The English word, “prophet,” comes from the Latin, “propheta” or Greek, “prophētēs” which means “one who speaks on behalf of God”. Since the prophet is the mouth by which God speaks to humans, what a prophet says are not his own words, but God’s words. Moses, who figures in the first reading of today, is an example of a prophet from the Old Testament. James, from whose letter the second reading of today is taken, is an example of a prophet in the New Testament.
The first reading, from the book of Numbers, tells about an incident that occurred as the Israelites were marching through the desert toward the Promised Land. God offered to bestow some of the spirit that was in Moses on seventy elders of the people. These seventy would then share the duties of leadership with Moses. When God bestowed the spirit on the elders, they, like Moses, became prophets and were able to prophesy or speak on behalf of God. Two men, Eldad and Medad, who had not been part of the group of seventy, also received the spirit and began prophesying. Joshua, who was the assistant to Moses, told Moses to stop them, apparently thinking that it was improper for anyone who had not been part of the group of seventy to prophesy. But Moses refused to accept Joshua's advice. Instead, he said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
The point that Moses makes is that the Spirit of God cannot be controlled by human structures. It is a force for change that blows where it will. The charisma of God can appear in members who are not supposed to have such power. Their prophesying illustrates that the boundaries of even minimal forms of hierarchy can be broken by the uncontrollable Spirit of God. The role of Moses in this episode illustrates how an ideal and charismatic leader will promote and recognize such power in unexpected places, rather than view it as a challenge to his own authority, as did Joshua. Charisma breaks established boundaries both inside and outside of communities. Charismatic leadership forces communities to be self-critical, because the power of God can appear in unexpected forms, places, and persons.
Such charismatic leadership is noticed in the second reading of today when James also speaks as a charismatic prophet. With words that are bound to sting, he berates the oppressors of the poor. He does not mince words and is categorical and forceful in his criticism of the rich. He is especially critical of those who have made their riches ends in themselves. Speaking on behalf of God, he calls on them to realize that it is their riches which will be used as evidence for their condemnation and judgement. Like his Lord, Jesus, had done before him, James pronounces woes on the rich because of their mistreatment of the poor.
This Lord, who speaks in the Gospel text of today, is not merely a prophet. He does not merely speak on behalf of God. Rather, he is God. If the words of the prophet have to be taken seriously and acted upon, how much more so the words of God himself. In the first part of the Gospel text of today, Jesus corrects John, like Moses corrected Joshua. Like Joshua before him, it seems that John, too, was jealous of the unnamed exorcist who was able to exorcise despite not being part of the inner circle of Jesus. Jesus, however, is open and accommodating. He will not set limits on persons as long as they are doing what God wants them to do. He will not be an obstacle or stumbling block in the way of anyone who is doing good, and he exhorts his disciples to adopt this way of thinking. Since Jesus does not stand on his ego, he is able to allow the unnamed exorcist to do God’s work. He does not claim a monopoly on such work. What is important is that the work be done and the kingdom brought closer.
However, the kingdom will remain a distant dream and will not be translated into reality if there are stumbling blocks that keep coming in the way of the kingdom. These are not external events, but persons and their attitudes and this is what Jesus addresses in the second part of today’s Gospel. The behaviour and attitude of the disciples can become a scandal to those who witness them. On the one hand, one cannot blame others for the decisions one makes. On the other hand, however, if these are simple people, there is every possibility that the scandalous behaviour of Jesus’ disciples can scandalize them. Thus, the disciples are warned.
The scandals that we can cause, as disciples of Jesus, can be seen in two areas. One area is when, like Joshua and John, we become narrow minded and parochial in our way of proceeding. We may focus so much on the external that we might lose sight of the internal. We may place so much emphasis on our small community that we might neglect the larger community. The second area in which we can cause scandal is through the words that we speak and the actions that we do. Our words and actions may, at times, push people away from Jesus rather than draw people to him. When people look at the lives we lead, and at our way of proceeding, and know that we are followers of Jesus, is it likely or unlikely that they will be inspired to follow him?
The call of the readings then, is a two fold call. It is first a call to each one of us to be prophets of God and to have the courage to speak on his behalf to a world that has grown deaf and will not hear and to a world that has grown blind and will not see. It is also a call to an open-minded attitude that will welcome the actions of those who may not belong to our “inner circle” of faith, realizing that the Spirit of God can work when and where the Spirit wills. It is also to live our lives as Christians and followers of Jesus in such a manner that, when people see and hear us, they will be seeing and hearing Jesus Christ. It is to dare to say, with Paul, that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. (Gal 2:20)