The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21 - 30 September 2012
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
St. Mark 9:38-50
Background: Ecstatic Prophecy
In the first reading for today we have an instance that may reflect the time in which it was actually composed, or we may have an early memory of first instances in Yahwism in which there is ecstatic prophetic utterance. Certainly at the time of the Isaiahs, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others there were plenteous examples of prophetic ecstasy in which the prophet goes into a type of trance and offers visions of what God was saying. This is not like divination, which uses some other object to “divine” what the god was saying. Here it is language or even movement (cf. II Samuel 6:14) that mediates the message. Oddly enough, the prophets that grace one of the scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian probably fairly represent their behaviors. This office and the ecstasies that accompanied it were not peculiar to Israel, and may indeed have been either borrowed from the surrounding Canaanite culture, or brought from Mesopotamia.
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."
Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the LORD became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!' I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once--if I have found favor in your sight--and do not let me see my misery."
So the LORD said to Moses, "Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you."
So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, 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, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"
In these passages from Numbers we witness a thread of complaining that surfaces often in the accounts of the wanderings in the wilderness. Here it is instructive for us to see that it is not just the tribes of Israel that are wandering in the desert, but that there are foreign elements as well. Described as “rabble” or “riffraff (Alter) they bring a different complexion to the whole. Soon Israel as well is complaining about the privations of the wilderness. Moses is faced with issues of leadership, and of nationality as well. It is odd, that hearing the complaints of the people about food, Moses in turn complains to God that the burden God has given him is too great.
Once again we hear the story of the manna given by God, along with the fowl. That however is not the main point of juxtaposing this reading with the Gospel for today. It is in verses 24-29 that we see the point. Moses gathers elders and shares with them some of his “spirit.” These then begin to prophecy (see the Background above) and their ecstasies are constrained to the area in the Tent of Meeting. Such ecstatic behaviors would not have quelled the complaints of the crowd. The actions of Eldad and Medad, prophesying in the camp itself is anxiously brought to Moses’ attention by a young lad, and Joshua urges them to be suppressed. It is here we come to the point. In a spiritualization of the role of leadership and its burdens, Moses looks forward to a time when all would share in the spirit with which he was invested. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”
Breaking open Joshua:
- What kind of complaints do you have for God?
- What do you think of the leadership of your Church?
- How do you participate? How do you prophesy?
Psalm 19:7-14 Caeli enarrant
The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.
The initial verses of this psalm devote themselves to the beauty of the cosmos, and at verse 7, suddenly shift to comments on the Law of God. It may be that two separate psalms have been spliced together (a common practice, actually, in the Psalter). The initial verses picture God as a solar deity, riding the heavens. In the ancient near east, and indeed in Greece (Apollo) the connection between the sun and wisdom is frequent, so the splicing my represent a mild monotheistic diatribe against such pagan deities. There is both an objective approach to the Law of God (The Lord’s teaching is perfect) and a sensual approach as well (Sweeter than honey). The poet is clear that in spite of the attractiveness of God’s intents for humankind, they are not always accomplished. The psalm ends with a prayer for forgiveness and amendment of life.
Breaking open Psalm 19
- How do you perceive God’s law for you?
- What is your reaction to it? Is it indeed like honey?
- How do you deal with your failures?
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
These final verses in James seem to be a catchall of various instructions for the Christian life. Addressed are the notions of healing, confession and forgiveness, prayer, and reconciliation. It is a wealth of actions that ought to be discussed by any Christian congregation. In our own time we have seen the restoration and effective use of prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing in the reformed liturgical churches, and even in the Roman church it has moved beyond its extreme cause to a more general opportunity for healing.
Breaking open James:
- Do you avail yourself of healing?
- Have you had others pray for you? What was the result?
- Have you ever had a private confession and absolution?
John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
"For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
This reading continues from the Second Passion Prediction that was read last Sunday. Here the theme moves to questions of authority. Like the instance with Moses and the two elders who prophesied in the camp (see the First Reading) here the disciples (John in particular) are exercised about someone who was “casting out demons” in Jesus name. Although this authority is “tightened up” in the later Church, he Jesus takes the same mind as does Moses, and is not jealous about his gift.
What follows are a series of sayings that have been appended to the “casting out demons” saying. What Jesus wants to maintain is the relationship of the individual to the Kingdom of Heaven, and hopes that no one in his party will become an obstruction to that relationship. The salt sayings are related to the use of salt and fire in sacrifice, and may bring the collection of sayings full circle, back to the Passion Prediction – for now the disciples will be “salted with fire” as well. Here the fire may well be the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What authority have you taken to do things in Jesus’ name?
- What has been an obstruction to your faith?
- Are you salty? How?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.