The Book of Numbers describes the manner in which 70 proven elders were recruited to assist Moses in the governance of the people during Israel’s wandering in the desert. Moses was instructed to escort the elders to the tent of meeting. There, the Spirit of God came upon Moses, and a share of that Spirit was imparted to the assembled elders, anointing them to assist Moses.
The strange story in today’s reading from the Book of Numbers opens our eyes to discern the work of God beyond established structures. Eldad and Medad had not accompanied Moses to the tent of meeting and, in this sense, had not been anointed with the Spirit that came down upon Moses. Nevertheless, they began to prophesy, clearly to the annoyance of those who ran to complain to Moses. Even Joshua, the closest companion of Moses, joined in the chorus: “My Lord Moses, stop them.”
The response of Moses was, perhaps, unexpected: “Are you jealous on my account? If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets, and the Lord gave his Spirit to them all.”
Clearly Moses saw beyond the narrow horizons of those around him. In Eldad and Medad he saw the clear evidence of God’s Spirit at work. It is a cautionary tale that invites us, in our day, to acknowledge the goodness of God wherever it is to be found.
Mark’s Gospel describes a similar incident in the ministry of Jesus. The disciples closest to Jesus had been called to share in his ministry. They were therefore surprised when a stranger, not of their number, began to cast out devils in the name of Jesus. They immediately complained to Jesus, asking him to silence the stranger.
The Gospel does not elaborate on the reluctance of the disciples to accept this stranger, but we can speculate that they, like us, were threatened when the outsider seemed to shine with a light brighter than their own. The response invited them to discern God’s work beyond their safe horizons. “You must not stop him; no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.”
In a divided world the different denominations and faiths have a tendency to work within their own restricted communities. When we look beyond our narrow divisions we will see much that reflects the goodness and generosity of God. Let us begin both to acknowledge and learn from the virtue that is displayed by so many who do not belong to our particular Church or congregation.
A saying of Jesus for the instruction of his disciples followed this incident in Mark’s Gospel immediately. “If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward.” We have a tendency to think that the world is changed only by great and impressive works. Jesus was at pains to show us that what truly matters is the love that invests even the smallest of gestures. The very least of our actions can communicate the profound respect and reverence that Jesus brought to all.
The conclusion of the Gospel describes the scandal caused by our sinfulness in vivid language. “But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith, would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone round his neck.”
We often think of sin as a private affair. Jesus condemned it as the destruction of the kingdom he came to build.