THE reading from Numbers and the Gospel go together today because they apparently pose the same problem and answer it in the same way. Should people who act apart from the body of the faithful be accepted, or prevented? The answer is that anyone who acts on the Lord’s behalf is on the Lord’s side. It is not stated whether their intentions in acting as they do are “correct” or “pure”, only that they are acceptable.
The message in Numbers needs some work to come across clearly. The complete text would not only be too long: it would force us to tackle two interwoven stories (one positive, one much more difficult) at once. That’s fine for people reflecting privately on the Sunday readings, but it’s a big ask in a ten-minute sermon.
In the second story (sidestepped by the lectionary), the Lord hears his people’s complaints about eating manna, and gives them meat to eat instead, “for a whole month — until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome” (11.19). This was because their complaining amounted to a failure of loyalty. They were given the bread of angels, but grumbled because they missed their Maccy Ds and KFCs. No wonder God was offended. His reaction made me think of the “Super Size Me” documentary of 2004, about the effects of a fast-food diet.
All this is tidied away, to highlight the story of Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp, instead of by the tent of meeting with everyone else. This, too, has its lesson: one more palatable than the food fiasco of verses 7-23. The fact that they are not doing the exact same thing in the exact same way as the rest of the elders turns out not to matter at all to God — nor to Moses, his wise prophet.
The fact that it did bother some people is still useful, though, because it reminds us how anxious we can become when other people don’t conform to our expectations of correct behaviour. It hints that the problem may be ours, not theirs. It also underlines how important the lesson is for the Church as an institution. She is every bit as divinely graced as the children of Israel, but also every bit as likely to go astray, misunderstanding messages and even, sometimes, shooting the messengers.
When we turn to the Gospel, it looks at first like a simple authentication of this truth. The disciples panic when they find someone from outside their group who was healing people in Jesus’s name. Then, Jesus reassures them: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” If that were not enough, we might refer to Luke 11.50, where Jesus gives exactly the same ruling on the matter.
But there is a problem, and it illustrates perfectly why proof-texting is not only dangerous but also misleading. In the very same chapter of Luke, at verse 23, Jesus had just said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” And Matthew had confirmed that teaching, too (12.30). The only safe way to interpret the words of Jesus is to look at each context that calls forth his teaching.
That reminder about the dangers of divorcing teachings from their context could not be more timely. It is immediately followed (in contrast with Numbers, here we are made to encounter the rough with the smooth) by some of Jesus’s hardest sayings. Cutting off hand or foot? Tearing out an eye? These are the actions of a person deranged with self-disgust and what we would call body dysmorphia.
Take the teaching literally, however, and we discover that it cannot be meant so: how can one eye offend without the other? Where one eye looks, the other eye looks, too (thanks to Origen for pointing this out). This is not an answer to what Jesus’s hard teaching here means. But it does narrow down the options by excluding what they cannot mean. And that is a start.
Challenging sin does not require us to mutilate ourselves or others. Saving those who lose their way, according to James (5.20), “covers a multitude of sins”. In 1 Peter 4.8, love does exactly the same. We could do worse than apply a (Rabbi Lionel) Blueism to this: “A righteous person looks after his own soul and other people’s bodies. A hypocrite looks after his own body and other people’s souls.”