September 30 26th Sunday of the Year (B)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Numbers 11:25-29).

It seems best to place this reading in its original context in the Book of Numbers. Moses has complained that the task of attending to the concerns of the vast multitude of Israelites is too much for him alone. The Lord advises him to choose seventy trustworthy elders from the people and to come from the camp of the Israelites to the Tent of Meeting (a kind of forerunner of the future Jerusalem Temple) with these seventy. This he does. The Lord meets him, and them, there in the Cloud. Moses, the servant of God and a prophet, had the spirit of God in a special way. God is presented as taking some of this and as having put it on the elders, signifying that they have some, but not all, of Moses’ charism and power. On reception of the spirit they are said to have prophesied, but only once, not permanently. By prophecy here, as in earlier texts of the Old Testament, we should understand not prophecy as in the case of the later prophets (Isaiah and others), such as foretelling the future, speaking in God’s name, but going into a “prophetic” ecstasy, enthusiastic behaviour, possibly speaking in tongues. The two others, Eldad and Medad, were enrolled, probably as representatives of the community, but not of the seventy elders. They too were given the gift of the spirit. Joshua, who will succeed Moses, would have Moses stop them. Moses’ broader vision foreshadows that of Christ, and the promised outpouring of prophecy in the new age (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:14-21). This reading is chosen to go with today’s Gospel reading.

 Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 18[19]). The precepts of the Lord gladden the heart.

Second Reading (James 5:1-6).

This reading follows immediately on a general admonition on the message to be drawn from the passing nature of life. We do not know about tomorrow. Each one of us is but a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes (James 4:13-14). Admonitions like that of the present passage had already been made by Jesus. “Blessed are you poor…. But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for your shall hunger” (Luke 6:24-24). “Do not lay up treasure for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up treasure for yourselves in heaven” (Matthew 7:19-20). The accusation that on earth the greedy have had a life of comfort and luxury recalls the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-25). The strong denunciation of the unjust in this passage is reminiscent of some Old Testament prophets (for instance Amos 8:4-8). It need not represent abuses within the early Christian community itself, but to serve as an admonition on the dangers of riches. The accusations are specific: withholding or defrauding workers of their wages, important themes in both the Old and New Testament (see Leviticus 19:3; Deuteronomy 24:14). Condemning and killing the righteous person (the singular rather than the plural) may have in mind Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 34:22: “To take away a neighbour’s living is to murder him; to deprive an employee of his wages is to shed blood”, or it may refer to a godless plot to kill the righteous poor (see Wisdom 2:12-20), or possibly even have a reference to the death of Christ. The reading is an example of the great sense of social justice that should be generated by reflection on the two great commandments, love of God and love of the neighbour.

Gospel (Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48).

These readings in Mark’s Gospel probably give us an insight into varying movements and concerns within the early Church. Christ’s words and sayings were recalled as individual situations indicated. There are three or four distinct matters covered by today’s reading. The first (found only in Mark; it is not in Matthew or Luke) considers an exorcist, acting in Jesus’ name, but not one of his close followers. Exorcisms, exorcists and the casting out of demons were part of Jewish life in Jesus’ day. Once when accused of casting out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, Jesus retorted: “By whom do your sons cast them out?” (Matthew 18:27; Luke 11:19). Jesus recognized that the Jewish exorcists would have been acting in the name, and power, of the God of Israel, Jesus’ own Father. This exorcist was acting in the name of Jesus himself, thus implicitly expressing faith in him. This reading shows Jesus’ openness to the power of the Spirit, not restricted to a particular group. It is an incentive for ecumenism.

            The next saying is a simple one on divine reward to anyone who helps the Christian missionaries.

            Next comes a severe warning to anyone who “scandalizes”, is a cause of sin to “any of those little ones” who have faith in God or Christ. In the current discussion of paedophilia, the “little ones” of this text are often taken as referring to little children. However, there was not infant baptism in Jesus’ day, no infant followers of Jesus. The “little ones” are apparently members of the Christian community, weak in faith, and in danger of losing it. This was also a great concern for Paul, who refers to these as “the weak”.

            From being a scandal, a cause of sin, to others, the next saying of Jesus passes on to the avoidance of the occasions of sin for oneself, and the need to avoid such occasions. The metaphorical language of this section is colourful, but its central message is clear: “What does it profit ant one to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of one’s immortal soul”.

 B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Prudent Ecumenism

The first part of today’s Gospel reading (on the exorcist) is often, and rightly, used as an argument in favour of ecumenism. It is not easy to see in what particular circumstances the early Church, or the community to which Mark belonged, used it. But its message is for all times. God is the creator of the whole human race. His concern is for all, even if he chose the Jews as his special people and the Church to continue the saving work of Christ. The sacramental message of the Church is limited by the weakness of its members, individually and collectively. But the Spirit of God can work outside any of these. Even within the community of believers, through what were originally schisms and heresies, the Holy Spirit can work independently of the Catholic Church to restore unity. The Catholic Church was for long suspicious of the Ecumenical Movement, believing that it originated in, or led to, indifferentism, that all churches were equal. After many decades it was led to believe that the Holy Spirit was guiding this movement, and took part. This in time led to the openness on this, and many other matters, in the Second Vatican Council. Belief in God and in Jesus as saviour of all people should lead to genuine ecumenism.

            Exorcism in Christ’s day was the casting out of demons, probably involving the cure of some forms of epilepsy. The demons today withstanding the coming of the kingdom of God are not medical conditions, but rather the attempts to remove the Church, Christ’s kingdom on earth, from any place in public life, to establish a fully a secular and secularist way of thought and life.. Its proponents speak openly against any Christian move that might try to oppose of counteract them. Defence of the Christian worldview and way of life against those is by believing non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Christ’s message to Catholics today is not to oppose such people. “Anyone who is not against us is for us”.

            There remains the danger that essential truths may be sacrificed in a drive towards external unity, something we are made aware of in the Holy Father’s dealings with some of the Reformation churches. True ecumenism should originate in, and lead to, deep faith in Christ. It has to be aware of how many believers, sensitive to dangers to the faith, might be affected. These would be the “little ones” of the second part of today’s Gospel. It often requires tact to combine ecumenism and attention to how some of the faithful might perceive this.

            The readings give much thought for reflection, not just in general for one’s own particular circumstance. Ecumenism and interfaith relations in the broader sense are not just between Churches and other religions. Belief in God’s plan for our age means openness to a whole range of matters. It means dialogue with the world in which we live, all the while attentive that we do not endanger the faith of “the little ones”, or lose our own selves, our immortal souls, in the process.

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