Scripture and the Liturgy

Living as Prophet of God: 26th Week of OT

Sorry I never got the post up for last week, the 25th of Ordinary Time, but I’m posting early this week.

As always, if you’d like the complete collection of my commentaries in book form, Year B is available here, and Year C has just come out as well! Available here. Feast and Solemnities is also available, and we are working on editing Year A.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that we are baptized into Christ’s prophethood, but if you cornered any typical Catholic coming out of mass on a Sunday morning, they would vehemently deny having any prophetic gifts, because “I’m not Charismatic.” 

Well, the prophetic role of the Christian is not limited to people involved in the Charismatic Renewal.  The Readings for this mass are, in a sense, united by a theme of prophethood, discussing what it means to follow in the footsteps of Christ and his prophetic charism.

Our First Reading isNumbers 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!”

There are only a few times of the year that we read from the Book of Numbers, so I’d like to take advantage of this occasion to say something about this important book, which is one of the five Books of Moses or Books of the Law (Torah) that form the foundation of the Old Covenant and the Jewish faith.

The Book of Numbers is a little less neglected than Leviticus among modern Christian readers, if only because, unlike its predecessor, it combines its long lists of laws with a number of dramatic narratives about the rebellions of Israel against God in the wilderness, which create literary interest.  The name “Numbers” is, perhaps, already off-putting for the modern reader—it derives from the Septuagint name Arithmoi, “Numbers”, referring to the two numberings or censuses, one each of the first and second generations in the Wilderness, that form the pillars of the literary structure of the book in chs. 1 and 26.  The Hebrew name is bamidbar, “In the Wilderness,” which is an accurate description of the geographical and spiritual location of Israel throughout most of the narrative.

Numbers tells the history of God’s people under the economy of the renewed or “Second Sinai” covenant (Exod 34–Lev 27) as they journey through the wilderness to take possession of the Promised Land of Canaan.  Although the preparation of the nation to depart from Sinai goes smoothly (Num 1-10), the journey through the wilderness is a disaster, a nadir in the relationship between Israel and their God consisting of ten rebellions involving every element and sector of Israelite society.  The generation of the Exodus dies out in the wilderness, largely due to retributive plagues.  The second generation grows up in the wilderness, but the narratives implicate the second generation in some of the rebellions and cast serious doubt on whether there has been a significant change in the heart of God’s people (Numbers 25).  Nonetheless, the oracles of Balaam the foreign prophet (Num 22-24) and the laws that guarantee the inheritance of those who died in the wilderness (Num 26, 36) are clear literary indicators that there remains hope for Israel based not on their own merit but on the oath-bound promise of God.

The Book of Numbers functions theologically primarily as an example of the effects of original sin and of the limitations of the Old Covenant, illustrating St. Paul’s assertion that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and “none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10).  In Numbers, every element of the People of God—from the low-class rabble (Num 11:4), to the common people (14:1-2), to the tribal leaders (16:1), to Moses’ own brother and sister (12:1), to Moses himself (20:11-12)—demonstrates disobedience to God stemming from a lack of faith in his Word.  In response to their sin (Gal 3:19) the legislation of the renewed or Second Sinai covenant continues to be augmented throughout the book as a “restraint” to “confine” (cf. Gal 3:23) the people of Israel, but ultimately even the law is ineffective without an interior conversion wrought by the gift of the Spirit of God (Gal 4:6).

       In this respect, perhaps the most theologically pregnant statement in Numbers falls from Moses lips during the second rebellion after leaving Sinai, and constitutes our Reading for this Sunday.  In response to the report of Eldad and Medad prophesying outside the camp, he exclaims: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” (11:29).  He thus sums up the essential limitation of the Old Covenant—that it did not bestow the Spirit—and he looks forward to the New.  This same yearning is expressed quite clearly by Israel’s prophets: Isa 44:3; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:25-27; Ps 51:10-12.  The bestowal of the Spirit in the New Covenant will enable obedience to the law in a way not possible under the Old (Rom 8:4).  The bestowal of the Spirit will also constitute the people of God (Christians) as prophets, and this is why St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel at Pentecost:

Joel 2:28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30 “And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.

The prophet Joel is foreseeing the New Covenant, one in which the Spirit will be shared not just by a select few, but by every believer.  This is, in fact, what we believe as Catholics, that Baptism and Confirmation confer the Spirit and make us prophets like Christ (CCC §§904-907).  Why don’t we see much manifestation of this?  Because few know it, and those who do, don’t really believe it or act on it.  But Jesus’ own words in the Sermon on the Mount imply that we are made into prophets in the New Covenant.  At the conclusion of the Beatitudes, he says:

Matt. 5:11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The phrase “prophets who were before you,” implies that we are prophets, but there were prophets who were before us.  But notice the prophetic role is associated with persecution, as it always is.

Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14:

R. (9a) The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
the decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
R. The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true,
all of them just.
R. The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.
Though your servant is careful of them,
very diligent in keeping them,
yet who can detect failings?
Cleanse me from my unknown faults!
R. The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.
From wanton sin especially, restrain your servant;
let it not rule over me.
Then shall I be blameless and innocent
of serious sin.
R. The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.

This Psalm praises God for his Law, which at first strikes us as odd—because what does the Law have to do with our prophetic role?  Actually, quite a bit, because the ancient prophets meditated on God’s Law, and it was from the Law that they derived prophetic inspiration.

Without making a careful study of the matter, Julius Wellhausen, the extremely influential Old Testament scholar of the end of the nineteenth century, asserted that the biblical prophets were written before the biblical (i.e. Mosaic) Law,[1] and ever since then Old Testament scholarship has been trapped in this unworkable paradigm.  With the advent of modern intertextual studies in the 1990’s—aided immensely by computerized searching capabilities—it has become clear that Wellhausen’s position is indefensible.  The great prophets—especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but Isaiah and the Twelve as well—interact with and re-use the language of the Mosaic Torah constantly.  They were conversant with it, and it was, as it were, the threads from which they wove the tapestries of new prophecies. 

So meditation on the Law (or Word) of God is one of the first things we want to do if we desire to cultivate the prophetic charism that we have received in Baptism and Confirmation.

Another way to cultivate the prophetic charism is the elimination of sin from our lives, since sin is incompatible with the presence of God’s Spirit.  So the Psalmist prays:

From wanton sin especially, restrain your servant;
let it not rule over me.
Then shall I be blameless and innocent
of serious sin.

For this reason, the pursuit of holiness is not optional for any Christian, especially for the clergy, who engage in the explicitly prophetic act of preaching.  It is a mistake to think that one can preach effectively without leading a holy life, or at least striving earnestly to do so.

Our Second Reading is 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.

Here the Apostle James exercises a prophetic voice in calling the oppressive rich to account before the face of God. 

The lure of riches effects everyone, regardless of demographic or political persuasion.  I have seen right-wing riches, where folks consider their wealth the blessing of God and justified because they support all kinds of good causes (pro-life, pro-family), etc.  I’ve also seen left-wing riches, where folks live self-indulgently and feel fine doing so because they support a socialist political party that has generous assistance programs for the poor, and so they’ve done their part for the poor by voting for that party.  Hypocrisy and self-indulgence can be found among the social elite of every political persuasion.  James condemns it all.  The lifestyle of self-indulgence, especially when it comes at the expense of others, is contrary to the Gospel.  Wealth is necessary to do good, but the saints taught us how to have wealth without worshiping it.  St. Josemaria taught lay people to use their money well to care for their families, the poor, and the Church, while practicing a lifestyle of constant, unobtrusive self-denial.  Financial decisions, he said, always should be made as if one were “the father of a large and poor family.” 

The cultivation of a spirit and lifestyle of poverty is also characteristic of the prophetic calling.  I am writing a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls right now, and it is interesting the that Essene community that left us the scrolls practiced ascetical poverty.  They wore a single garment made of linen, ate very sparse, simple meals; and had all their property in common.  The historian Josephus writes that they were famous for producing prophets[2]—the only sect of the Jews that produced them, in fact.  The Old Testament prophets likewise lived in poverty, and the Essenes copied that way of life.  I believe John the Baptist was trained in this lifestyle, and then went public with his prophetic message of the repentance in anticipation of the Messiah.

Our Gospel is 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.

It is the name of Jesus, not a person’s personal qualities, that drives out demons—although at the same time, a person lacking in holiness ought not to attempt spiritual warfare! (Acts 19:13-17).  God does dispense his Spirit in places and ways outside his visible Body, and that is his sovereign will.  Here, we may liken this maverick exorcist to the modern Protestant who receives the gift of the Spirit even though he is separated from the visible Body of Christ. The Apostles are like the Church—visibly united to Christ and organized hierarchically.  Jesus tells us to be at peace with those who exercise charisms even though they are separate from the visible body.  They are, in a sense, “for us.”  If they are faithful to the gifts they have received, they will eventually seek union with the visible body.

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.

The “cup of cold water” is often used as a motif of Christian charity toward the poor, but the use of the motif in the Gospels is actually about kindness toward Christians motivated by love for Christ himself. Jesus promises blessing on those who are kind to his mystical body, the Church.

“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.

This message seems particularly poignant in a situation where members of the hierarchy have sinned against little ones and also encouraged them to sin, too.  The scandals are an obvious manifestation of this, but corrupt catechesis that has been going on for decades and generations is another.  Of course, the two are related.  The Church’s moral teaching is often rejected even by those entrusted with preaching and teaching it, and that fact manifests itself in their behavior.  “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” One’s teaching and preaching reflects the state of one’s heart, and rejection of moral truth in the heart cannot but manifest itself in one’s words, and actions as well.

