By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Numbers 11:25-29; Response: Psalm 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14; Second Reading: James 5:1-6; Gospel: Mark 9:38-42, 45, 47-48
The Book of Numbers is the fourth scroll of the Torah (Pentateuch). The English title ‘Numbers’ is derived from the name given this book in the Latin Old Testament, ‘Numeri,’ which is a translation of the Greek name ‘Arithmoi,’ a noun which gives us our English word ‘Arithmetic.’ This name was given to this book because of the numbers of the tribal populations cited in chapter one after a census decreed by the Lord and put into motion by Moses. A second census and recording of numbers is in chapter 26. This later census was ordered by the Lord after a plague took out 24,000 Israelites. The Hebrew name for this fourth scroll translates into English as ‘In the Wilderness.’ An accurate name because the scroll narrates the experience of the Israelites in their years of nomadic life and warfare from the Sinai Wilderness northward. Background to our first reading: The Israelites did much complaining, murmuring against Moses, complaining about food and water. They longed for the food that pleased their taste buds back in Egypt. The manna became boring, as they said, “There is nothing but manna for us to look at.” How did they eat the manna? They ground it up and made pancakes.
The Lord God was frustrated with these people. Moses was aware of how dangerous the Lord could be when driven to frustration with his chosen people. He needs to pray. The prayer begins with a risky question and an attitude most would not dare to assume when addressing God. “Why do you treat me so badly? You load the burden of this whole people onto me, to me who did not give birth to them. I can’t do this alone anymore. Just kill me and be done with it. I wish I had not lived to experience such misery.” Moses could speak like that to God because they were friends and had conversed face to face. See Exodus 33:11. The Lord is moved to come to Moses’ rescue. He instructed Moses to choose 70 elders. The Lord would take a share of the spirit of Moses and bestow it on the 70. And so it was, as ‘the Spirit came to rest on them and they prophesied.” The story that follows in our reading determined its selection for this Sunday. Two of the 70 elders were absent when the sharing of Moses’ spirit took place, yet they too had received the gift of prophecy. Moses’ aide Joshua was jealous. “Moses, my lord, stop them!” Moses replied, “I wish all the people had received my spirit and prophesied.” In the gospel for today’s liturgy, the apostle John plays a role similar to that of Joshua.
The selection of some verses of Psalm 19 as a response to the first reading is difficult to fathom. A major theme of the verses is praise of the Torah (the laws of the Lord). For example, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. His decrees are trustworthy . . . . The ordinances of the Lord are true and just. They give wisdom to the simple and joy to the heart.” The psalmist notes his care to do the laws of the Lord, but is afraid he might unknowingly fail. He asks forgiveness, and to be restrained from sin. If the Lord will accommodate him in this request, the psalmist considers himself blameless.
James’ homily for today is a vehement attack on rich employers who cheat their employees. It does get one’s attention. “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes moth-eaten, your silver and gold corroded, turning to fire, burning your flesh.” No doubt the collection plummeted! They withheld employees’ wages contrary to the Torah law, “You shall give a laborer his pay on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down, for he is poor and sets his heart on it . . . .” See Deuteronomy 24:14-15.
The gospel begins with a catechesis in something we call, in our times, the ecumenical movement. John, son of Zebedee, gets one of his rare lines in the gospels. He reports to Jesus that he and others saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but the man was not part of their group. “We tried to prevent him.” Jesus replies, “Do not prevent him. No one who does a mighty deed in my name will be able soon after to speak ill of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” A blessing follows on those who do even the smallest kindness to a disciple. They will be rewarded by God. The only way this saying of Jesus fits the context is to understand that the outside-exorcist was doing a favor to the disciples by casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The story reveals that in Mark’s time, the last third of the first Christian century, there were exorcists out-side the Christian community using Jesus’ name in their rituals. There is an interesting example in Acts 19:20 where the outcome for the outsider-exorcists was very embarrassing.
Mark adds sayings of Jesus about scandal. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Who are “the little ones?” It can include children but the context implies that this is said to Church leadership symbolized by the apostles whom Jesus was privately instructing, Mark 9:30-31, and had just corrected, “Do not prevent him!” The “little ones” are the faithful who are ignored or demeaned by Church leaders. The prime example is found in James 2:1-9. See also Mathew 18:10-14. Three sayings of Jesus follow advising amputation of bodily parts that cause one to sin against oneself. These sayings are a cross for biblical literalist because they have to stop short of acting them out literally. Mark adds a final saying attributed to Jesus for those who do not heed these harsh recommendations — a one-way ticket to Gehenna. The name is a corruption of the Hebrew name for the Valley of Hinnom situated outside Jerusalem. During the days of the monarchy gone bad, this ravine was the sight of an idolatrous cult in which children were sacrificed by fire. Gehenna became a metaphor for eternal punishment by fire. The above harsh sayings Mark attributes to Jesus are best understood as warnings against the dangers of causing oneself or others to sin.