Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament Book of Numbers the Lord spoke to Moses. But he also “took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” Two men who weren’t present (Eldad and Medad) also received the spirit and they began to prophesy. When this was found out, Joshua of Nun demanded that Moses stop them. But Moses accused Joshua of jealousy and said it would be good if “the Lord gave his spirit to them all!” The reading from Mark’s Gospel began with John complaining to Jesus that another was casting out demons in Jesus’ name and he wanted him stopped. But Jesus disagreed and said that “no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me.” Jesus then went on to say that anyone who drives someone away from faith will regret it.” Using evocative language he tells them that if their hand causes them to sin the hand should be amputated. He extended this to feet and eyes.
For most of our history as Christians we’ve found frustration with the Holy Spirit. Try as we might she simply won’t follow our directions or respect our boundaries. To give some context, our first reading comes from the 4th book of the Old Testament. After having been liberated from slavery in Egypt, Moses and his people travel through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. And during the journey they learned more and more about themselves and the God who freed them.
In communities from high school lunch tables to the White House, hierarchies develop. Oftentimes we see a clear leader (Moses in this case) and others vying for position and a higher position that comes with certain perks. And the first versus of this reading obeyed their structure. God came to Moses in the Cloud but not Moses alone. Some of the spirit came down upon the seventy elders. So far so good. But then it all went wrong: the spirit came down upon two men who appear only here in all of Scripture: Eldad and Medad. All we know about them is this: they were not part of Moses’ inner circle. You have to figure if you’re one of the seventy or one who aspired to be close to Moses, this isn’t good news. Who are these guys? On what authority to they dare to prophesy (speak in God’s name)? How dare they? Who do they think they are?
Mark’s Gospel gives us an almost identical scene. John, expecting praise, told Jesus that he and others saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and ordered him to stop. After all, doesn’t the power to cast out demons belong exclusively to Jesus, John, and the rest of the disciples? I can only imagine John’s response when Jesus told him not to stop this person. After all, doesn’t this man know who John was?
These readings fascinate me for one reason: the leaders in these readings (Moses and Jesus) didn’t express jealousy: Their disciples did. While Moses and Jesus focused on the mission their disciples focused on their own ambition. If asked they would have claimed that all they wanted was to speak for God and advance the Kingdom; they likely would have professed offense at any challenge of their motives.
But in reality their words belie their true motives. Joshua of Nun desired the Promised Land but only if he can be among Moses’ inner circle. Jesus disciples desire the Kingdom of God but only if they can control who has the power to cast out demons.
I can tell you from years of ministry that few questions are more popular than “who does he think he is?” “He” may be a new member of a committee with a possible solution or a person who is easy to dismiss. The person who makes this complaint always claims to care about the wellbeing of the parish but also has another agenda. They do want whatever program to succeed but they also want to be seen as one of the reasons for its success. They want the adulation of everyone else and they specifically don’t want the adulation to go to someone else, to an outsider.
But if we can learn anything about the spirit we should learn that adulation should not be a goal. We should learn that we are tasked with nothing short of finding the Promised Land or building the Kingdom of God and at the end of the day we all benefit from the work that went into it. True discipleship demands that ambition in the service of the Kingdom serves everyone but ambition in the service of our own glory serves only ourselves and offers nearly nothing to the goal.
And we can also learn, if we choose, a sense of humility. We all discern who we think would be right for a job and most of the time we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong (look around at your coworkers if you need an example). But sometimes we overlook someone for any number of reasons. That’s where the Spirit comes in. We don’t know what the Spirit saw in Eldad and Medad, and we don’t know what drew the Spirit toward the person who cast out demons, but we don’t have to.
We just have to accept that people will rise to positions we didn’t expect. Instead of asking who they are or why they are there, God calls us to focus on the goal. God calls us to check our egos at the door and trust the Spirit.