LET GOD BE GOD! THE SPIRIT BLOWS WHERE HE WILLS
Numbers 11:16-17, 25-29; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:42-48
Today’s gospel reading is clearly divisible in two main parts. One could take any of the sayings found in the second part as a rich theme for this Sunday’s reflection. But the main theme of today’s scriptural texts is the one presented in the First Reading and the first part of the Gospel. It deals with a fanaticism that attempts to teach God “how to be God”. It treats a kind of envy that believers sometimes habour, often unconsciously, towards those who do good but are not part of their group. They forget that the Spirit acts freely through any person and is not compelled to keep within any boundary.
- ATTEMPTS TO “CAGE GOD” WITHIN BOUNDARIES
In one diocese, in an African country, a priest began a high-profile prayer ministry in the “Diocesan Pastoral Centre”. Many other priests had similar prayer ministries in their parishes, but on a smaller scale. Now, this priest went to the bishop and requested that he should sign a declaration that his prayer ministry is the only officially recognized one in the diocese. Any person in the diocese who needed the healing ministry must, therefore, go nowhere else but to his Centre. What that document was meant to say, in effect, is that God has no right to heal anybody in the diocese except in the Pastoral Centre. Such attempts to limit God do not work. God never allows himself to be so limited by human narrow-mindedness.
Moses, more than 3000 years ago, knew this. The Israelites, whom he was leading to the Promised Land, had clear ideas about God’s holiness. As they came to the threshold of the Promised Land, they made their camp in a valley, far from the mountain where they believed God lived. Halfway between the camp and the mountain they built a special tent, a PLACE OF MEETING between God and Moses, their leader. Anyone who strayed to the mountain was put to death because they believed such a person had trespassed into God’s territory. Similarly, they believed that God would not “trespass into their own territory” by coming into the camp. The lines were clearly drawn. Everything was neatly worked out. They believed that they knew where God belonged and where he did not belong.
But God cannot be limited! This bitter truth dawned on them the day they were consecrating seventy elders as Moses’ assistants. Moses is getting old and tired and needs people who could assist the over-worked, old, Moses in leading and judging the people of Israel during their desert wandering. God instructs Moses to select 70 elders who would be consecrated for these tasks. As we read in the first reading, the 70 elders had been selected beforehand. On the day of their consecration they were to present themselves in the Tent of Meeting (the boundary between God and the people), where the Lord would impose on them some of the spirit that was in Moses. On the appointed day, they all turned up except two, Eldad and Medad. Who knows why they failed to turn up? Did they oversleep? Were they drunk? Or did they simply forget? It does not matter. The important thing is that when the spirit of the Lord descended on the sixty-eight men in the Tent of Meeting, it also descended on these two who were still in the camp. And they began to prophesy just as the other sixty-eight in the Tent were doing.
That God could cross the lines that were so neatly drawn in their minds regarding where God could or could not operate, was a shock to the Israelites. Immediately they ran to tell Moses, and Joshua asked Moses to stop them. Suppress the evidence and deny the fact! But Moses knew better. He simply smiled and said, “Are you jealous for my sake? How I wish all God’s people were prophets and that God would put his Spirit on them all!” (Num 11:29). Would that not make the job a bit lighter?
Narrow-minded control freaks like Joshua have never been wanting among God’s people.
- A PLEA FOR TOLERANCE
In the Gospels we see such freaks in the persons of (James and) John, (Boanerges) the Sons of Thunder – because of their impulsive natures (Mk 3:17). They wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume some conscientious objectors to the Jesus movement (Lk 9:52-56) – “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to reduce them (the Samaritans) to ashes?”. In today’s episode, they are upset that someone who was not of their company was performing a spiritual work IN THE NAME OF JESUS. They even “forbade” the man “because he is not one of us“. In the gospel, it is John who reports to Jesus how he tried to stop a man who did not belong to their group from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Why did he do that? Because, according to his poor theology, God should limit himself to the Jesus group. But Jesus, the new Moses, was there to correct him, “Do not stop him. … Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:39-40). Do not stop him. He is doing a good job. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.” It is by their fruit, not by their foliage, not by their leaves that you will know them.
There is a lovely point of irony here because the man they are complaining about seems to be quite successful in his exorcisms while only twenty verses before this episode Mark notes that the Disciples were themselves unable to exorcise a boy with the spirit of dumbness in him (cf. Jn 9:18) “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teach, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so”.
Envy is a particularly evil sin because by means of it, we wish to deprive others without gaining anything ourselves. It is the self-pitying refuge of all of us when we become embittered and petty. The YouCat, a version of the Catechism which Pope Benedict XVI directed to be developed for use among young adults, says this about envy: “Envy is sadness and annoyance at the sight of another’s well-being and the desire to acquire unjustly what others have” (YouCat 466). That is exactly what we see happening in today’s first reading and in the Gospel narrative. God gives gifts to whom he wishes to give. And while it is natural to wonder how the Lord “decides” upon such outpourings of the Spirit, nonetheless we are not to be envious of others’ blessings.
