Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men stayed in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day, slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."
Often, under the influence of St Paul, we think of Moses as the man of the Law, the letter that kills, and not a man of the Spirit who gives life. But here in the Book of Numbers we see that the Spirit is upon him and that he generously shares his leadership with the seventy elders. Perhaps we can imagine them in a state of ecstasy, praising the God for leading his people through the desert. But Eldad and Medad are mavericks and they continue to cry out in prophecy inside the tent. It is as if the Spirit could not be controlled. Contrary to what we might expect, Moses, the man of Law, is delighted, and wishes that all God's people were prophets... or would "make a mess" as Pope Francis puts it. The behaviour of prophets always has something "scandalous" about it, and in this reading there is a progression from the licenced behaviour of the elders, to the unlicenced behaviour of the two mavericks, to the supremely scandalous declaration of Moses. Who would expect Moses to be a figure like Pope Francis? Perhaps the "Moses effect" is not a grim repressive legalism, after all, but an outburst of freedom, energy, and illumination. The Law of Moses is celebrated in the Psalms as light and life to those who follow it; the more it is followed the more it is loved; and it issues in the joy and freedom of a prophetic way, life that creatively follows the promptings of the Spirit. Jesus shows the same unconcern about borders: "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us." Many of Jesus's utterances, too, have an edge of scandal, due to the tolerance and boundless mercy that he upholds.
In contrast to this "good" kind of scandal there is evil scandal, and many people who are giving this evil scandal, undermining the faith of others, imagine that they are giving good scandal, or that they are prophets. The text about the millstone is often used today to attack pedophiles, but like all biblical texts it should rather be read as applying first and foremost to its hearer. Each one of us can be a stumbling block to the simple faithful and an evil influence on the young. We may be piling scandal on scandal without being aware of it. (We can also fail children by coldness and indifference, by avoiding them, and Jesus gives a counter-example to this by making much of every child he sees.)Determination in cutting off sources of scandal can be compared with the struggle to break an addiction. Today many people are addicted to their computers and smart phones. In the past people reached habitually for their prayer book or rosary beads and filled their spare moments with prayer. Now they check in to the internet first thing in the morning. Pope Francis expressed concern about this aspect of human ecology today, when he said, "You won't meet God sitting in front of your computer screen." How to cut off this scandal — this stumbling block to our spiritual progress? People fear to disconnect because of the news they will miss — but it is better to live in the present, even in ignorance of the latest news or the latest email, than to be fully in touch with everything and not to live at all. The generation of "digital natives," who actually live in the internet, are suffering from this epidemic of internet dependency, losing the powers of concentration and the habits of reading that are essential for academic progress. Adults should be giving them a good example in using the internet judiciously and ensuring that there is plenty of time for concentrated reading and for prayer. It is culpable frivolity to spend too much time on Facebook, Hotmail, and so on. But Jesus is not out to make us feel guilty, but to bring us alive; here and now as well as hereafter.
This passage contains the only reference to hell in Mark's Gospel, and it is a rather ferocious one. It may be doubted if threats of hell fire have had much good effect on human beings throughout history. Today our pastors play them down, as when Pope St John Paul II said that "faith obliges us to believe in the existence of hell, but hope obliges us to hope it is empty." The notes of universalism (the idea that all are saved) in St Paul, and in Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and others, underline that hell is not at the centre of the Christian faith. What is at the centre is that "God will be all in everyone" (1 Cor 15) and "There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1) and "God did not send his Son in order to judge the world but that the world would be saved through him" (Jn 3:17). "The possibility of final loss" (Rahner) is a shadow at the edge of the canvas, a dimension of conscience calling us to responsibility. Fear and anxiety are never the last word for Christians, for they can always turn to Christ in trusting faith and let him clothe them with the mantle of his righteousness. The Irish proverb that "the help of God is nearer than the door" applies first of all here, in our encounter with Jesus, Messiah and Saviour, welcomed in faith.
Traditionally, hospitality has had a high profile in the Middle East. Even to the present day, travellers testify to this and its commendation in the Bible in passim rather than passing. One only has to recall — in the context of the allusion to the drink of water in today's Gospel — the delightful story of Eleazer and Rebekah (Gen 24:15-26) and, of course, the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well. As a Christian virtue, hospitality received a new element from Jesus when he linked the guests with the home-base, or with those who sent them. Whoever receives one sent by Christ receives Christ himself and will be repaid accordingly. There is to be a sense in which God is in his Son and his Son is in the apostles and they, in turn, are in the Christians who are received — because of those who receive them. When this link is recognized, Jesus promises this particular kind or reward even to those who act without any thought of reward, such as those who give as little as a cup of water. One great difficulty with this brand of hospitality is that it cannot be practised on a pick-and-choose basis.
