, when both their foolishness in storing up treasures and their greed for not sharing their wealth will condemn them.

Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

The intended audience of James’ address has clearly gained their wealth at the expense of their employees.

Cheating workers of their earnings was severely condemned in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Malachi 3:5) as one of the sins which “cries out to heaven” for immediate punishment. This is understandable, given that the event which shaped them into a people was their deliverance from indentured slavery in Egypt, where they worked for ruthless overlords.

“Lord of Hosts” is a common Old Testament name for God (e.g., Isaiah 5:9).

You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.

The author paints a vivid image of unscrupulous people foolishly enjoying their wealth and comfort within sight of those in dire need. They are oblivious that they are actually fattening themselves for slaughter, another reference to the final judgment.

You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance.

To fail to love another human being is to fail to love Christ.

To abuse the poor and vulnerable is to abuse Christ.

Gospel – Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48

At that time, John said to Jesus,
“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.
Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”

Today’s gospel reading is a collection of Jesus’ pronouncements on the topics of acceptance, tolerance, and acts of mercy. It follows immediately after the passage we heard last week in which Jesus taught the Twelve not to be concerned about who is greatest among them.

At that time, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Despite Jesus’ warning from last week’s reading, the disciples still seem to feel competitive with others.

There are obvious parallels with our first reading here. Like Joshua in the story from Numbers, the apostle John is showing intolerance towards outsiders. Further, John shows no consideration for the fact that someone was obviously helped through these exorcisms. He and those with him are more interested in protecting their turf.

Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.

Jesus authenticates the work performed by the other man, pointing out that he would have to possess some degree of faith in Jesus, else he would not be invoking his name.

“Some who are intent on severe disciplinary principles which admonish us to rebuke the restless, not to give what is holy to dogs (Matthew 7:6; 15:26; Mark 7:27), to consider a despiser of the Church as a heathen, to cut off from the unified structure of the body the member which causes scandal (Matthew 5:30; 18:8-9; Mark 9:42-48), so disturb the peace of the Church that they try to separate the wheat from the chaff before the proper time (Matthew 13:29-30). Blinded by this error, they are themselves separated instead from the unity of Christ” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (413 AD), Faith and Works, 4,6].

For whoever is not against us is for us.

This is a generalization, in proverb form, of divine tolerance. The same saying appears in a different context in Matthew 12:30.

The man in question is not an enemy, nor are the exorcisms he is performing undermining Jesus’ ministry in any way. Like Moses, Jesus points out that what is important is that the work of God be done; it is not important who does it.

Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

Jesus goes on to teach the disciples the profound consequences that people’s actions have, for good or for bad.

Giving a cup of water may not seem like a significant deed, but in a world where water is scarce, it can be the difference between life and death. For this reason, the act of giving water became a symbol for any kind of good deed, as seen here.

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,

“Cause to sin,” which puts the onus of sinning on the “little one,” is not the best translation of the Greek, which literally means “to scandalize.” A better translation would be “cause to fall” or “put an obstacle in one’s way.”

it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

“Little ones” may be meant literally, referring to children, or it may be a broader reference to believers in Jesus. Regardless, the warning is the same: those who cause others to sin will be severely punished.

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.

Jesus is probably addressing the disciples here, instructing them to take drastic measures, if necessary, to prevent themselves from falling into sin.

Gehenna is another name for the Valley of Hinnom, just outside the walls of Jerusalem where the early Canaanites once offered human sacrifice. The Israelites turned this sacrilegious site into a garbage heap where refuse was constantly being burned in huge fires; the resulting stench served as a constant reminder of corruption. Gehenna became the symbol of the unquenchable punishing fires of the afterlife.

(Note: verses 44 and 46 do not appear in most translations of the Bible, because they are missing from some important ancient manuscripts and are considered scribal additions for purposes of symmetry. They simply repeat verse 48: “Where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”)

And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,

When we read this teaching about cutting off hands and feet or plucking out eyes, we have a natural reaction of revulsion. Surely the disciples would have, too. Which one of us is willing to mutilate ourselves? Notice, however, that Jesus doesn’t say to take these drastic actions when our hands, feet, and eyes cause us to sin, but if they cause us to sin.

