The Book of Numbers tells the story of the journey of the people of Israel through the desert of Sinai towards the Promised Land. In Chapter 11, the people are complaining about their lack of food which leads God to send first manna, and then quail, to feed the people. While this is happening, God promises Moses that He will share his Spirit with seventy others. This is so that Moses may have some helpers to aid with leadership, to deal with complaints, and to settle disputes.

Seventy men go to the Tent of Meeting, and two men stay behind in the camp: Eldad and Medad. They are both filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to prophesy. Moses is told about this, at which point something of a dispute arises:

‘And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”’ (Numbers 11:28-29)

Moses is not as concerned as Joshua about observing proprieties, and he recognises that there is a freedom to the Spirit: it blows where it wills (cf. Jn 3:8). God is free to work through whomsoever He chooses. Moses wishes are granted on the Day of Pentecost, when the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. We too, as Christians, are dwelling-places of the Holy Spirit, which works in us and through us. 

Just as Moses is able to see the bigger picture, likewise in today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus being rather generous. The disciples have noticed some exorcisms taking place, which have not been sanctioned. However, Jesus does not want His disciples put a stop to this, so He tells them:

“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (Mk 9:39-41)

If the point of exorcism is to heal people, then as the Kingdom is a place of healing, the more the better. Evil spirits are cast out in Jesus’ Name, because it is powerful. The point is that faith is not just a matter of belief, but rather of belief put into practice, an act of loving generosity. Putting faith into practice helps to make the Kingdom a reality in our and other people’s lives. It is easy to be exclusive, and small-minded, but thankfully God is more generous than that, and we should try to be like Him.

Then Jesus’ teaching turns to matters of wrongdoing, moral failures, and how they are viewed. It is important to state in the strongest possible terms that Jesus is not encouraging Christians to drown people, or mutilate themselves, but rather teaching His disciples about the serious nature of sin.

Jesus begins by explaining that whoever puts a stumbling block in the path of another has hindered their discipleship. This is a serious charge.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mk 9:42)

In this passage Jesus is engaging in hyperbole, exaggeration for rhetorical effect, to underline the point that our actions affect others. Using exaggeration, Jesus is pointing out that living a Christian life is a serious business: His followers are called to perfection. People who are new to the Christian faith, who are learning the Way, are particularly vulnerable. If they are led astray by the wrong kind of example, by the wrong sort of teaching, then it is a serious thing. Those of us who are Christians have a great responsibility to nurture others in their faith. The disciples, however, have been petty and small-minded. They have been concerned more with their own power and prestige rather than judging the actions of those helping otherscorrectly, and seeing the situation for what it really is. 

There follows a difficult passage, which, if we were to take it literally, would see all of us blind, lame, and without hands. Clearly this cannot be God’s plan of salvation for humanity. So if we are not supposed to take Jesus literally we have to interpret His words allegorically.This means uncovering the spiritual meaning of Christ’s words. Jesus may be referring to sins committed by hand, foot, or eye, i.e., what we do, where we go, and what we look at. The cutting off may be metaphorical, referring to excommunication. This means temporarily excluding people to give them an opportunity to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. Our sins lead to estrangement from God, characterised by Hell and unquenchable fire. This is what rejecting God means. By doing so, we confine ourselves to darkness and misery. Jesus has come to save humanity from the Hell we create. He will die to give us life. 

Only Jesus can do this for us, and we have to let Him. We need to follow Him. Only then can we be salt, flavouring and preserving the world around us. Only then can we truly be at peace with one another, and understand things properly, and act accordingly. 

Living as a Christian community means owning up to our shortcomings, and being humble enough to let God transform us, bit by bit, day by day, more and more into His likeness. We learn by carrying our Cross, a burden much lighter than our sin, a burden which can and will transform us. Pride, that great human sin, makes us think that we are important. The disciples think they are important, and lose sight of the fact that what really matters is who Jesus Christ is. We must focus on what He has done for us, dying on the Cross, and rising to new life, so that we can live in Him. This is why we come together on the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead, so that we can share His risen life, and be nourished by Him.

Today’s other text, the Letter of James has some strong words for the wealthy, and in particular those who acquire their wealth by defrauding others. Christianity is a religion of generosity, given to us by a generous God, who expects us to be generous in turn. Just like the moral shortcomings outlined in the Gospel, here we see that we are called to live in a just and loving way. As Christians we are to stand for fairness and justice for all. The temptation is always there to seek to be important, to pursue power and prestige. What matters is that we glorify God, that we advance His kingdom. This is a kingdom of love, and forgiveness and healing, where people come to know who they truly are in Christ. If we listen to what Jesus tells us, and try to live like Him, then we can help to bring about the day when God will be all in all. Then everyone will sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – Jesus teaches his disciples

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