Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament Book of Numbers “the Lord came down in the Cloud.” God took “some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” The seventy then began to prophesy. Two of those not gathered, Eldad and Medad, also received the spirit and they began to prophesy. Troubled, a young man ran to Moses to report this and Joshua (Moses’ assistant) urged Moses to stop them. Moses responded: “Are you jealous on my account? If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets, and the Lord gave his Spirit to them all!” In Mark’s Gospel John reported to Jesus that he saw a man casting out devils but was not one of them and he tried to stop the man. Jesus instructed John not to stop the man: “No one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.” Jesus went on to warn them against anyone who “is an obstacle to bring down ones who have faith.” He tells his disciples that anything that causes you to sin should be cast off and thrown away, including body parts, lest your entire body be cast into hell.
For many Christians the problem with God is that he doesn’t respect our rules. In fairness most of the time our attempts to make rules follows our belief that these are rules God would agree with.
But not always. Sometimes our beliefs that God will approve of our rules blinds us to the belief that God may have another agenda or perhaps just doesn’t care about ours. We are, let’s face it, obsessed with rank, role, and place. I’ve spoken about this before but my wife and I are members of the local zoo. There are different levels of membership and the more we pay, the higher we rank and the more perks we are entitled to. There’s nothing wrong with this and it’s a good way for the zoo to maximize its income.
In other areas, however, it can be a little more insidious. I lived in Boston in the early 1980s and witnessed a renewal movement in the Catholic Church called the “charismatic movement.” It emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit and gifts of the Spirit. In their worship members sometimes found themselves “slain in the spirit” (fainting) or “speaking in tongues.” Full disclosure I never found any interest in participating in the movement and I fully respect that others found great value in it. But I did notice that those who were slain in the spirit or spoke in tongues were often given a higher status and I found that troubling.
I found it troubling because it seemed that we were giving status not on God’s intent but on our perception. And I think that’s what troubled Moses in our first reading.
Events in the book of Numbers take place while the Israelites traveled from their liberation as slaves to their journey to the promised land. Clearly Moses led the group but there was a structure and hierarchy as there were 70 elders. It’s not clear if our friends Eldad and Medad (who appear only here in Scripture) were elders but they clearly were not where the spirit was supposed to appear exclusively.
And yet they began to prophesy. But wait: they weren’t in the tent. The spirit was not supposed to reach them. Clearly they weren’t supposed to receive what the elders did and they needed to be stopped. They needed to understand that they didn’t earn or deserve the gift of prophesy. Who do they think they are?
Well, Moses knew who they were. I imagine Moses with a wry grin and a twinkle in his eye explaining that the spirit is not defined by a man made tent or our decision over who gets to be an elder. I have great respect for Moses recognizing that the ability of Eldad and Medad to prophesy benefits the community and does not diminish his own authority.
This is a lesson we need to continue to learn. We need to continue to learn that gifts of the spirit are not a finite quantity where more for some means less for others. Again in Mark’s Gospel we find his disciples not acting at their best.
As we saw last week Jesus followers may have had the best of intentions but there was at least part of them that wanted to enjoy the fruits of being his first followers. In a political campaign those who signed on first are often rewarded for their loyalty and perseverance. They get the best titles and the largest offices.
But if someone the disciples (or even Jesus) didn’t choose suddenly begins to do Jesus’ will, well good on them. We don’t know why the spirit chose them but we don’t have to. We can all agree that nothing bad happens when a demon is cast out. We know nothing of the man who cast out demons in Jesus name but we do know that this ability came only from the spirit and any opposition comes only from jealousy.
In the years since these readings we’ve found ourselves surrounded by men and women who have used earthly gifts as an avenue to convince the rest of us that God has blessed them. We need only access social media to see “preachers” who use their ability to make people feel good to convince us that God has blessed them. They also tell us that we need to listen to them lest we be excluded by God.
Here’s the thing: when they prophesy they build up only themselves and the “demons” they cast out are only those who disagree with them. The end of today’s Gospel is pretty stark when it warns against those who are obstacles of faith. A few years ago a popular Christian preacher found himself in the path of a hurricane. He was safe but many of his followers sought emergency shelter and he locked his church’s doors. He is also famously someone who builds himself up and shares the limelight with nobody.
At the end of the day we need to recognize that the spirit gifts us and others for reasons that may not make sense to our earthly desires. And that’s OK. We’re not in charge.