September 27th 2015
Twenty Sixth Sunday of the Year
We rarely hear from the book of Numbers in the readings at mass; aside from New Year's Day, a reading from this important book only occurs today among all the Sundays in the three year cycle of the lectionary. In today's passage we hear a frustrated Moses trying to deal with overly-zealous followers who want to defend him, but who miss a deeper point that the wise Moses grasps.
Jealousy is the basic theme here. In the book of Numbers (so named because in it the tribes of Israel are numbered on two distinct occasions by means of a census (see Numbers 1-4 and 26)) Moses' chief aide Joshua is upset that two men, Eldad and Medad, were given the Spirit of the Lord and prophesy even though they had not come out to the "tent of meeting" to receive the Spirit as they were directed. Joshua seems to have interpreted their remaining behind as a sort of disrespect being shown to Moses, and he protests: "My lord, Moses, stop them!" (Numbers 11:28).
Moses was well aware that the men had not come out to the tent of meeting, but he does not bother to ascribe any ill motive to them; instead he responds in exasperation to his faithful but not yet well-seasoned aide: "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!" (Numbers 11:29). Here Moses shows the wisdom of: 1.) Letting God be God, deciding to whom he will give gifts; and 2.) Not being jealous of the gifts of others.
In the gospel a similar jealousy arises among the apostles when John runs up to Jesus and complains: "Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us!" (Mark 9:38). What this "someone" was doing was perfectly good, and he was doing it (driving out demons) in Jesus' name, underlining that his action was motivated by faith in Christ. Just like Moses, Jesus tells his would-be defenders not to be jealous of this person, and to let him go ahead using the gift God gave him, for "…whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40).
In the Jewish moral thought of our Lord's day jealousy was (and is today) seen as a sin of the gravest order since it takes umbrage at something good, and seeks to deprive another of this good that God made and freely bestowed upon a person. Catholic morality has always followed this good reasoning, teaching that to wish that a gift be taken from another if we cannot also have it is not only remarkably small of us, but it also opens us to a host of other evil intentions and jeopardizes our stewardship of the gifts that God has entrusted to us.
The Benedictine monk and Pope St. Gregory the Great once commented: "From jealousy there arise hatred, whispering, detraction, exultation at the misfortunes of a neighbour, and affliction at his prosperity" (Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iob xxxi, 45). We have all fallen into the trap of jealousy at times, often starting from a good motive as did Moses's aide Joshua and John the apostle. Worse yet, we are tempted to feel ill will toward those who have relationships or successes or possessions that we would like to have, and we are secretly happy to see them get their comeuppance. Following the advice of good Pope Gregory let us resolve anew to avoid jealousy in all its forms, rejoicing in the God whose Spirit blows where it wills, and whose true disciples always delight in his good gifts, wherever and in whomever they may be found. [617 words]