Our readings for this Sunday remind us that God is free to give his gifts where he wishes, and we should be glad whenever people receive them. They also remind us of the importance of not leading others to sin or letting us be led into it, with a specific warning about seeking riches.
The first reading — Numbers 11:25-29 — tells of an episode when the Israelites were wandering in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. It was a year and two months since they had left Egypt, and Moses asked the Lord for help in governing the people. The Lord told him to choose seventy people to assist him and bring them to the tent where Moses would meet with the Lord, and that the Lord would give some of Moses’ spirit on them so they could help Moses. Today’s passage tells what happened next.
Receiving the share of Moses’ spirit caused the elders to prophesy, that is to engage in enthusiastic utterances, probably like charismatics speaking in tongues, not delivering normal speech like biblical prophets. What is remarkable, of course, is that the elders had been assembled with Moses at the meeting tent for the event. But Eldad and Medad, who had been chosen but missed the gathering, received the spirit too. Joshua thought that their presence with Moses was some sort of requirement, but God was not limited by the presence of Moses.
Similarly, the gospel reading — Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48 — begins with a case of “unauthorized” people using Jesus’ name to drive out demons. Joshua-like, the disciples wanted to stop them, and hold for themselves the share of divine power they enjoyed. But God is not limited to the institutions that he has created. God owns the Church, not vice-versa; and if God has given the sacraments to the Church as “guaranteed encounters with God” and the ordinary channels of his grace, he can give his grace in other ways as well. We must be pleased whenever we see God at work in people’s lives.
The rest of the passage gives a warning, first against leading others into sin (called giving scandal), which is particularly diabolical, then against giving in to our own temptations. Clearly the advice to amputate a bodily part which causes us to sin is not to be taken literally. After all, as Jesus says elsewhere (e.g., Mark 7:20-23, read on the 22nd Sunday), sin comes from within, from our heart. But it does underscore the necessity of not giving in to temptation. This must also be taken in conjunction with all that scripture says about God’s mercy. It is not failure to overcome temptation that leads to Gehenna, but failure to repent of sin. It is becoming content to continue in sin, with the consequence that we do not repent and seek God’s mercy, that leads one away from the kingdom of God and, ultimately to the separation from God to which Jesus gives the image of fiery Gehenna.
The second reading — James 5:1-6 — is a powerful, even shocking, condemnation of the rich, whose avarice leads them to injustice and murder. St. Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evils (1 Timothy 6:10). While there are verses which tie the sin of the rich to injustice and murder, I think we shouldn’t be too quick to say, “There’s nothing wrong with being rich in itself.” Even though that is literally true, one has to consider, first, how the riches are acquired. Does one become rich through a position in a business which pays employees less than a living wage — which is de facto withholding the wages of the workers — or through destroying competitors through unfair competition, or through other wrongful ways of getting more than one is entitled to? Secondly, one must ask how one uses even legitimately gained riches. If it’s just for one’s own enjoyment, that is wrong.
As the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) tells us, the rich are obliged to share with the poor. To keep what one does not need when others are in need is wrong. There is an obligation to share with the poor. Here is a link to a very powerful sermon addressed to the rich by St. Basil the Great. https://bekkos.wordpress.com/st-basils-sermon-to-the-rich/ The needy are entitled to our surplus, he says, and if we hold on to it, we are thieves who oppress those we could help, but refuse to. This is a real challenge for all of us. To what extent are we justified in enjoying more than the necessities of life when there are others who lack them and whom we could help? Of course, in the West, programs and institutions exist, so nobody has to starve. Poverty of the sort that existed in Basil’s time (late 4th Century) isn’t present in the West. But it does still exist in other parts of the world. What is our obligation to those poor, and what is our obligation to those considered poor in our own country?
Psalm 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14 leads the congregation to meditate on the goodness of God’s ordinances and to pray that God will cleanse our hearts from evil inclinations.