Most people find it relatively easy to be good hosts when they are safely on their own territory and are called upon to entertain a friend or, at least, a guest who enjoys some sort of entitlement to special consideration. It can be an entirely different matter to deal, for example, with people outside one's own circle, even those engaged in good work of one kind or another. We can get so wrapped up in our own organization or Church that a certain dynamic takes over, leading to a building up of barriers rather than bridges between ourselves and those seen to be a rival groupings, just as happened to Eldad and Medad or the freelance exorcist in today's readings. All of this can occur because we tend to have an unbalanced view of your own importance, or of the importance of being one of us, and forget that it is not just we who are involved in the serving of others or in being received by them; what is paramount is Christ's presence acting in us and being received by others in and through us. Those who cultivate a proper outlook in this regard are less likely to fall into the habit of always waiting for the big heroic occasion while neglecting the little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love, such as giving somebody a drink of water.
As members of our Church, we Catholics are not always enthusiastic about acknowledging the spread of God's Spirit in other Churches, in non-Christian Religions and, indeed, in every creature. It came as a shock to some of us when the Second Vatican Council recognized the presence of the Holy Spirit in the development of the Ecumenical Movement among the non-Roman Catholics. But, here again, there is a relevance for would-be-ecumenists, as well as others, in Christ's uncompromising stand vis-à-vis scandal, described in today's Gospel. The recognition of the presence of the Holy Spirit outside the Church does not mean we have to neglect it inside the Church or compromise on the doctrines taught by the Church under the guidance of that same Spirit.
More than once I have had the experience of walking along and then suddenly falling forward, having stubbed my foot against a slightly raised paving slab. Sometimes the very paving that is meant to help us walk safely can prove to be a stumbling-stone because they are out of alignment with what surrounds them. Part of our baptismal calling is to support each other in our response to the Lord's call. We need each other's example, encouragement and, sometimes, challenge, if we are to walk in the way, the Lord. Many of us will be able to think of people who are a support to us in the living of our baptismal calling. The saints have traditionally played that role in the history of the church. We look to them to show what it means to be the Lord's disciples; they can continue to speak to us across the centuries. People who are much closer to us in time and place may have done the same for us. They show us the Lord's way by living that way themselves. Yet, we are also aware that some people can lead us astray, inviting us to take paths that are not in keeping with our baptismal calling. They can become obstacles to us, tripping us up as we struggle to follow in the way, Christ.
In today's gospel, Jesus shows a strong awareness of these two possibilities. He speaks of the one who gives a cup of cold water to one of his followers and the one who is an obstacle to bring down one of his followers; the one who supports and the one who blocks. Jesus himself had experienced Peter, the leader of the twelve, as an obstacle. When Peter sought to dissuade Jesus from taking the path that God was asking him to take, because it would involve the cross, Jesus rebuked him with the words, 'You are a stumbling block to me' (Mt 16:23). The gospels suggest that Jesus' disciples proved to be stumbling blocks to others on more that one occasion. Mark tells us that when parents were trying to bring their children to Jesus that he might bless them, the disciples spoke sternly to the parents and tried to block the children from reaching Jesus. In today's gospel, we find Jesus' disciples trying to block someone from doing the Lord's work, just because he was not one of them. In response, Jesus rebukes them, 'Do not stop him—Anyone who is not against us is for us.'
Peter and the disciples meant well in all these cases. Even well-meaning people, it seems, can become obstacles to the Lord's work. We can all find ourselves in the role of the stumbling block without realizing it. Thinking that our way is the Lord's way, we can then proceed to try and impose that way on others. The disciples in today's gospel had to learn that their way was, in fact, a much narrower way than the Lord's way, and that their narrow perspective was an obstacle to the Lord's work getting done. Those they judged to be 'not one of us', Jesus regarded as 'for us.' In contrast to his disciples, Jesus was able to recognize and encourage goodness wherever he found it. He knew that the Spirit blows where it wills. He was alert to the signs of the Spirit's presence wherever he came across them. In the same way, Moses in the first reading recognized and rejoiced in the movement of the Spirit in the lives of Eldad and Medad, even though Joshua wanted Moses to stop them prophesying.
We all have a role to play in recognizing and supporting the working of the Spirit in each other. Towards the end of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul says, 'Do not quench the Spirit.' To quench the Holy Spirit in others is to become a stumbling block, an obstacle, to God's working in their lives. We can quench the Spirit in others and hinder the good work that God is doing through them for a whole variety of very human reasons. We can be motivated by jealousy, as Moses suggests Joshua was in today's first reading. Like the disciples, we can refuse to acknowledge God's good work in the lives of others because they are not 'one of us', because they belong to a different church or religion or ethnic group. We can be dismissive of the good someone else is doing simply because it is not the way we would have done it, forgetting that the Holy Spirit works in many diverse ways in people's lives. Living as we do in a culture that is awash with obstacles and stumbling stones to God's working in our lives, we who seek to be the Lord's followers need to ensure that we do not become stumbling stones for one another. The Lord looks to us to give the cup of cold water, to nurture what is good in each other, and to rejoice in the working of the Spirit in the lives of others.