Numbers 11:25-29: The LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses. Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, the LORD bestowed it on the seventy elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.
Now two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp. They too had been on the list, but had not gone out to the tent; yet the spirit came to rest on them also, and they prophesied in the camp. So, when a young man quickly told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, ” Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses’ aide, said, “Moses, my lord, stop them.” But Moses answered him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”
James 5:1-6: Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance.
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48: At that time, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”
In complementary ways, this week’s Old Testament and Gospel readings both underscore the possibility that God may be active outside the confines we presume, through people unaffiliated with our particular group.
The reading from Numbers occurs within the context of God’s provision of quail, in response to the Israelites’ complaints (Num 11:1-9, 18-24a, 31-35; cf. Exod 15:22—16:36). Burdened by the responsibility of leading such complainers, Moses laments to God (Num 11:10-15) and God responds with a solution: distributing God’s spirit among others, so that they might share in Moses’ leadership responsibilities (vv. 16-17, 24b-30). So God anoints seventy elders, chosen by Moses, which causes them to prophesy (vv. 24-25). As the text clarifies, this act of prophecy does not constitute prophets per se, but rather anoints the elders for the time (“But they did not prophesy again,” NRSV) as an act of divine authorization (on prophesy and leadership in the Old Testament, see 1 Sam 10:10-13; 19:20-24; also R.R. Wilson, “Early Israelite Prophecy,” Interpretation 32 : 3-16). While in actual occurrence the anointing of the seventy is arguably the bigger event, the narrative devotes far more attention to Eldad and Medad: two men back at the camp who were not among the 70 gathered at the Tent of Meeting (that they are “registered” [kethuvim] does not imply that they were originally selected by Moses in Num 11:24), but who nonetheless received God’s spirit and prophesied (vv. 16a, 24). This deviation from the original plan disturbs Joshua: “My lord Moses, stop them!” (v. 28). However, Moses squashes his servant’s enthusiasm at the idea with a rhetorical question—“Are you jealous for my sake?”—and rejoices at the news: “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” (v. 29).
The assigned reading from James (5:1-6) is a prophetic attack against the rich for the ways in which they have oppressed their employees (v.4) and destroyed “the righteous one”—either a representative righteous sufferer (see, e.g., Ps 140:12-13; Wis 2:12-20) or Jesus himself (see Acts 3:14; 7:52; 1 Pet 3:18; 1 John 2:1). James’s words are harsh to say the least, but they imply a word of hope for those in poverty (much like the Beatitudes, Matt 5:1-12) as well as an indirect exhortation to the wealthy to use their resources faithfully (see, e.g., 1 Tim 6:17-19).
Similar to Moses in Numbers, Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is alerted to the news that “we [disciples] saw someone driving out demons in your name” (Mark 9:38). In response, the disciples have earnestly sought (ekōluomen, the verb implies ongoing action) to stop the wonder-worker, since “he does not follow us” (emphasis mine). John the disciple’s concern seems not to be that this individual casts out demons, but that he is not one of the twelve originally commissioned by Jesus to do so (see Mark 6:7-13). John’s concern is legitimate, since Jesus’ earlier appointment of the twelve to carry on his work may not necessarily have applied to others. However, like Moses, Jesus silences his follower’s idea that what he observed is a bad thing: “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us” (9:39-40). Jesus uses language that he elsewhere uses to stop his disciples from turning away children (“do not stop/hinder him/them,” mē kōluete, Mark 10:14; see also 1 Cor 14:39). Jesus’ words in Mark 9:39 appear to contradict parallel statements in Matthew and Luke (“Those who are not with me are against me,” Matt 12:30; Luke 11:23), which also occur in the context of exorcisms. However, the parallel occurrences refer to those who criticize and oppose Jesus’ work, whereas the man in question in Mark 9:39 opposes Jesus in no way but rather carries on his work of exorcising in Jesus’ name. The interaction of Mark 9:38-41 concludes with Jesus emphasizing the virtue of those who support servants who bear Christ’s name (v. 41).
(Mark 9:42-50 forms a distinctive narrative unit, readable alongside but substantially different from the preceding passage, since vv. 42-50 deal with the faith of “these little ones” (v. 42), temptations to sin (vv. 43-48), and endurance through persecution (vv. 49-50). For the sake of focus, this commentary focuses on the first portion of the Gospel reading (Mark 9:38-41) and its resonance with the reading from Numbers.)
The readings from Numbers and Mark bear a common message: judge not before you discern the origin of the matter. Both readings feature faithful followers engaging in rash judgments (“My lord. . . , stop them!” Num 11:28; “we tried to stop him” Mark 9:38) that are ultimately foolish. In both cases, one can hardly blame Joshua and John for their concerns, likely aimed at guarding their leaders’ authority. Moses and Jesus, however, not only calm their followers’ fears, they welcome the news that others are carrying on their work with God’s sanction (Num 11:26, 29; Mark 9:38). These actions urge us to proceed with caution in passing judgments on moral, theological, and civic matters concerning which we do not yet have the full story. (In fact, if one reads v. 42 alongside vv. 38-41, then the severity of God’s displeasure on erroneous judgments is only heightened: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea,” Mark 9:42). Amidst the complexity, noise, and godlessness of our world, our faith oftentimes moves us to make necessary distinctions between the sacred and the secular (or evil), the selfless and the selfish, the wholesome and the emptying, the empowering and the debilitating, the constructive and the destructive, and the godly and the idolatrous—since such distinctions can enable us to know the motivations and goals of such forces. However, Numbers 11:25-29 and Mark 9:38-41 inspire us to look first for servants of Christ in these places, lest we pray “Lord, stop them!” without realizing the absurdity of the prayer.
The narratives from Numbers and Mark highlight the possibility that God may be active among people outside of our particular group. In both stories, little is known as to why God’s power comes to be active among the “outsiders.” Yet divine powers are at work through them, and authenticated by the work which results (prophesying, exorcising demons). At the same time, these stories do not condone acceptance of any and all supernatural forces that claim divine blessing. In both narratives the matters under scrutiny are accomplishing precisely what Jesus (or God) has generated among his chosen insiders—they are doing precisely the same thing. Even more, the manifestations in question bear distinctive signs of God’s presence: an anointing by God’s spirit (Num 11:26) and deeds of power in Christ’s name (Mark 9:38-39). Furthermore, Jesus’ words in Mark’s Gospel further clarify a trademark of those “not against us” but “for us”: they respect the authority of servants who bear Christ’s name, and aim to support their efforts (“whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ,” Mark 9:41). And so, while these two narratives underscore the importance of recognizing God’s work among outsiders, they do so about matters that bear authentic features of God’s presence and are clearly achieving Christ’s work. The question, then, is not whether a matter fits tradition or precedent, but rather whether it bears the stamp and heart of Christ: whether it is ultimately doing the work of Christ himself in our world.
If there is anything virtuous to be taken from Joshua’s and John’s examples, it is the importance of beginning with prayer. Whatever these servants’ initial reactions, they bring their concerns to their mentors, and in doing so bring the matters ultimately to God. And only in God’s presence is the character of a strange new matter truly discerned. The lesson is this: we do well to begin our own process of discernment not with hasty judgment, but with prayer and intentional listening to God’s servants. Whereas pride and fear motivate hasty judgments, humility motivates prayer and listening. And humility is the only disposition that is open to both change and to God. In prayer, our preconceived notions have opportunity to be reevaluated, lest we try our efforts for too long to stop things Jesus wishes us not to (Mark 9:38).
The Rev. Dr. Troy Troftgruben is a pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church (E.L.C.A.) in Grand Forks, ND, and an Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at the University of North Dakota.