ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Beware the One Book Mentality

NUMBERS 11:25-29
JAMES 5:1-6
MARK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Thomas Aquinas once remarked, “Beware the man of one book!” Narrowness, intolerance or living life according to only one book or point of view is as much an injustice to the person so trapped as it is against others. To live in such a parochial atmosphere wherein reality is interpreted from only one frame of reference is to willingly forfeit the richness and fullness which plurality and diversity afford to the human experience. To hold suspect and unorthodox that which is different simply because it is different is to choose to live a diminished existence. . . But who would think like this? Who would opt to be so cut off from others? The following anonymous piece offers a profile of such a person:

“When the other person acts that way, he’s obnoxious;
When you do it, it’s nerves.
When she is set in her ways, she is obstinate;
When you are, it’s just being firm.
When he doesn’t like your friends, he’s prejudiced;
When you don’t like his, you are simply showing good judgment of human nature;
When she tries to be accommodating, she’s polishing the apple;
When you do it, you’re using tact;
When he takes time to do things, he’s plodding and slow;
When you take forever, you’re being deliberate and careful.
When she finds fault, she’s cranky;
When you do, you’re discriminating.”

Each of the readings for today’s liturgy invites the gathered assembly to shatter this profile and shake itself free of its “one book mentality” by becoming more aware and appreciative of the Spirit of God at work in others, even in those we least expect.

Moses’ contemporaries (Numbers) were disinclined to accept those who had not been blessed with the Spirit in what they had already determined as the “standard operating procedure.” It would appear that the human tendency toward institutionalizing the power and presence of God is quite ancient. But, Moses, as God’s mediator, helped “the people of one book” to understand that the divine gifts could not be limited, controlled or relegated to only certain people. “God does not ration the gift of the Spirit” (John 3:34).

When the disciples (Mark) were similarly disturbed by the fact that someone, who was not of their company (or book), was healing in Jesus’ name, they too were challenged to expand their horizons. Jesus’ saving ministry was not confined to certain people but was inclusive of all; so also, the call to minister to others in Jesus’ name was not limited to only 12 men or even to 72 men. Rather, the invitation to proclaim the good news of salvation, in both word and work, was extended to anyone who would hear and respond to it “in Jesus’ name.”

In today’s second reading, James confronts intolerance on another level. There were some members of the late first century Christian community whose “one book” or primary concern in life was for adding to the wealth they had already acquired. Out of an overriding interest in the goods of this world, the rich were withholding the just wages of the poor; James castigated them for their lack of care and concern those who “were not on the same page” as they were.

James understood that the demands of the gospel required that every disciple be willing to take the time to read the “books” of other people so as to respect and appreciate their circumstances and do what was necessary to improve them.

Today, the contemporary community of believers is challenged by Moses, Mark and James to do likewise.

NUMBERS 11:25-29

Anyone who has ever made a trip with young children has probably heard their share of comments and questions like these: “Mom, he won’t sit on his side of the car!” “I’m bored!” “Can we stop for a snack?” “I don’t want hamburgers; I want pizza.” “Dad, she’s looking at me!” “Are we there yet?!?” Interestingly enough, chapter 11 of the book of Numbers is replete with similar complaints from discontended travellers.

A variant version of the wilderness trek, the Numbers narrative details the Israelites grumbling about food; they longed for the fish, meat, cucumbers, melons, leeks, garlic and onions that they had had while enslaved in Egypt (vv. 4-5). Ungratefully, they griped that they were tired of the manna (vv. 6-9). The trip itself had become wearisome and Israel expressed its annoyance at having left Egypt in the first place (vv. 18-20).

An easy target, Moses bore the brunt of his people’s anger; he, in turn, complained to God (vv. 11-15). When God lightened Moses’ burden by sharing his responsibilities among seventy elders, some people still found cause to criticize. The manner in which God commissioned their new leaders for service did not pass the muster of the people. Two of those upon whom God sent the Spirit, viz., Eldad and Medad, were not with the others who gathered at the tent of meeting (vv. 16, 24); they were on the list, but had remained in the camp. The fact that they too were endowed with the Spirit was judged irregular. Joshua objected and wanted them stopped but he and his contemporaries were to learn that the gifting of Eldad and Medad was a testimony to the utter unconventionality and freedom of God’s Spirit.

Moses helped Joshua to understand that the sharing of the Spirit in no way diminished Moses’ authority. His prayer, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow the Spirit on them all!” (v. 29), was intended to alert his contemporaries (and us) to the fact that the Spirit is not confined to certain persons or restricted by human protocol. Blowing where it willed and empowering whom it would, the Spirit of God would continue to surprise humankind and to challenge finite, and sometimes narrow minds to open themselves to the universal scope of God’s saving plan.

Later in the course of its history, Israel would witness more instances of the Spirit’s unpredictability. David, the youngest son of Jesse and a mere shepherd boy would be empowered by the Spirit to serve as king of his people (1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 23:2). Prophets, both traditional (e.g. Isaiah, Micah, etc.) and untraditional (Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.) were moved by the Spirit to keep their people attuned to God. Ever present, ever surprising the Spirit continues to be manifested, not according to predetermined human criteria and expectations but in accordance with God’s ways and will.

If the message of this Numbers’ pericope were to be contemporized and if Moses words (v. 29) are to be taken seriously, then perhaps Christians are being challenged to recognize the Spirit at work among Jews and adherents of Islam. Buddhists are similarly alerted to the Spirit as it moves among Hindus. Even the various rites and denominations of Christians, Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. etc. are called to mutually appreciate and revere the presence of the Spirit shared among us all. Only when we recognize that the Spirit moves within all who believe will each of us be able to work together toward that unity which only the Spirit can achieve.

