I got a little lazy with my posting and no one called me out on it. I suppose the greater fault is mine. I’m going to try to do better. Anyway, here’s a pretty close approximation of my homily from this past Sunday. You can find the readings right here.
It’s not often we hear from the Book of Numbers during a Sunday Mass. For that matter, we don’t often hear from it at a weekday Mass. And I’m willing to bet that those of you in the habit of reading Scripture daily (a good habit to have, I might add) didn’t start with Numbers…and you’re probably in no hurry to get there. (Unless, perhaps, you’re an accounting major. But man, are you gonna be disappointed.)
So since we hear from it so rarely, it seems like a good place to start our reflection today. Let me try to give some context to what is going on in the reading. Moses and the Israelites have escaped from the hands of Pharoah and the Egyptians. They’re on the march to the Promised Land, BUT…they screwed up along the way. They sinned against God. And so, as a matter of Justice, they need to be punished. And the punishment is that it’s going to take 40 years of wandering in the desert before they get to enter into what they’ve been promised.
As you can imagine, they are not particularly enthusiastic about this turn of events. And so there is no little whining, and grumbling, and complaining, and just about open rebellion against Moses. Moses is DONE. He’s had enough. He can’t deal with it anymore, so he cries out to God with a prayer we’ve all made before: “Why are you doing this to me? I didn’t do anything to you! I’m doing exactly what you’ve asked! I can’t handle this. I need help! This is too much!” Part of me wants to be sympathetic towards Moses, since we’ve all been there, too. The other part of me (that is to say, the hypocritical part of me) has no sympathy whatsoever for him. If God called you to do His work, then you do His work, snowflake. He’ll get you through this.
Luckily for all of us, God is merciful; so He says to Moses, “Pray about this, then set aside 70 men from the camp that you know to be good people. Get 70 guys that you know follow the law, that respect you and Me, and that have the respect of the people. Then bring them to the Tabernacle, the place where I dwell, and I will come and speak to you there. Not only will they be witnesses to that, but I will take some of the spirit that dwells on you, and I will pour it out upon them as well, so that they might assist you in your ministry.” And that’s where we find ourselves in today’s reading, and that’s where things start to get interesting.
The group goes to the Tabernacle, and the spirit is given them, and the reading reports that the men began to prophesy. That’s the first point that needs clarification. When it says that they began to prophesy, it does not mean that in the sense that we generally think of when we think of prophets. At least, not for me. They didn’t start to make predictions about future events. Rather, this was more a charismatic or ecstatic sort of moment, where they start speaking with enraptured enthusiasm. The spirit moved them way outside of their comfort zone and they boldly spoke about and proclaimed God’s love for them and their love for Him, and of their confidence in the promises He made them, and so on and so forth. But then a funny thing happens, one that’s recorded in Scripture, but not included in the lectionary for today.
They stopped prophesying. It seems that this was a one-time gift, and after prophesying for as while, they stopped and went back to their normal lives. I imagine that was a little bit frustrating for them, too. They receive this great spiritual gift, but it only lasts a short time. I wonder if it made them doubt the veracity of their calling. I think this, too, is something we’ve often experienced. If you’ve ever been on a retreat, or a service experience, you’ve probably noticed that as the weekend or week or whatever it is goes on, you find yourself moving into a deeper place spiritually. You’re praying more, you’re seeing God more clearly in the people you’re working with and for, and the best part: you’re not distracted by all the normal day-to-day stuff of your life. When you come back from that time away, you feel awesome and you want to keep feeling that way, and you want to capture it and live it, but it starts to slip away. And then life starts to creep in and take it’s place. and you go right back to feeling how you felt before and you wonder if God only loves you when you’re on retreat. That is, of course, a patently ridiculous thought and you know it, but it happens. The retreat was to serve as a reminder of how much God loves you and was to serve as an opportunity to hear a little more clearly what he is calling you to, so that when you get back to life, you can do it. This prophetic moment for the 70 elders had a similar purpose in their lives. It was also a manifestation of their call to the people of the camp. In a very visible and tangible way, it was evident that God had indeed called them to work with Moses and that He really had poured on His spirit upon them; thus, the people should trust them, respect them, and listen to them.
