Studying God’s Word

Numbers 11:25-29, James 5:1-6, Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

The readings from the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time speak to issues of unity and exclusivity that have affected faith communities throughout the ages. Scripture teaches us to be open to God’s radical nature of inclusivity.

The first reading is taken from the Book of Numbers. This fourth book of the Old Testament picks up Israel’s journey beginning at the base of Mount Sinai and continues until Israel’s arrival at the plains of Moab, a territory on the southeastern border of the Promised Land. Today’s reading is an excerpt from Numbers 11:1-35 and presents some of the challenges in the early days of Israel’s long desert journey. Burdened by the complaints of the overwhelming number of Israelites, literally numbering in the hundreds of thousands (see Nm 11:21), God arranged to have seventy elders assist Moses in the day-to-day operations of the Israelite desert community. Certain as to how God’s Spirit works within the community, Joshua (Moses’ top aide and general to his army), objected when some members of the community (Eldad and Medad) prophesied in the camp. Moses’ reaction taught the young Joshua an important lesson: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”  

The second reading is the final reading from the Letter of James. Today’s reading is part of the closing remarks of this letter. Here James issues a final caution to the rich, especially those who have exploited the poor to achieve wealth. He warns that the “cries” of the poor (“the harvesters”) have “reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5:4). For James, this serves as a warning against material possessions, since in James’ view, material wealth created division and exclusivity, which, in turn, worked against the building-up of true Christian community.

In the Gospel reading for today, we hear that John (one of Jesus’ disciples), is disturbed by an unexpected development: someone outside the circle of the disciples is successfully driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Like Moses with Joshua, Jesus teaches John an important lesson: “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus teaches John that God works through others outside the view of our limited human vision.

The Gospel reading concludes with Jesus issuing a warning to the disciples: do not interfere with God’s work of salvation. Using dramatic metaphors of cutting off a hand or a foot, as well as plucking out an eye, Jesus warns those who would cause “one of these little ones … to sin.” Jesus advises that it is better for someone enter the kingdom of God lame or half-blind than “to be thrown into Gehenna.” (Gehenna is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word gê-hinnôm— Valley of Hinnom—and is a reference to the place where children where offered as sacrifices in idolatrous cult worship during Israel’s Monarchy period in the tenth century BC.) This explains Jesus’ pointed reference here to the “little ones.” Jesus’ intense and violent imagery is used to emphasize his point: Whereas human behavior and inclination is often to exclude, God’s nature is to include, constantly seeking ways to save all people.

The tension between unity and exclusivity is part of the human condition that defines and shapes our communities of faith. Scripture teaches us to rise above the desire to exclude and seek first the ways of God.

Dr. Daniel J. Scholz