The Scriptures for today remind us that the ways of the Lord are far beyond our knowledge and understanding. God has a vision for the world and for our lives that surpasses our human perception. Most of us would like to believe that we are open to God’s will. We do not think of ourselves as opposing God. However, we do not see the whole picture. The Scriptures today warn us of a way we may be setting ourselves in opposition to God: when we do not accept his work in other people. It is easy for us to take on an attitude of closed-mindedness. When that happens, we are not fully open to God; we act as though he cannot work in certain people or groups.
In the Gospel, the Apostles have encountered a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name. He is not one of the Twelve, nor of the larger company of Jesus’ disciples, and because of this, John reacts negatively. “We tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” We might think that the disciples would be happy to have more help in the battle against demons! It is interesting to note that in telling Jesus about this incident, John says, “he does not follow us.” He could have said, “he does not follow you.” This indicates that John has an “us vs. them” mentality. The man who was driving out demons in Jesus’ name is not part of the “inner circle,” and John believes that only insiders should be allowed to do the work of the Lord.
In the first reading, taken from the Book of Numbers, there is a similar situation. God gives his Spirit to the seventy elders who are in the tent of meeting with Moses. However, two of the men who had been on the list did not go out to the tent; they remained in the camp. Still, God bestows his Spirit on them too, and because of the gift of the Spirit, they are now prophesying. Joshua asks Moses to stop them.
Why do both John and Joshua react so negatively to the good work of an “outsider”? They are being narrow-minded and possessive. While they are dedicated to serving the Lord themselves, they are closed to his work in others. Perhaps they are afraid of losing their privileged place, a fear that leads to jealousy. It seems that they feel threatened because some part of the work of God is outside their control. They act as if they want to be in control, not only of outsiders, but even of God himself!
If we are totally honest, we can recognize similar reactions of jealousy and insecurity in ourselves. We are not so different from John and Joshua. We need only ask ourselves what our reaction is when we see someone excel at some good work that we do not do as well. Are we genuinely happy for them? Do we congratulate them? Or do we cling to our pride and refuse to admit our own insecurity and jealousy? Competition is good when it is healthy and moves everyone to excel. But sometimes we are more interested in stopping others from doing well than in making any progress ourselves. This mentality not only opposes the success of others, it opposes the work of God.
What is the solution to this destructive way of thinking? Today’s readings provide us with some answers. We must put aside our narrowness and recognize and accept the will of God, even when it is manifested by “outsiders.” When others are blessed by God, our hearts should echo the response of Moses: “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” Jesus tells us not to prevent those who are serving in his name, “for whoever is not against us is for us.”
Jesus also speaks of the grave spiritual harm that is caused by scandal. He stresses the importance of doing everything possible to cut sin out of our lives and out of the witness we give to others. When he speaks of plucking out eyes and cutting off hands and feet, we are not to take it literally. He is simply emphasizing the point that to live the virtues, rigorous measures must be taken. We do not have to cut off body parts, but we must cut off our jealousy and prejudice. Otherwise, on the day of judgment, we will find that we have clung to what is worthless and squandered what is precious. St. James makes a similar warning in the second reading, where he tells us that a life of self-indulgence only fattens our hearts “for the day of slaughter.” In other words, if we fail to cut sin out of our lives, we bring about our own destruction.
We need God’s grace to make a change of heart. The good news is that his grace is available in abundance! When we cooperate with his mercy, God replaces our sinful, selfish hearts with hearts of love. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze 36:26). This is the marvelous work God is doing all the time, in every situation, in us and in everyone else. Let us pray for the grace of an open mind and an open heart, to recognize his work and to unite ourselves with his will above all else.
In what ways am I narrow-minded and possessive of the gifts that I have been given? How do I react when I see someone excel at something that I did not excel in? What rigorous measures am I taking to live a life of virtue?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.