What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?
On this Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear of prophecy, healing, and inclusion. We also hear words of warning, some quite harsh.
Moses, in the Book of Numbers, has his hands full trying to lead the people and deal with their complaints and concerns (Nm 11:25-29). The burden of leadership has rested heavily on his shoulders, and he is tired of carrying it by himself. He complains to the Lord, who promises to spread the burden around a bit, and to provide more meat for the people (addressing their chief complaint). Moses is to select a group of elders who will help him govern the people. They are to gather at the meeting tent. All but two of those chosen are present at the tent when the Lord takes some of the spirit shared with Moses and bestows it on the chosen elders. These men begin to speak the Lord’s word when the spirit comes upon them – to prophesy. It is a strong confirmation of their new role in the community.
While this is happening at the meeting tent, the two men who were late getting there also experience the coming of the spirit upon them. They also begin to prophesy, right there in the camp. A young man runs to Moses with the news. Joshua urges Moses to stop the men from prophesying, since they have not received this gift at the tent with the others. Moses declines to do so, asking Joshua if he is jealous for the sake of himself (Moses).
Moses declares a different vision than that of limitation of access to divine inspiration and exclusion of those not present when the Lord acts in a religious or other formal setting. He declares, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”
In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, the spirit of the Lord is the Lord’s very life breath! When the Lord shares his spirit with people, he is sharing of his own life. Moses wishes this sharing in the divine life and gifts could be experienced by all the people. Those who receive it speak out in praise the words of the Lord.
Jesus also dealt with misunderstanding of the breadth of God’s distribution of gifts (Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48). Someone else was successfully driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps wishing to protect Jesus’ reputation as a healer in the face of competition, John tried to stop the other from acting and then informed Jesus of the competition. Jesus surprised John by telling him not to try to stop the other person’s actions. He noted that it is impossible to perform mighty deeds in Jesus’ name and in the next breath speak ill of him. “For whoever is not against us is for us.” And any who help those belonging to Christ, even with a small drink of water, will be rewarded.
So much for jealously restricting the gifts of healing and prophesy…
Now for the other side of the picture. A series of dire warnings concludes this section of the Gospel. The warnings are phrased dramatically and speak of drastic efforts to keep from causing others who believe in Jesus to sin. They were not meant to be taken literally, though in the course of history, some people have done just that. Jesus is not advocating physically injuring or maiming oneself or others, but rather emphasizing how important it is to be aware of what leads us to sin – what leads us to miss the target of loving behavior towards others and ourselves. He warns that it’s better to do without something deemed very important than to go to Gehenna, where the fire is unquenchable.
This reference to Gehenna is one that today is not at all understood in the context known by Jesus’ audience. We tend to think of Hell as the destination in the reference, but that’s not what Jesus was saying. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, there was a garbage dump. This dump was not like a modern landfill. It was a place where garbage was burned in open fires. The fires were kept burning day and night. The final line is a reference to the last few verses of the Book of Isaiah. Those verses too spoke of the garbage-burning fires outside the gates of the city. The prophet has just spoken of the coming victory of the Lord and the bringing together of good people from all over the earth to live in the city of the Lord. The bodies of the enemies, slain in a great battle, would be burned in the fires of the garbage dump.
These readings, and the reading from the letter of James (Jas 5:1-6), almost follow a parallel pattern. First Moses chides Joshua for trying to limit the Lord’s sharing of the spirit. Moses speaks of a broader sharing of the spirit among all the people. Then James cautions against making assumptions about the future or storing up riches for old age by taking advantage of the poor or treating workers unfairly. He reminds his listeners that the Lord hears the cries of those who are being harmed and will ultimately rule in their favor. Finally, Jesus refuses to limit the power of healing to the small group of disciples who travel with him. He warns of the serious nature of sin and the importance of guarding against falling into temptation.
These readings are not just samples of the thinking of historical figures. They are intended to speak to us today. What do they say to us?
The first thing that comes to mind is the insight of the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council, when they declared that the Spirit has been at work in all cultures and times throughout the history of humankind. This was a major breakthrough. No longer do we say that only through faith in Jesus is salvation and everlasting life with God possible. We know that people of good will who have never received the gift of faith also share in life with God, both now and when they enter into eternity. The document, Nostra Aetate, (Declaration on The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), was promulgated on October 28, 1965. It is a short document, but its implications are profound for our world today and the religious strife which still plagues humanity.
The second point is perhaps more challenging. We absolutely must take seriously our own responsibility for our failures to live in self-giving love. And then we must do something about them.
What keeps me from a loving response? Is it the television show over which I get angry if I have to miss the final five minutes of the program? Is it the cell phone that keeps me distracted from family dinner conversation? Is it the sports event on television whose result upsets me so that I lash out angrily against my family? Is it taking on too many activities so that I can live up to an unrealistic picture of what a good parent does but then find I don’t have patience with a spouse or child who just needs a bit of attention and time from me? Is it social media? Do I really need to spend an hour or more each day catching up with my followers? What should I really be quietly doing for a friend today?
So many things can come between me and God. (The grammarian in me says it should be “God and me,” but the issue really is that God isn’t the one responsible here, so I will leave it with myself first here.) My challenge, and I think the challenge we all face, is to see what obstacles trip me up. Those are the ones I must address. They are the ones that need to be limited or dumped. Better they be dumped than that I end up in the dump – living apart from joyous presence of God.