27th September 2015
The first reading is from Numbers chapter 11, verses 25-29. The Book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch which is a name for the first five books of the Bible, called by the Jews, the Law. Probably largely put together in the 8th century BC, the Pentateuch has the pattern of the whole creative plan of God: it starts with creation then the failings of the human race, and so God choosing a group of humans for special attention to try to begin to recover the situation; this is followed by migration to Egypt and their being enslaved there; eventually they are rescued by God and, wandering through the desert for years are, supposedly, made into a better people, ready to enter the Promised land, a title which stands for the completing of God’s whole plan for the universe – not that it has worked itself out yet. The same pattern is poetically expressed in the poem at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis chapter 1). In the first reading the organisation of the group in the desert is developing – is developing problems; for there are some ‘unauthorised’ charismatic people playing a part in their emerging organisation; many think that the gift of God be limited to those at the head of the structure, but Moses, in our account, thinks not, but rather that the spirit should be on all.
From the reading from James (5:1-6) we get a glimpse of some of the problems with some of the people who count themselves as Christians. It is an easily understood passage, not unlike a lot of the messages in the books of the prophets and even in preaching to this day. Positively it is an encouragement to social justice – a message that is appreciated by the less well-off more than by the richer people; but it is they who are the real targets of the diatribe. The reference to “the murder of the righteous one”, which could well refer to the crucifixion of Jesus, but it might also apply to suppression of the talents of those who are innocent, which is partly the message of the gospel reading.
The gospel reading (Mark 9:38-48)1 brings together in an interesting way, two passages that at first seem quite disconnected, and includes a universal proverb. The first incident is very like the message of the first reading; it is about someone who has not been appointed to do so (to exercises a spiritual power), who is casting out a devil in Jesus’ name; and when the disciples complain to Jesus about this, He makes much the same judgment about it as did Moses in the book of Numbers in a somewhat similar case (in the first reading); He uses the proverb ‘who is not against us is for us;’ so Mark represents Jesus’ view as not seeing the followers of Jesus as an exclusive group, nor even one with a monopoly on doing good, and even using the power of His name. The second part of the reading is about scandalising a child, where it is quite possible that ‘child’ refers to a disciple or to an innocent enthusiast; if this is the case then it makes more sense in this context and even could link with the end of the reading from James. It goes on then to stress how radically we must act in order to rid ourselves of any evil we have.
1 In most translations nowadays verses 44 and 46 are left out. They were in most of the manuscripts used by scholars finalizing the verse numbering in the Greek New Testament of 1550, which was the basis of translations until last century. They are omitted now because they are not present in some of major new ancient documents more recently found and pre-dating nearly all other sources; one of these is called Codex Sinaiticus and the other codex Vaticanus; they were not discovered until later but are now viewable (in part) on line. Almost the same words as the two omitted verses are found however in verse 48 and are from the last verse of the Book of Isaiah: “and they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24).