26th Sunday of Ordinary Time September 26, 2021
The First Reading
The Book of Numbers forms one of the five books of the Hebrew Torah. Like Exodus and Deuteronomy it provides another perspective of the Exodus event concerned primarily with the Israelites journey to the Promised Land. It often portrays the Israelites as a rebellious lot with whom God has to punish from time to time for their lack of faithfulness to the Sinai Covenant.
This week's pericope details the election of seventy elders to govern the twelve tribes and the imparting of God’s Spirit upon those chosen. The first thing we notice is that Moses had some part of the Spirit, bestowed upon him by God, taken from him and given to the seventy elders. Why is the Spirit taken from Moses and not just bestowed by God upon the elders? There are two reasons for this. The first has to do with the Hebrew understanding of God. God is One. If God sent his Spirit upon each of them, it could be misinterpreted as God having multiple Spirits, or spirits other than his own that are in service to him. By stating that some part of the Spirit was taken from Moses and given to the seventy emphasizes the fact that there is one Spirit because it IS the one God. The second reason is to emphasize sharing. God shares his one Spirit with Moses and the elders and they in turn are to share that Spirit and the gifts it grants with all of the Israelites.
As we continue through the story we see tension develop as Joshua, Moses' right-hand-man, discovers that two other men who were selected to be elders also received the gift of the Spirit, despite the fact that they were not among those elected. Joshua wants Moses to command that they stop prophesying for fear that it will undermine Moses’ power and authority. Moses, who bears the Wisdom of God, is quick to see God’s will in all of this. The two men may not have made the grade among their fellow Israelites, but they certainly did with God. This episode serves to remind us, as it did the Israelites, that religion, with its laws and practices, are human constructs that are subject to the will of God. The story of the Israelites is full of examples where human ambition and the human will not only comes into conflict with the Covenant, but also violates the of God will. God by exerting his divine will brought the Israelites back in line. It is the same with the Church. Looking back on our two thousand year history, we can find examples where the Church has strayed from the Gospel message and it mandate to proclaim it faithfully to all the endsit of the earth. There have been times when the Church has succumbed to political, economical, and clerical motivations that were self-serving. The current scandals afflicting the Church are a perfect example. Because the Church is both human and divine, the Holy Spirit always exposes the darkness so that like the Israelites, the Church may be brought back to its task by exerting God's will through reform and world events.
Let this reading remind us that the gifts we have received from God are to be used for the greater good of ALL people, not just for our own good or for the good of a select group. Let us also take the time to pray for the wisdom to recognize whether our goals and desires are in harmony with God will, and if they’re not, then may God’s Spirit received at baptism, and strengthen through Confirmation, give us the fortitude to submit our will to God’s.
The Second Reading
James continues with his exhortation to the Church. This week he touches on the themes of social justice, eschatology (the end of times), and obstacles to our relationship with God. With regard to the theme of social justice, James’ letter exhorts the “haves” of the Church to share with the “have-nots.” He ties the need for doing so with the final judgment, which he and the Church at that time believed was imminent. What is the point of hording wealth, especially at the expense of the poor, when we are in the final age? What good will wealth do for you in the Kingdom of God? Earthly wealth is irrelevant. True wealth comes from Christ and his Gospel and that Gospel demands that we embrace everyone, even our enemies, as members of the community. Furthermore, it demands that we share our goods and resources with members of the community for the benefit of the entire community. Wealth can lead us astray from that Gospel message and become an obstacle to our relationship with God. We cannot love God and neighbor if we allow our desire for wealth and “things” to influence our actions. As Jesus instructed his disciples, one cannot serve two masters. He will love one and hate the other. Whom do you serve?
It is important to note that there is nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy or having wealth. Many of Jesus’ friends and supporters were wealthy. What really matters is what we do with that wealth. We shouldn’t limit our understanding of wealth to monetary wealth either. Many of us may not be wealthy by today’s standards, but we are rich in other ways. Think of the person who has been gifted with an abundant talent for something, or the person who has a rich prayer or spiritual life. These gifts need to be shared with the community too. We cannot horde these God-given gifts for our benefit alone. They are given with the intent that they be shared. Caring for those who are poor financially, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually is what the Gospel demands, for as disciples of Jesus, we are called serve everyone and to restore everyone to wholeness within the context of community.
The Gospel somewhat mirrors the story found in our first reading. Instead of Joshua grumbling against those outside the group, it is the disciple John. John comes to Jesus to complain about a man who is casting out demons in the name of Jesus. He wants Jesus to make him stop because he is not a member of the “group.” Coming off of last weeks reading from Mark where the apostles were arguing amongst themselves over who should be considered the greatest among them, we see that they still did not grasp fully what Jesus was demanding of them. Apparently some if not all of them were still concerned about their own status, glory and honor. John takes somewhat of and elitist position. That guy’s not one of us. He has no business using Jesus’ name. Make him stop. It almost seems like a childish rant. What makes his complaint even more ironic is the fact that verses 14-29, which preceed this pericope, relate a story concerning the apostles’ inability to cast out a demon in a boy. Perhaps John is suffering from a little envy to boot?
Jesus’ response emphasizes the breadth of community. Whoever is for us cannot be against us and those who do the work of the Gospel cannot be against us either. We need to keep this in mind when encountering the work of other religions that are doing the work of the Gospel even though they may not believe in Christ. As Catholics, we need to recognize, commend, and support such efforts. There's no place for intolerance for those disciples who process to live the Gospel, because the Gospel is rooted in love of God and love of neighbor.
Jesus turns this into a teachable moment. He tells John and the rest of the apostles just how important it is not to lead anyone away from God. Those who do are better off dead. That’s a serious exhortation and one that we had best heed. How often do our actions influence the actions and attitudes of others? How often have we led or caused someone to sin? We have an incredible moral responsibility to lead others to God and woe to us if we do otherwise. There are those within the Church who disagree with the Church’s teachings, who pick and chose what they will believe and follow, and who do not attend Mass regularly. This creates division within the community and leads others away from God, especially children who are often at the whim of their parents. Jesus states explicitly that we will be held accountable. Again, in light of the scandals that are rocking the Church today, we can be assured that those responsible will be held accountable by the Lord, even if they circumvent accountability by society.
He then goes on to emphasize the need to remove any obstacle (i.e., sin) that stands in the way of our relationship with God. Perhaps he is thinking about the apostles’ vainglory and how it is preventing them from “hearing” the message he is proclaiming? Regardless of whom Jesus was thinking about at the time, his message applies to us as well. What “things” come between you and your relationship with God? What “things” lead you to sin? Are you willing to step up to the plate and do whatever it takes to cut and root out these obstacles that may by denying you an opportunity for eternal life? It all comes down to what you value most.
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