"If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets!"
(Readings: Numbers 11:25-29; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48)
Introduction to Mass
The readings in the Mass today revolve around the prophetic character of the Christian message. To be citizens of God's Kingdom our response to that message has to be wholehearted. We need to avoid the temptation to divide our loyalties between the true God and what the Bible calls the other gods - especially the idols of money and possessions and wealth.
As we begin this Mass let's ask God's forgiveness for our own lapses into idolatry.
"If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets!" says Moses in the first reading, from the Book of Numbers. "If only the Lord gave his Spirit to them all!"
The people of Israel weren't the only nation to have prophets. The pagan countries - Egypt, Babylon, Assyria - had theirs. These pagan prophets were the spin-doctors of the ancient world. They were attached to the court of the king, or the ruler of the country. Their job was to bolster the king's authority and prestige, to put the right slant on the ruler's policies and actions, to tell the powerful of the world what they wanted to hear.
The prophets of Israel and Judah were quite different. They were spokesmen for God. They were the guardians of true faith in the Lord.
In the face of the Chosen People's unfaithfulness they announced God's urgent desire to call them back. They exposed the people's sinfulness - their greed, their neglect of the poor and weak, their insincere prayers and worship. They issued grim warnings of what lay in the future for those who refused to practice God's love and mercy and compassion.
The language the prophets used was often accusatory and uncompromising, and so they often found themselves in a state of conflict both with the holders of political power and with the population at large.
Saint James, in today's second reading, speaks with the authentic voice of the prophet. James has noticed that some members of the new Christian community are a bit too concerned about money and possessions and what today we would call a high standard of living.
And the point James wants to make is simple: carrying on like that is the best way to guarantee that you're going to hell. "Start weeping," he says, "for the miseries that are coming to you. All your gold and silver is corroding away, and the same corrosion will be your own sentence, and eat into your body". Very picturesque!
James isn't a puritan or a killjoy. What he's got to say has nothing to do with being against people enjoying themselves.
James' outlook is shaped by his belief that our eternal destiny is determined by the choices we make now. The Penny Catechism asked the question: "Why did God make me?" And the answer was: "God made me to know him, love him, and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next."
Money, possessions, wealth interfere with this. They're obstacles in the way of our salvation. We easily become dependent on them and they absorb all our attention and energy. They become idols, in effect, substitutes for God. They cloud our moral vision and create division and competition between people, as opposed to solidarity and mutual care of each other.
This is a large part of James' concern.
The cries of the cheated and exploited, he says, have reached the ears of the God of hosts. By cheating them, and by benefiting from their misery, those who provide for their own comfort and luxury are storing up a burning fire for themselves in the last days.
Now in our time, very few Christians, I believe, share James' prophetic outlook and concerns, - not to mention his vivid conviction about the possibility of being cut off eternally from God.
There seems to be a popular notion at present that the main purpose of religious belief or church membership is to enhance people's sense of well-being and provide various emotional benefits, on top of a materially comfortable way of life.
A lot of the plans currently sponsored by church leaders actually aim to re-design the Christian faith as a consumer product, a therapy or a lifestyle accessory.
And many church members today, in our part of the world at any rate, are indistinguishable from the pagans around them in their desire for a high standard of living, the latest fashions in dress and home decor, expensive holidays abroad, privileged schooling for their children and all the other paraphernalia of our competitive market-driven world.
We've adapted ourselves so closely to this culture that passages of Scripture like this one from Saint James' letter are more likely to be treated as interesting curiosities than serious moral guidance, because it touches on two areas where many modern Church people have simply ceased to take the teaching of the Bible seriously: the pursuit of "comfort and luxury" as James puts it, and the danger of eternal damnation. Two areas which, according to James, are actually quite closely linked.
This leads on, finally and briefly, to the main point that Jesus seems to be making in the gospel passage today: that faith in God involves basic choices and decisions.
Jesus spent a lot of time trying to convince people that putting themselves under God's rule involved re-ordering the goals and priorities in their lives at a basic level, not only on the surface. His words in today's gospel suggest a high benchmark: there's nothing that we shouldn't be prepared to sacrifice if it stands in the way of a closer relationship with God.
The truth is that when we start to pursue our life with God we end up having to confront all the self-seeking inclinations which are deeply-ingrained in our nature. Often it seems like a hard slog, with too many sacrifices of things that we're attached to.
But at the same time, it's also true that the more we turn to God, the more he encourages and motivates us and eventually the attachments and idols in our lives lose their attractiveness.
Perhaps many of us don't get that far, or at least we make very slow progress. We go down the wrong roads, we break off from the journey for long periods, we travel backwards.
If that's the case then the readings this Sunday are aimed at us.
There's the sting of prophetic criticism, which the community dedicated to God must always be prepared to listen to. But behind that there's a more positive and encouraging element: that if we persevere in the demanding way of life that the gospel involves, God will liberate us from the obstacles and idols that hold us back.
Those I think are some of the themes that we can legitimately draw out of the readings this Sunday, and that's fundamentally how I would try to apply their vivid and stark declarations to the situation of the Christian community today.