Do we rejoice in the good that others do? Are we not like the disciples when we get upset at the good deeds of others who seem to shine more than us? Paul says that “love is not jealous… but rejoices in the right” (1Corinthians 13:4-6). Envy, and jealousy, its counterpart, are sinful because they lead us to sorrow over what should make us rejoice – namely, our neighbour’s good. The reason we may grieve over another’s good is that somehow we see that ‘good’ as lessening our own value or excellence. Envy forms when we believe that the other person’s advantage or possession diminishes or brings disgrace on us. Envy is contrary to love. Both the object of love and the object of envy is our neighbour’s good; but by contrary movements, love rejoices in our neighbour’s good, while envy grieves over it.
- ACTING “IN THE NAME OF JESUS” –THE SEVEN SONS OF SCEVA
These two accounts call our attention to an incident mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles: Acts 19:13-16. They took place in Ephesus. St. Paul had been in Ephesus for two years, preaching and healing in the name of Jesus Christ. Then some itinerant exorcists came into the city. They were like the traveling “medicine men” of the Old West, selling snake oil and other stuff that they claimed could heal everyone’s woes, but for a price. When they learned how the popular Paul had become, they saw a chance to make a profit using his name and Jesus’ name. It would be relatively simple since they knew that many people would be healed by the power of suggestion. But the trouble is that they came upon the real thing, a man who was really suffering from demonic possession. These charlatans, named in the Acts of the Apostles as the seven sons of Sceva, proclaimed over the man: “I adjure you by the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches to come out of this man.” Well, the devil answered back from the possessed man, “Jesus I know. Paul I know. But who are you?” You can imagine the seven guys looking at each other and saying, “This is not good. We are in big trouble.” Then the evil spirit leapt out of the man and possessed all the seven imposters, who, according to Acts, ran away naked and wounded. It really is a funny story found in Acts 19:13-16.
What was the difference between this incident and the previous two? Eldad and Medad, and the man healing in the name of Jesus, were all SINCERE (sine-cere – without wax, or without fakery). They had received God’s spirit and were caring for God’s people. On the other hand, the charlatans in Acts just wanted to make money on Jesus. These three incidents bring us to ask: how do we distinguish between those who are truly authentic Christians and those who are using Christ for money? The answer is easy. Jesus said, “By your fruits you will know them.” When we come upon someone who uses the name of Jesus for his/her own personal profit, he/she cannot hide. That person is not an authentic Christian. An authentic Christian, including those within the Catholic Church, does not turn religion into a lucrative business.
- IS GOD STILL ACTIVE IN OUR MIDST TODAY?
Many Christian people lament that God no longer has a place in our world today. How true is this? Could it not be that we are looking for God in the wrong places? If we looked beyond the “Tent of Meeting” and beyond “those who belong to our group”, it might surprise us to see that God is as active in our world today as he has always been. He may be working with those we regard as the wrong people, and in places we deem to be the wrong places.
Remember, that the Spirit is given to the whole Church: that is the meaning of the Feast of Pentecost. Each Christian has his/her own particular outpouring of the Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation. We are therefore all gifted with God’s grace, we are all commissioned to bring God’s Word to others. We are all exercising responsibility within the Church.
In a church group such as the CWA, CMA, Choirs, etc., there are some young people who fear to join because they think the ‘original members’ are not tolerant with new ideas. There are some who are inside who remain wounded because they have been pushed to the wall by people who want to limit God and his work. The same Spirit empowers new and old members alike. Yes, the Spirit is present where we, foolish human beings with our feeble attempts to limit God’s power, least expect to find him.
- HE WHO IS NOT AGAINST US IS FOR US
Here, Jesus lays down a lesson in tolerance, and it is a lesson that we all need to learn:
- a) The First and the Second readings of today tell us that the Spirit is not confined to a particular institution or group of persons. God is free from all bonds, boundaries and set rules, and he can produce some good wherever he chooses. God is like the wind; he blows where he pleases; he cannot be constrained even within the visible structure of the Church. We cannot teach God “how to be God”.
- b) Every person has a right to his/her own thoughts. Each one has a right to think things out and to think them through until he/she comes to his/her own conclusions and personal beliefs. That is a right which we should all respect. Unfortunately, we are often too apt to condemn what we do not understand.
- c) There is far more than one way to God. God fulfils himself in many ways. The world is round, and two people can get to precisely the same destination by starting out in precisely opposite directions. Sometimes, we may have to leave our family members, who have rejected their Catholic faith, to pursue the faith they have chosen, other than the Catholic faith into which they were born and baptized!
- d) It necessary to remember that TRUTH is always bigger the any single person’s grasp of it. No one can possibly grasp all truth. The basis of tolerance is not just a lazy acceptance of anything. It is not the feeling that there cannot be assurance anywhere. It is simply the realization of the magnitude of the sphere of truth.
In spite of our many attempts to stifle God’s spirit in our families, in our communities, in our country – even by our heartless treatment of those who are poor materially and financially (Cf. 1st Reading) – God still takes care of us. He loves us and provides for us, not because we are good, but because HE IS GOOD and patient. He does not treat us as our sins deserve nor repay us for our iniquities. Instead, he is the one “…who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:4-5). To our most merciful God, we pray: “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness, for this we revere you” (Ps 130:3-4).