Our Old Testament reading today is about two people, Eldad and Medad, who were prophesying to fellow Israelites without authority from Moses to do so. To prophesy in the Bible is not to predict the future but to speak in a way that conveys to others that what is being said is inspired by God. Hence, they preface their statements with ‘The Lord says this’ i.e this is what God wants you to know.
When Joshua discovered what these two men were doing, he complained to Moses and demanded that they be stopped. Moses refused but went on to say: “I wish the Lord would bestow this spirit of prophesy on everyone”.
Joshua wanted to have control over who did what in the community. He wished to exclude anyone from ministry who was not part of the official inner circle or leadership group. Moses, on the other hand, took a more tolerant and inclusive approach – he said that if these two people were doing God’s work, he just wished even more people would behave like them.
This incident complements a similar episode in today’s Gospel. This time it was the apostle John who, like Joshua, was part of an ‘inner circle’, in this case being one of the disciples appointed by Jesus. John was annoyed that some people outside this group were performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name without having been commissioned to do so. He asked Jesus to stop them but, just like Moses, Jesus refused and took a more tolerant approach, saying in so many words: ‘If he is healing people in my name, let him continue.”
These two incidents are examples of what can happen when the ‘insiders’, the select or elite core of any group, try to keep a tight control and restrict the activity of what they view as ‘outsiders’, people who don’t officially belong to their inner circle. In doing so they can unknowingly defeat the very ideal or reason for the group’s existence in the first place.
In Jesus’ case, he was happy for people to share in his ministry even if they did so without formal ‘licensing’ or approval. For him, the work of liberating and healing people was more important that who was doing it. Sharing in his service to humankind and doing the work of God could not be the preserve of ‘insiders’ only.
There’s an important message here for us in the Church now. The work of God is bigger than any of us and we cannot restrict it or confine the mission of Jesus to ourselves or ‘insiders’ alone.
It’s not so long ago when the Catholics viewed people of other religions as ‘outsiders’ because they did not belong to our Church. Many believed the dictum: “no salvation outside the (Catholic) Church” i.e. to get to heaven you had to be Catholic. Now, thanks to the Second Vatican Council, we understand and wholeheartedly accept that we don’t have a monopoly on God’s grace and that other Christians are fellow disciples of the same Lord and do tremendous work in His name. Just think of all those people we know who are not Catholic, may not even be Christian, but whose lives are full of kindness and help for others, sometimes putting us to shame by their generosity … The German theologian Karl Rahner once described them as ‘anonymous Christians’ i.e. they were unknowingly doing the work of Christ to which we all are called to share.
Speaking of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, we have to acknowledge that for far too long in its history, the ‘insiders’ in the Catholic Church have been the bishops and clergy, with the laity being the ‘outsiders’. Only those formally part of the clerical state – male and celibate – could fully share in the ministry of Jesus.
Now, and thanks again to the Second Vatican Council, we understand that that by virtue of our baptism all of us, laity and clergy, share in the priesthood of Christ and are called to share in his ministry. Everyone, not just the priest, is commissioned at baptism to do the Lord’s work. This ministry is no longer the privileged preserve of the clergy but is open to all and necessary to be done by all.
In the coming week, one of our priests ttakes responsibility for four parishes in Newcastle. Similar increasing workloads are becoming more common as the number of ordained priests decreases here and in Europe. A visiting lecturer here before the pandemic told us of a priest in Germany being responsible for more than 20 parishes.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then, God willing, the day may not be too far away when the opportunity to exercise ministerial priesthood in the Church will be open to more people. It may not bring an end to the culture of insiders and outsiders but it may be what the Lord is calling his Church to do.
Holy Name, Jesmond
26 September 2021