Father Donald Senior, CP

Sept. 26: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Generous spirit

Nm 11:25-29; Ps 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14; Jas 5:1-6; Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Some years ago, Richard John Neuhaus, the well-known Lutheran scholar and church leader (who later became a convert to Catholicism and a priest), hosted in New York a major and now famous conference on biblical interpretation. The concern of the conference was about the orthodoxy of some modern biblical interpretation. 

Star participants included then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and Father Raymond Brown, considered one of the foremost Catholic biblical scholars of his time.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s address raised a number of cautions about modern historical analysis of the Bible and, in the press conference that followed, one questioner assumed (with some satisfaction) that Ratzinger’s remarks were targeted at Brown. But the cardinal, himself a great and wise scholar, replied, “Would that all Catholic biblical scholars were like Father Brown.”

That incident seems like a replay of both the Gospel passage for this Sunday and the first reading from the Book of Numbers. 

In Numbers, a young man gets upset when he sees that Eldad and Medad (possible names for your next set of twins?) were prophesying, even though they were not present when Moses’ spirit was shared among the 70 elders. But Moses will have none of it, and in memorable words proclaims: “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

This unique Old Testament text is obviously paired with an equally surprising text from the Gospel of Mark. When John sees someone “driving out demons in your name,” he reports to Jesus that “we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Jesus’ response is generous: “Do not prevent him. … For whoever is not against us is for us. 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.”

These readings remind us that the Spirit of God proclaimed in the Bible is generous and inclusive and not tightly rationed. I think, for example, of the role of the Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles: catching the disciples by surprise in the upper room, falling upon the crowds who listen to Peter’s first sermon, moving Cornelius (a Roman officer) and his household to seek baptism, inspiring Paul and the other apostles to break out of the confines of their Jerusalem enclave and reach out to the Gentile world.

Paul himself in Chapter 8 of his Letter to the Romans envisioned the Spirit working within the very heart of creation itself, moving it to the fullness of God’s glory.

Both Moses and Jesus remind us in this Sunday’s Scriptures that the Spirit of God is not confined to “those in the tent.”

Pope Benedict himself made a similar point in one of his first interviews as pope, which was with the self-described “Catholic atheist” and famous journalist Oriana Fallaci. Christians, the pope said, should reach out to people of good will and, together with them, act “as if” we were all children of God and all seeking the common good. 

His successor, Pope Francis, has made this kind of generous spirit a hallmark of his papacy, exemplifying a culture of dialogue that leads him, for example, to embrace worldwide Muslim and Jewish religious leaders with great personal affection, and to incorporate the insights of scientists in his teaching about Christian responsibility for creation.

Some Catholics are leery of such outreach and even consider the term “dialogue” as synonymous with compromise or betrayal of the inherent truth of the Gospel. Yet our tradition insists that God is the creator of the universe and is the “God of all nations.” 

The Spirit of God is not timid or reclusive but reflects the fullness of God’s embrace of the world. That, ultimately, is what should drive the Christian mission to the world.  

As the Gospel of John proclaims, the mission of Jesus himself was to reveal God’s love for the world and “not to condemn the world” but “that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17).


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