Today’s first reading comes from the little-read but fascinating Book of Numbers. This book got its title from the fact that a census of the people of Israel is taken twice during the book’s narrative, but it includes much more than routine head counts. Numbers features colorful accounts of a talking donkey (22:22-35), a bronze serpent which has healing powers (21:6-9), manna from heaven (11:1-9), an exciting military reconnaissance mission (13:1-33), divine anger manifested through leprosy (12:10-16), sinkholes swallowing people alive (16:25-34), and divine fire consuming the rebellious Israelites (16:16-24, 35).
Jesus himself refers to Numbers twice in his preaching, when he speaks of the bronze serpent in the Gospel of John (John 3:14-15; cf. Num 21:6-9) and when he warns his disciples against false oaths during his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:33; cf. Num 30:3). We can likely all sympathize with today’s teaching from Numbers, for, although it is very serious, it may remind us of events of our childhood when we first encountered a tattletale.
We hear the story of two Israelites who are moved by the Spirit to praise God through prophecy, but Joshua—a key figure in the Bible but at this point not yet experienced in life—runs to complain about them to Moses: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp … Moses, my lord, stop them!” Joshua is zealous for the Lord and wants to defend the integrity of the Lord’s actions among the people of Israel, but he does not realize that God will not be confined by human understandings of what is right or of the way God “ought” to act.
The story continues with Moses giving the earnest but naïve Joshua a stern lesson: “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!’” (Num 11:27-29). Sometimes zeal gets the best of us, and even when we are motivated by good intentions we can end up carefully observing fine details while missing the larger picture, like Joshua did.
A similar moment is recorded in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus is resting with his disciples after a journey through Galilee. They have all seen Jesus healing and casting out demons in the preceding days and while they are deeply impressed they are defensive of his healing ministry, telling him: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us” (Mark 9:38). Jesus replies with greater gentleness than Moses did to Joshua, saying, “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” (Mark 9:39-40).
The zeal shown by Joshua and that of Jesus’ disciples emerged from an earnest desire to protect the dignity of God’s presence and power working among his holy people. Moses and Jesus understood, however, that God will be present as he wishes, offering his Spirit and healing power to those “within the camp” as well as to those who appear outside of it.
Jesus concludes his response to the disciples’ complaint by saying, “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” (Mark 9:41). These words should serve as a reminder that God wills the salvation of all, whether they are already part of “the household of God” (Eph 2:19) or on their way—God willing, with our help.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.