September 30 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 26
Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Theme: Not easy this week: I'm tempted to go with "More Salt and Less Vinegar, Please"; or "Ann More Complaints!"; or even "For God's Sake, Shut Up!" For a more genteel approach, perhaps "Getting on with Life and One Another".
Introduction. Another challenging week, as once again the spotlight of Scripture is turned on the people of faith to reveal our darker side. Three days after leaving Mount Sinai with all that entailed for their relationship with God, the Israelites are back to their old complaining ways, creating their own version of the "good old days", which, of course, are pure fantasy. There is even a complaint from Joshua (Moses' eventual successor) that God has been overly generous with the gift of his Spirit, which has somehow managed to fall on a couple of absentees as well as those who have turned up in the right place at the right time. James brings his letter to a conclusion by exhorting his recipients to more prayer, and judging by the list of prayer topics he suggests they are not without their problems as a group of believers. Then we find the disciples complaining to Jesus that someone outside their camp is exercising ministry in his name, and shouldn't be! (Think protection of trade, logo, turf, etc!) No wonder Moses had had enough; no wonder Jesus' teeth seem permanently gritted in this second half of this chapter 9.
Background. There are at least two major links between our Old Testament lesson and our gospel passage today. First, both show us the faith community at its worst just after a spiritual high-point. Just as the Israelites started regressing three days after their escape from Egypt, so now that pattern is repeated 3 days after leaving Sinai. In similar fashion, from the highpoint of the Transfiguration it has been downhill all the way for the disciples. Read chapter 9 right through and compare the narrative of Jesus trying to lead his disciples into the Kingdom of God with that of Moses trying to keep his people heading in the right direction. The similarities are striking. [Compare Jesus' outburst in 9:19 with Moses' prayer in Numbers 11: 10-15.]
The second major link is in the attitude of the "insiders" towards "outsiders" in both passages. In the first case Joshua (later to be Moses' successor as leader) is the toady who objects to Eldad and Medad receiving God's Spirit even though they didn't make it to the meeting; in the second case John reports that they have tried to shut down someone who was driving out demons in Jesus' name because "he was not one of us". Notice how exactly that reflects the attitude of the Pharisees and others who criticised Jesus for healing on a Sabbath, completely unmindful of the well-being of the "patient". And on that point, notice something else that may be going on here. Immediately following the Transfiguration, we have the story of the Healing of a Boy with an Evil Spirit. An element of that story is the fact that the disciples were unable to drive out the spirit. John was not among them at that time, because he had been on the mountain with Jesus. Was he eager to report this new episode to Jesus because it was an exorcism, and therefore (perhaps) a continuing source of embarrassment for the other disciples?
The whole atmosphere of the post-Transfiguration sections of chapter 9 is one of contention and quarrelling. The question in 9:16 ("what are you arguing with them about?") is much the same as the question in 9:33 ("what were you arguing about on the road?") They are arguing with "outsiders" and among themselves. Recall last week's reading from James: I suspect I know where James got all that from!
One further connecting theme to bear in mind is the Source of all things. The people who complain about the food forget that the manna they are being so critical of is the gift of God to them, so there is something here about foregoing the creature comforts of the material world (imaginary, in their case), represented by a plentiful and varied diet, in order to receive the "spiritual food", the "Bread of Heaven" (Yes, we're talking Holy Communion, Eucharist, here!) Likewise it seems that the disciples' failure to drive the demon out of the boy was due to their lack of prayer (9:29), and possibly also to their lack of belief (9:23).
In short, the people of God need constant purifying, of which the symbol today is salt.
Numbers. We have three separate extracts – criminal lawyers might call them representative charges – from chapter 11. The first is a charge of barefaced ingratitude. The Lord God had miraculously brought them out of slavery in Egypt, wiping out the Egyptian army in the process, and equally miraculously had given them their daily bread. In response, the people complained about the bread, and yearned for the good old days back in Egypt. Strike one.