While all that is going on, there’s still another half of this drama to play out. It’s not happening at the Tabernacle, but back in the camp itself. We hear of two men, Eldad and Medad, who have the distinction of having two of the cooler names in the Old Testament. They were also on the list to be at the Tabernacle, but for some unknown reason, weren’t there. Theories as to why that was abound. Some say it was a simple mistake; that the camp was too big and they didn’t get the message in time. I doubt that. Another idea is that they were men of great humility and ddin’t feel worthy to be included in the group, so they felt it wiser to stay away. But as they say, leadership finds you, not the other way around. Perhaps they didn’t go out of spite: Moses is the one that got us lost in this desert in the first place; I’m not going to do what he tells me. I think they didn’t go because they didn’t feel like part of the community. They didn’t feel like they were truly wanted, so why should they respond to the chance to be leaders? While it’s true we know very little about Eldad and Medad beyond this story, we know this much: those aren’t Jewish names. These two are foreigners. However they came to be part of the community, however much they might have learned about the Law and the Covenant…they’re still outsiders. And perhaps they were made to know it. And that made it too uncomfortable for them to go to the Tabernacle.
God would not be outdone, however. And so he pour out His spirit on Eldad and Medad anyway, and they also prophesy…and the difference is that their prophesy doesn’t stop. They stay in that state, which has a pretty dramatic impact on the people. It also upsets some of the people, too, and the report quickly reaches Moses that this is going on. Joshua says what a lot of them are thinking: “Moses, you have to stop them! They’re not doing things the way I expected them to be done, and it should all be done my way. Make them stop!” But Moses has a much more practical view of things. He essentially asks Joshua if he knows more than God does. If God wants to pour His spirit upon these two, if God wants to give them a different style of prophesy, then isn’t He will within His rights to do so? In fact, Moses says, wouldn’t it be great if ALL the people were prophets? If the spirit dwelt on all of us in such a way? If we were all so bold in proclaiming God’s love and promises? What could we accomplish then?
That’s something for all of us to consider, I think. Especially in light of our baptism, wherein we were baptized the same way Christ Himself was, as priest, prophet, and king. As priests, we are to do the work of making ourselves and those around us holy. As prophets, we are to proclaim the good news to everyone that we meet, through either words or deeds or both. And as kings, we are to lead people to Christ, the fullness of Truth. But it’s our prophetic vocation the Church wants us to consider today, and it seems to me that the most important question to consider is how often do we try to pretend that it doesn’t exist? How resistant are we to the notion that God wants us to be bold in proclaiming the faith? A corollary: how often do we try to squelch that vocation in others, because it makes us feel uncomfortable?
I’m willing to bet that, if we’re being honest, the answer to both of those questions is that we do it far too often. Jesus takes a decidedly dim view of folks that do that in today’s Gospel: anyone that would cause scandal, well, it would be better for that person to have a great millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea. That’s not just a random image, either; that was a method of execution that the Romans would occasionally use in those times. Jesus is very serious when He says that it is abhorrent to lead someone into sin…and failing to live out our call as prophets qualifies.
The world needs prophets these days. It needs to know that God is love, and that God loves them, and that God desires to have a relationship with all of mankind. Luckily, the world has prophets. It has all of us. Let us not resist the call to serve as prophets, and let’s not waste time worrying about how someone else might do it a little differently than we might. Now is the time to be prophets, and we are about to receive the one thing that gives us the strength to do that – the Eucharist. Let us pray for the grace and the courage to be prophets, and then let us be about the work of building up the Kingdom of God on earth, so that one day we can be happy with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.