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Twenty-Sixth Sunday In Ordinary Time

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger


Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19:8,10, 12-13, 14; James 5:1-6; MARK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48 

The first reading is from the Book of Numbers. It is the fourth book or scroll of the Torah, or in our usual terminology, the Pentateuch. The English title, “Numbers,” is derived from a Greek translation, which was chosen as the name of the book because of the numbers cited in the cen-sus figures in chapters 1 and 26. Here is the background to the first reading. The setting is in the wilderness after the Exodus, during the decades of nomadic life following the Exodus. The Israelites engaged in what seems their favorite activity – murmuring, complaining. The Lord is fed up with their ingratitude. A fire breaks out and consumes one end of the camp. The people appeal to Moses and he appeals to the Lord, “and the fire died down.” Then another complaint. The people recall their wonderful diet in Egypt, all of which was no longer available.  “There is nothing but manna for us to look at,” ground up and made into pancakes. Not good! 

Even the Lord God was frustrated, and this worried Moses, since the fire in the camp was recent. He prays for help. He begins like we do not dare to begin, but this man was called  “a friend of God,” and had seen God face to face, Exodus 33:11. He could get by with this kind of daring. “Why do you treat me so badly? You load the burden of this whole people onto me, to me who did not give birth to them. I can’t do this alone anymore. Just kill me and be done with it! I wish I had not lived to experience such misery.” What a prayer! Shall we dare to imitate? The Lord listened to his friend Moses. “Gather seventy elders and scribes. Bring them to the Tent of Meeting (the presence of the Ark). Have them stand next to you there.” And so it was. In today’s reading the Lord takes some of the spirit of Moses and transfers it to the seventy elders, “and they prophesied.” Though two elders were not present, they received the same spiritual power. Joshua, Moses’ lieutenant, was concerned (envious?) about this. He brought his concern to Moses. Moses answer, “I wish all the people had that power!” As we hear today’s gospel, it will become evident why this reading was chosen to pair with this gospel.                       

The Responsorial Psalm (19) begins with a creation hymn which is not part of today’s response. It is, however, worth noting that this creation hymn contains a verse that some used to disprove Galileo’s then “theory” that the earth moved around the sun. The verse reads, “The sun comes forth like a bridegroom leaving the bridal chamber.” Therefore it was reasoned that the sun moves around the earth, and not vice versa as Galileo claimed. The second part of the Psalm is the response. It is a hymn in praise of the Torah (the laws of the Lord) and ends with a plea for forgiveness.  The Torah is said to be perfect, refreshing the soul. Admittedly much of it does re-fresh the soul, though not all of it. The Psalmist admits that even though some could do all those laws, it is possible to fall short of total observance. Therefore, “Cleanse me from my unknown faults.” 

The second reading is the fifth and last in a series of second readings from the Letter of James.

In this selection James criticizes some wealthy folks in his Christian synagogue. The reason for his anger – withholding of wages from workers who harvested the fields. “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord….” Would a pastor dare to speak the following in a homily on justice for the working people as he addresses a congregation? “You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure, fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.” He compares the offenders with the slayers of Jesus, “You have murdered the righteous one. He offers you no resistance.” He echoes Old Testament prophets condemning injustice to the poor.

This Sunday’s gospel begins with the only line the apostle John, son of Zebedee, speaks all by himself in the Gospel of Mark. “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow us.” Meaning: The unknown exorcist is not part of the ingroup. If we recall that Mark is writing his gospel about 70 A.D. as a book of in-struction for his congregation at that time, we must conclude that people outside the Christian churches were doing a form of Christian exorcism. Jesus gives his disciples a lesson in what today is called “ecumenism.” “Don’t stop the man! Anyone who performs a work of power in my name cannot at the same time speak ill of me.” Mark attaches an independent saying of Jesus to the effect that anyone who gives even a cup of water to a Christian will be rewarded. To which it could be added, “even if he is not a member of our Christian Catholic congregation.” 

Next catechesis in today’s gospel: scandal to “these little ones.” This can include children, but for the most part, when the gospels refer to “little ones,” they mean the people “in the pew,” the people without power, the folks Abraham Lincoln called “the little people, whom God must love  because he made so many of them.” The penalty for scandal is drastic: a millstone hung around the neck of the scandalizer who is then thrown into the sea. Are we here entering the realm of Old Testament penalties or Sharia law? Examples follow. If hand or foot or eye cause scandal, destroy those faculties of your body by cutting off or plucking out. For biblical literalists these sayings of Jesus are an unbearable cross. Yet few if any actually follow through on the cutting off or plucking out. How does one interpret these sayings attributed to the One who also says of himself, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart?” It is unlikely that Jesus encouraged physical mutilation. The probable meaning is that the greatest good for us is eternal life with God. Whatever keeps us from that goal should be expendable. In other words, we are asked to put forward our best efforts to avoid occasions of sin. No brutal mutilations!