Reading Ramblings – September 27, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 27, 2015

Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:1-20; Mark 9:38-50

Context: The issues of sin and power and ego are on display in the readings for this week. We are prone to want to protect our power or our contributions, and to edge out others who might want to contribute in a similar way. We see power as a limited quality that we can have only if others don’t have it. But this is not the way God’s power works. It does not diminish me when someone else is gifted by the Holy Spirit! Rather, it builds both of us up.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 – The chopped-up nature of the reading is an effort to keep the reading somewhat short and focused on the issue of the people’s complaints and God’s response. Extraneous material has been left out of the assigned reading to make it more concise. However the choice of verses is interesting because the preliminary issue – the people’s unhappiness with manna and their desire for meat – isn’t addressed in these verses, but in verses 31-35. Instead this reading emphasizes God’s response in the granting of his Spirit to the 70 elders. The people of Israel aren’t the only ones complaining – Moses is complaining as well and God’s solution is to grant his Holy Spirit to the elders to assist Moses in governing the people. In case we think that this is something that Moses might be less than thrilled about, that he might view as a demotion or a lessening of his authority, Moses sets us right. He acknowledges this as a blessing from God, a blessing that could only be improved if it were more broadly disseminated!

Psalm 104:27-35 – We pick up towards the end of the psalm, where God is praised for giving food and sustenance to the creatures listed in verses 1-26. Grass grows for livestock (v.14) and the birds of the air nest in the trees (v.17). But the source of all these blessings is not simply the reality of creation, but the God behind it. God has not simply set things in motion, He actively sustains all things. He is actively the cause of the seasons and the rains and the food that fills the stomachs of his creatures. Likewise, God determines the time of their death. Nothing is beyond our Creator’s care. As such, verses 31-35 are rightfully a call to praise this Creator and Sustainer. Not only will He continue to provide for his creation, He will be the cause of evil and sin’s departure from creation, of the restoration of creation to the perfection in which He first called it into being. Verses 27-30 fit nicely with the Old Testament account of God’s provision for his complaining people, and verses 31-35 are the appropriate response, contrasted with the response of Israel in the wilderness.

James 5:1-20 – The first twelve verses are optional for this reading, but it makes sense to go ahead and include them in the spirit of the lectio continua that the Epistle lesson is intended for during this time of the liturgical calendar. Here James warns those who are blessed with riches, for those riches can be a snare that leads their hearts away from God and could lead them to do terrible things, including the murder of righteous persons. One might think of the story of Naboth and King Ahab in 1 Kings 21, and how King Ahab (or more accurately, Queen Jezebel) had Naboth falsely accused and executed for the king’s gain. James’ exhortation to Christians who face such predatory practices is to set their eyes on the coming of the Lord. We are not called to take our salvation into our own hands – a difficult thing for Americans to consider! We are not even to grumble – rather, we are to wait on the one who will vindicate and restore not just our reputation but our lives from the grave. As such, there is no need to resort to extraordinary measures. We simply answer yes or no, trusting ultimately in the God who created and redeemed us.

The second half of the chapter has to do with prayer and sickness and faith. Anointing with oil was a medicinal practice in the first century, so we would do well not to interpret any special spiritual significance. In other words, do what you can for the one who is suffering from illness and pray for them as well. The prayer of faith will indeed save the one who is sick – save, not necessarily cure. Rather, the prayer of faith results in our forgiveness so that God raises us up from the grave on the day of our Lord. We are to take prayer seriously, for God responds to prayer. Likewise sin has devastating power in our lives and even over our health, James intimates. We must take it seriously, dealing with it in confession and absolution and prayer. In this process, if someone has wandered, no longer considers the sin in their lives something to worry about, it is the duty of their brothers and sisters in the faith to call them back to the truth. We dare not commend people in their sin, for their health today and their eternal life is at stake. Rather, we speak the truth in love, with the desire for repentance and restoration of that brother or sister.

Mark 9:38-50 – Once again the issue of pride is at play, with the disciples worried about others exhibiting power in Jesus’ name without being his direct followers. As such, the disciples are similar to Joshua, concerned that Eldad and Medad were prophesying inappropriately. In both cases the concern is unwarranted. Power comes from God, and He will best determine who utilizes it and towards what ends.

But what about the reverse? What if the issue is not the exhibiting of God’s power to heal or drive out demons in another person, but rather leading that other person into sin? This is a serious situation indeed, and one the Christian must take seriously. Sin is real and dangerous, as James hinted at. And causing someone else to fall away from the faith is something that places us in very real danger before God, who created that other person as well as ourselves. Is Jesus serious with his talk of self-mutilation? Most scholars are quick to claim no. But perhaps it would do well for us to consider, if only briefly, whether perhaps Jesus might be speaking more literally than we would like to think. If we thought the natural consequence of a repeated sin was to lose a hand or a foot, we might concentrate more emphatically on fighting that sin!

Jesus’ disciples are worried about the possible sin of others using Jesus’ name and power, but Jesus instead calls them to self-examination. In this process of examining their own hearts, confessing their own sins, receiving God’s forgiveness, they will tend to deal with the sin in others in a more loving way. Not that the goal is to soft-peddle the issue of sin, but rather to ensure that when we confront one another with our sins, it is truly for the good of the other person and not for selfish ambition or vain conceit. Only the one who is all too aware of her own sin can truly love her neighbor in restoring him from sin. So it is that Jesus begins with the seriousness of sin and ends with the issue of peace with one another. It sounds like an odd jump at the very end, but this has been Jesus’ goal since v.33 and the disciples arguing among themselves. They go from squabbling among themselves to wanting to squabble with others. In both cases the issue should be personal repentance rather than argument.

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