Jesus is relying on the disciples’ natural desire to preserve the wholeness of their bodies in order to teach them a truth about sin that he has been trying to teach all along: Sin is not a matter of externals. It is not a matter of failing to observe the dietary law or failing to wash one’s hands properly. Because sin is not about externals, it is never our hands or our feet or our eyes that cause us to sin. Sin is committed when one person fails to love another. Sin can be prevented not by self-mutilation, but by a conversion of heart.

A few weeks ago, we heard from Chapter 7 of Mark’s gospel, in which Jesus teaches that sin is not a matter of externals in more straightforward language: “Do you realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile…?” In today’s passage, Jesus is encouraging the disciples to arrive at this same conclusion as they defend themselves against his words about cutting off their hands.

where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Jesus’ quotes Isaiah 66:24, where the enemies of God lie dead in Gehenna, their corpses piled alongside filth and refuse. This disturbing vision of misery refers to the worms feeding on the unburied carcasses, and the dead are so great in number that if you went to burn them, the fire would be endless.

The symbolism of this vision refers to the immortality of the soul, whose conscience is its constant tormentor (the worm), and God’s eternal wrath (unquenchable fire). The punishment in question is terrible and unending.

“This is no trivial subject of inquiry that we propose, but rather it concerns things most urgent, and about which many inquire: namely, whether hell fire has any end. For that it has no end Christ indeed declared when He said, ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’. Yes, I know a chill comes over you on hearing these things. But what am I to do? For this is God’s own command. … Ordained as we have been to the ministry of the word, we must cause our hearers discomfort when it is necessary for them to hear. We do this not arbitrarily but under command” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. 392 AD), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 9,1].

Connections and Themes

  • The readings this week show us that we cannot put human boundaries or conditions on the Spirit of God:
    • The first reading and the gospel are clearly connected, with the former prefiguring the latter. Both show the Spirit moving and acting freely through any person; it cannot be contained or controlled. Both readings also illustrate the human weaknesses of fanaticism and envy, dangers that must be avoided within a group of believers.
    • Although the second reading isn’t closely connected to this theme, it could be used as an example to prove its point. Just as the believers in the first reading and the gospel wished to hoard the blessings of the Spirit, the unjust rich in the second reading stored up their riches and kept them from the poor. There are certainly many Christians who are guilty of this; similarly, there are atheists who are righteous, living lives of generosity and vigorously defending justice.
    • In short, you cannot put God in a box, as they say.
  • There are two types of godly ministers: those are are authorized by the community and those who are called by the Spirit. The first reading shows that there has been tension between these two groups since the time of Moses.
  • The Church has the authority and responsibility to authorize ministers (1 Corinthians 12:28); however, scriptures clearly indicate that ministers can be called directly by God. In the Old Testament, this phenomenon occurs with judges, prophets, and early kings. In the New Testament, the Spirit descended at Pentecost to all the people: men and women, young and old, slave and free (Acts 2:17). Elsewhere in Acts, the Spirit moves uninhibited, bringing Philip to the Ethiopian (8:26-30), Peter to Cornelius (10:1-48), and Paul to the Gentile world (13:2).
  • This uncontrollable movement of the Spirit introduces a bit of a problem: how can we distinguish between false ministers from those who are truly inspired? The primary criterion is Biblical: by their fruits you shall know them (Matthew 7:16). We recognize authentic ministers by their good works. Similarly, as James points out, we will know the corrupted ones by their fruits as well.
  • As difficult as this discernment can be, the spontaneity of the Spirit is also a blessing. It serves a kind of divine balance on the human authority within the Church. We can have a tendency to appoint ministers who only say what we want to hear. Sometimes it requires someone completely outside of our circle, or even an unbeliever, to get our attention and call us closer to God. Jesus describes this with great clarity when he states that those who do his work, even without being followers, are “for him.”

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