JAMES 5:1-6

Someone once told the following story as an illustration of the difference between charity and social justice: A huge boulder rolled down a mountain and landed in the middle of a narrow, curving roadway. An approaching car rounded the turn and crashed into the boulder. Families living nearby rushed to rescue the injured passengers, brought them into their own homes and tended to them until they were well. That’s charity. Not too many weeks later, another unwitting vehicle collided with the boulder and the families took them in and cared for them also. That’s charity. Within a month, still another carload of travellers hit the boulder. After seeing to the needs of the accident victims, the people in the area got together to decide how to get rid of the boulder. That’s social justice.

When James, in today’s second reading, called upon the rich to attend to the needs of the poor, he was not recommending charity; he was demanding social justice. He was not pleading with the wealthy to dip into their surplus in order to throw a few crumbs to the needy. James charged the rich to give the poor what was their due on two counts. First, as members of the same community, all were, therefore, responsible for the well-being of one another. If one was in need, those who had the means to help were bound, by the Christian law of love, to do so. Second, that which was being withheld from the poor were their just wages. To refuse to pay the farmhands who had harvested the fields was not only an injustice but it was an affront to God who is ever alert to the cries of the poor.

James’ concern for the poor and his charges against the unjust wealthy of society followed the precedent set centuries before by other scriptural authors. Similar condemnations can be found in Deuteronomy (24:14-15), Leviticus (19:13), Amos (5:11; 8:4-7), Isaiah (5:8), Jeremiah (22:13), Malachi (3:5), Proverbs (3:27-28), Tobit (4:14), Ecclesiasticus (34:22), Wisdom (2:6-12), etc. etc. As William Barclay (“James”, The Daily Study Bible, The St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1976) observed, there is no book in any other literature which speaks so explosively of social justice as the Bible, nor any book that has proved so powerful a social dynamic. Wealth per se is not condemned in scripture but there is no book which more strenuously insists on wealth’s responsibility and on the perils which surround a person who is abundantly blessed with this world’s goods (see Luke 6:24; 18:24; 1 Timothy 6:9-10).

If James did not command the attention of his readers by his appeal for social justice, they may have been persuaded by his harsh warnings (vv. 1-3). There were three main sources of wealth in the ancient world, viz., garments (fine wardrobe, v.2), gold and silver (v.3). In the last days, threatened James, each of these will rot away, leaving those who have made these the source of their security and happiness, empty and alone. The fact that gold and silver do not actually corrode did not pertub the ancient author. His warning remained clear and unmistakeable; even the most precious and seemingly indestructible material possessions will be of no consequence in the end. Therefore the focus of the believer must be upon those qualities and virtues that will see him/her through the final reckoning, viz., what did I do for God’s least ones; was the love of God reflected in my life. Was I charitable? . . . And, just as important, was I just?

MARK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Whether they were conscious of it or not, it seems that Jesus’ disciples had already developed an agenda or fixed plan of action. The fact that the man, who was expelling demons, was not on their agenda is evidenced in their attitude toward him. He didn’t seem to be playing by their rules; he was not of their company. His name was not in their “one book”. They wanted him stopped. Jesus’ response to their objections set forth a new principle: “anyone who is not against us in with us.” By means of this principle, Jesus challenged his disciples to develop an attitude of acceptance toward those who were different and toward those whom they failed to understand. The fact that the stranger was healing in the name of Jesus (v. 38) was sufficient to make him welcome among them.

At first glance, the episode about the strange exorcist may seem disconnected with the remainder of today’s gospel. Actually, there are four distinct elements in this pericope with no evident thematic relation among them; rather, the connection is a verbal one. The narrative regarding the exorcist is connected to the text which precedes it (Mark 9:35-37) and with the text that follows it (v. 41) by the catchword en onomati or “in my name.”

The series of sayings which comprise the rest of this pericope (vv. 42-43, 47-48) are also verbally related to one another by the catchword skandalizo which means scandal, stumbling block, or the act of causing another person to sin. Each of the sayings is concerned with the danger of sin and the need to avoid sin and all the occasions thereof regardless of the cost. Death, even death by drowning, a Roman practice which was abhorrent to the Jews (v. 42), was a preferable alternative to scandal. Obviously, the harsh semitic expression about physical mutilation (cutting off hand, foot; plucking out eye, vv. 43-45) was not intended to be taken literally. If it were, then most of the world be required to go through life blind and maimed. The intent of this semitism was to underscore, in the most forceful possible manner, the necessity of avoiding sin.

Gehenna has become a metaphor for the fiery torment and eternal punishment of the wicked. The metaphor gave rise to countless artistic and literary works through the centuries, one of the most memorable of these being Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In this, the Italian poet’s greatest work, the reader is led on an imaginary trip through hell, purgatory and paradise. No doubt, many of our contemporary images of the afterlife have been fueled by Dante’s metaphorical journey.

These images notwithstanding, the metaphor did have a basis in reality. Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnon was located south of the city of Jerusalem. There, Ahaz resorted to idolatry and burned his sons and an offering to the pagan god, Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3). Manasseh followed suit (2 Chronicles 33:6) and the valley became synonymous with sin and evil. When Judah’s great reformer, Josiah, became king, he put an end to human sacrifice and declared the site unclean (2 Kings 23:10). Thereafter Gehenna served as a dump where the city’s refuse was burned. A loathesome place of vermin and endlessly smouldering fires, Gehenna became an omen of dread against the faithless (Isaiah 66:24) and a smelly, smoky warning to sinners.

Centuries after Jesus so described what we have come to call hell, Jean Paul Sartre, the French existentialist declared: “L’Enfer, c’est les autres! Hell is others!” (No Exit, 1944). But, human experience has proven the falsity in this statement, time and time again. Hell is not other people. Hell is the person of only one book. Hell is me, alienated from others, and, from God.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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