The second episode shows the less admirable (but more understandable) side of Moses' nature. It's one thing to become aware of our own inadequacies; it is quite another to blame the whole thing on God, and then dispute God's ability to carry out his remedial plan. Strike two.
Finally, comes the inglorious episode with Joshua complaining that the two elders who missed the appointment nevertheless received the same deal as those who turned up on time. (We can hear the whining tone by the snivelling Joshua, can't we?) Moses will have none of it. He looks for the time when all God's people will prophesy (code for receive the Holy Spirit), a time that came at Pentecost.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on the present stage of your own spiritual journey. Whereabouts are you? In the wilderness, back in Egypt, enjoying the journey, or none of the above?
· Are you inclined to live in an imagined past, or the real present? Are you looking forwards or backwards?
· Thinking of your prayer-life in the light of this passage, is it rich, varied and nourishing or the same dry thing day after day?
· Do you sometimes feel God expects too much of you? Have you thought of delegation – sharing your burden with others?
· Are you jealous of others who appear to have been favoured by God undeservedly or more than you have?
James. Many scholars believe that this epistle is very early, and may even be the first written of all those in the New Testament. A reasonable guess is that it is written to former members of a (Jewish) Christian congregation based in Jerusalem who fled in panic after the stoning of Stephen. Part of the reasoning for this is said to be the apparent "mutual ministry" model implied in some of today's passage. For instance, they are encouraged to confess their sins to one another, and to pray for one another. On the other hand, if someone is sick, the elders are to be called together for prayer and anointing. Notice the close relationship between confession and forgiveness on the one hand, and sickness and healing on the other. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful and effective: to be righteous one needs to be right with God, that is, not in sin. There is another reminder that the brooding figure of Elijah is never far away from the thought of faithful Jews (even ones who convert to Christianity), as he is held up as an example of what can be achieved by prayer. (See also Mark 9:9-11.) Finally, a Christian has responsibility for the spiritual health of others: when others stray the faithful must attempt to bring them back to the fold.
Taking It Personally.
· Focus on verse 13. You may well pray when you are in trouble, but do you offer praises (in song or otherwise) when you're happy?
· Have you ever asked your community of faith to gather round you and pray for healing? Would you feel comfortable asking for such prayer, or would this breach your sense of privacy?
· Have you ever confessed your sins to others, as suggested in verse 16? Or to a priest? What would you do if someone wanted to confess their sins to you?
· Have you ever prayed for healing for others? What was the outcome? How did you feel about that?
· Have you strayed from the path of faith in the past? Did anyone come after you? Have you ever attempted to bring someone back into the fold, or is it "none of your business"?
Mark. Not, perhaps, one of the most coherent passages in the gospel narrative: it has the flavour of a few notes that couldn't be fitted in elsewhere. But the general tone is clear enough. John is worried about protecting the franchise from rogue operators, not because they might do harm to the unsuspecting public, but because they might undermine the unique appeal of the Jesus Team. Notice that it appears that the man was successful: "we saw a man driving out demons", rather than "attempting to drive out demons"; and the disciples tried to stop him (setting the possessed free) rather than doing it themselves or helping the man in his ministry. But please note, this is not a case for Christians working alongside other faiths or even other non-faith organisations, as some would have it. The man is ministering "in Jesus' name", albeit without formal authority. Far from worrying about "outsiders" doing good works, the disciples should ensure that they do not do anything that might cause others to sin. In somewhat overheated hyperbole Jesus drives them to reflect on the harm they might be doing rather than the good others are doing. In short, look closer to home. Purify your own attitudes and for heaven's sake start living in peace with one another. Quit the endless bickering. Amen to that from James!
Taking It Personally.
· It 's spiritual stock-taking time again. Are you inclined to pass judgment on others on the basis of who they are rather than what they are doing? Do you have a strong sense of us and them, insiders and outsiders?
· Are you aware of any time when you may have done or said something that might have caused another person to do wrong?
· Are you at peace with other members of your faith community? All of them?