Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction on these reflections before carrying on:
1st Reading – Numbers 11:25-29
The LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses. Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, the LORD bestowed it on the seventy elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied. Now two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp. They too had been on the list, but had not gone out to the tent; yet the spirit came to rest on them also, and they prophesied in the camp. So, when a young man quickly told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, “ Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses’ aide, said, “Moses, my lord, stop them.” But Moses answered him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”
2nd Reading – James 5:1-6
Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance.
Gospel - Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48:
At that time, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “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. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'” - Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
“If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets…” A phrase like that is bound to resonate with Carmelites. We take our inspiration from the prophet Elijah and see ourselves as sons of the prophet like Elijah’s successor, Elisha. Being a prophet is part of the witness of Carmel but as always what applies in particular applies in general as well. All Christians are followers of the prophet Jesus and bring his prophecy, his teachings, their experiences of God into the world.
At this point we need to be careful with our language because the Bible shows us two types of prophet. There are those who prophesy in ecstasy, brought into another world through drugs or by dancing as with Saul the king joining the company of prophets in the book of Samuel. We can think of Delphi or Whirling Dervishes. This type of prophet needs a secretary to record what is being said because they are unable to do so themselves. Very different are the main stream prophets in the Bible. They are charismatic, called by the Spirit to proclaim the word of God to the Church. These are people who receive and proclaim their message in their normal conscious state. This can be seen in both Testaments, from Elijah and the classical prophets like Jeremiah all the way through to John of the Apocalypse who announced the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him. Often the Apocalypse is said to be ecstasy but that is not the case in the way I have described the word. The other important word in this context is “mystic”, the prophet and many saints over the centuries are those who like Elijah have heard the subtle voice of God and were able to relate their experiences. St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross would be two great examples from the Carmelite tradition.
The role of the prophet is to keep the people on the straight and narrow, to encourage them and exhort them to remain true to Torah or to the Sermon on the Mount. That encouragement can also be critical. We have a good example this week from the letter of
James. Strong and dramatic language gets the point across, a warning about the proper use of wealth.
Yet the prophetic exhortation must not become too narrow. The Church must be there to reach out to all people at all times and all places. It has been said that the Church in recent centuries has not been fully Catholic, it was quite exclusive in its claims. We have in the book of Numbers, Joshua who had served Moses from his youth and we have in the Gospel John one of Jesus’ first disciples. Despite their close acquaintance over many years, neither had got the message. “They are not one of us” says John in the Gospel. Joshua and John both thought they belong to the exclusive inner club. So they did in a sense, yet the boundaries of the club are permeable. In Church terms, we have to be orthodox, within the framework of our beliefs whilst we must also be catholic, universal seeking to proclaim the good news to all and bring them to salvation. The central lesson of both the book of Numbers and of the Gospel is that the Spirit cannot be constrained, the Spirit blows where she wills.
Looking a bit close at the two readings, the extract from the book of Numbers is part of a plea to God by Moses that he is overworked. The answer of course must be delegation and in this case that means a sharing of the spirit. Yet the effects of the spirit may appear elsewhere than just in the select group.
Coming to the Gospel, the passage is a continuation of the Gospel last Sunday. That Gospel concluded with Jesus welcoming little children. John now raises an issue which shows his narrowness as I have mentioned. The background would been exorcists who would often invoke many names they thought might be powerful, a sort of blanket medicine. Jesus by contrast to John shows an openness. The stress on the name is unique to Mark. This is then concluded by the solemn saying which begins "for whoever". The "name of Christ" in these verses appears for the only time in the Gospel so it may reflect the early Christian community.
The opposite now follows with the imagery of stumbling blocks and millstones, two types of stone, small and large. This contrast is usually lost in translation. The same idea of being open is followed up with particular notice of the little ones. Jesus has just pointed out how it is the little ones who show true faith in Jesus.
And so the Greek word behind "Stumbling block" is “scandal”, now so common in English. This shows that one result of a lack of openness is to give scandal. Jesus thus contrasts one type of stone with another as he indicates how serious the offence is. This is then followed up with the three parallel sayings about scandal and its consequences. Dramatic language is not of course to be taken literally. Rather it indicates that the gravity of the offence will be met with gravity of punishment.
Finally there is a quotation of the very last verse of the prophet Isaiah. Strangely, the final verse of this lengthy book is one of condemnation. Here in Mark it is an apt quote as a reminder of the possibilities of eternal punishment.
There follows an obscure saying, unique to Mark which is not in the Sunday reading. Fire is life-giving as the old is burnt and new springs up. Salt is life-giving and leads to the new life and openness required of a true disciple of Jesus. And so the conclusion to the harsh words about scandal is to be at peace, shalom, with one another: the Hebrew "shalom" has a deeper sense of peace than is suggested by the English word. There is the extra sense of being healthy, whole, complete. It is the integrated wellbeing of the whole person or entire nation.