‘Prophesy’ was an important aspect of religion both in the Jewish past and the early days of Christianity. Although a prophet is now thought of as one foretelling the future, the emphasis in Biblical prophecy is on speaking of God’s loving concern for humanity and a call to make the right response. Prophets speak both in warning and consolation.
‘Numbers’ may seem an odd name for a Bible book – it refers to the part describing a census of the Hebrews. The overall concern of the book, however, is to trace the institutions of Judaism back to the time of Moses. The setting is the period when the people wandered in the Sinai desert between the Exodus from Egypt and settling in the land of Canaan.
Today we see Moses sharing his office of prophecy with 70 elders chosen to help him guide the people. The ‘Tent’ (sometimes translated ‘Tabernacle’) was the shelter of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ that enshrined the books of the Law and served as their Temple while they lived a nomadic life in the desert. The Church has used the older word ‘tabernacle’ for the place in our Catholic churches where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, for that is the presence of Jesus with us as the Old Testament Tent represented the presence of God with his chosen people.
The two elders, who had stayed in the camp rather than outside at the Tent, also receive the spirit of prophecy. Joshua, who would be the successor to Moses as leader of the people, here seems to want to exercise control over who can prophesy. He did not understand that it is a gift of God’s freedom.
Psalm 18/19:8, 10, 12-14
The Psalmist praises the Law of the Lord and then makes a personal application, with humility but also with hope and trust. Our selection has omitted the last words of the Psalm, which are good ones to end prayer: ‘May the words of my mouth find favour, the whisperings of my heart, in your Presence, O Lord, my Rock and Redeemer.’
This is the last selection in the liturgy from the Letter of St James. Last week we heard the writer drawing on the Wisdom teachings of the Old Testament; this week he speaks in the prophetic tradition. Many of the Hebrew prophets had condemned the rich and reminded the people that God was on the side of the poor. This is a strong theme in James, and also is found in the gospels.
In prophecy there is always a ‘but if…’. Although the condemnation may be strongly worded, it is in the spirit of both the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus’ own words of accusation, that if one hears the warning and repents, God will accept their change of heart, and the threatened punishment turns to forgiveness.
James ‘prophesying’ can be seen as speaking to our own times with world-wide increasing poverty for some, but increasing wealth for a few. Pope Francis speaks in this same way, following in the prophetic tradition.
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-8
The disciples of Jesus, like Joshua, are concerned with control of God’s gifts, here the practice of exorcism. They think it should be reserved to those (among whom they must see themselves) known to be ‘one of us’. In using Jesus’ name, however, the exorcist would be expressing faith in him. Mary Healy says in her commentary: ‘Jesus is directing the disciples to take a stance of openness toward those who are not within the formal bounds of the Christian community and not to consider them foes.’ Outsiders are also commended for doing any good deed for the disciples in the spirit of Jesus.
Mark goes on to point out the opposite – doing harm – in some of the strongest words reported of Jesus, about the ‘little ones’ and anyone who persecutes them. This is followed by stark instructions stressing the seriousness of sin. Jesus often uses hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point, and Christians have not taken this literally and so do not mutilate their bodies. But while seeing this exaggeration, the point Jesus is making must not be forgotten: sin is more destructive than bodily harm for it separates one from God. The right response is to turn from sin and seek forgiveness.
The harm to ‘little ones’ is relevant today with the horrors being revealed of child abuse by priests.
The word translated in the liturgy as ‘hell’ is in the Greek, Gehenna. This was the name of the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem and like many such waste sites even now, there were fires to consume the trash, and worms as part of the natural recycling system. What ‘Gehenna’ suggests to me is not the idea of ‘hell’ as a literal place of torture by demons, but a comparison with sinfulness as a total ‘waste’ – nothing good comes of refusing to respond to God’s offer of love and forgiveness. We find a rubbish dump repulsive and sin should offend us in the same way.
Often the image of ‘fire’ in the Bible is one of purification, and so there could be a correspondence between Gehenna and what the Church calls ‘purgatory’.
An alternate opening prayer for today also expresses the transforming prayer of love and forgiveness:
‘Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in your unbounded mercy you have revealed the beauty of your power through your constant forgiveness of our sins. May the power of this love be in our hearts to bring your pardon and your kingdom to all we meet.’
The power of love carrying God’s pardon and bringing God’s Kingdom to others recalls the wish of Moses that ‘all could be prophets’. There are prophetic words spoken in our own time. And are we, too, to speak or act in ways that lead others to God?