It is truly scandalous how little effort is put into ensuring the quality of religious education in so many schools and parishes, even though Jesus warns that leading children into sin will be gravely judged by God himself, and that it would be better to die by drowning than have to face God with this sin on one’s conscience.  But we are an amazingly brazen people who will put forward our own opinions in place of those expressed in Scripture and the Church’s teaching.  Professional academics resist getting the mandatum from their local bishop, even though the mandatum does not technically require one to believe Church teaching, but simply not to put forward one’s own beliefs and tell the students that it represents Church teaching!  The mandatum just requires honesty about what Church teaching is and isn’t, and many professional academics will not even comply with that. God help us all. 

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.'”

Jesus uses strong language here to emphasize the need to fight against sin.  However, Jesus is not actually being hyperbolic.  It is not hyperbole to say that it is better to enter heaven maimed than to enter hell whole.  That is literally true.  And if one’s hand did cause one to sin, it would be better to cut it off.  Literally.  However, the hand and the eye and the foot do not cause one to sin.  It is the heart from which sin comes, “for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander; these are what defile a man …” (Mat 15:19).  This is why the Apostles and the Fathers did not maim themselves.  Not because they weren’t serious about fighting sin, but rather because cutting off one’s members would not do any good.  It would not lead to holiness, because it is the “heart” that needs to be trimmed (circumcised), not the body.

It is too be regretted that there is so little emphasis these days on the need to make sacrifices for the sake of avoiding sin.  To give one example, we as a people and culture pay no attention to the virtue of modesty, even within the Church, even though it is a necessary social support for a community that is seriously trying to live purity and chastity.  It does not support the communal efforts of other Christians to dress in a way that arouses sexual desire, and yet God help the person who speaks out about the need for modesty of dress.  That person will be attacked, slandered, and called all sorts of names. 

But Jesus’ teaching requires of us that we do whatever is necessary to “avoid the near occasion of sin,” as the traditional phrase goes.  That can mean practical matters like have a filtered internet, avoiding shows and movies that have salacious content, but also things like temperance in food and drink, even getting a proper amount of sleep so we are not lead into sins of anger because we are irritably tired. 

The ancient prophets led lives of self-denial in order to flee from sin and avoid its occasions.  Those in the religious life do so as well, but this is also a necessity for the laity, even though it can be harder for them since they cannot flee the world.  Nonetheless, the laity, too, are called to cultivate their prophetic role by avoiding sin and its occasions, and if they do this successfully, they gain insight into the will of God for themselves and for others, which is one of the prophetic gifts.  A holy priest came up with this list of things that lay people could practice to avoid sin and strive for holiness:

Sacrifices in food:


eat less;

eat less of what I like most;

eat more of what I like least;

skip some condiment such as salt, sugar, ketchup, cream. Not eat in between meals.

Hold off a few minutes before eating or drinking what is in front of me.

Not take sugar in drinks.

Sacrifices in rest:

Go to bed on time;

get up on time;

 skip naps.

Sacrifices in posture:

Sit up straight;

       Do not cross my legs;

Do not use the backrest.

Sacrifices in personal grooming:

Take a cool shower;

take a short shower;


keep use of the mirror to a minimum;

offer use of the bathroom to others before taking my turn; clean up afterwards.

Sacrifices in entertainment:

Limit TV watching or skip it altogether;

listen less to music;

Read more and better works;

Less use of internet or skip entirely.

Avoid using the internet without a clear, useful purpose; Eliminate web-surfing;

Cut back on email, the use of social media and the need to respond to others instantly;

Refrain from constantly checking emails and news.

Resolve not to look at porn or anything sexually appealing.

Avoid shopping without a definite purpose.

Try not to spend money.

Sacrifices in social settings and conversations:

Think ahead and bring up good tropics for conversations so as to avoid gossip and backbiting.

Give others a chance to speak and listen to them attentively.

Be courteous to other drivers.

Don’t speed.

Don’t disregard traffic signs.

Consult your spouse: offer to do him/her one favor each day.

Try to see the good in your spouse and compliment her/him more often;

Do the same household members, for brothers and sisters. Use a cheerful tone of voice.

Drop what you are doing to greet others in a friendly fashion.[3] 

[1] Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (trans. J. Sutherland Black and A. Menzies; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, repr. 2013 [orig. 1885]), 3-5.

[2] Josephus, The Jewish War 2.159.  See also Antiquities of the Jews, 13.311-313, 15.373-379; The Jewish War 1.78.

[3] From the unpublished writings of Fr. Rene Schatteman of The Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: