The Beauty of God’s Unpredictable Gifts



In two medieval manuscript images, Rudolf von Ems nicely illustrates the situation. Moses is frustrated ~ and who wouldn’t be, at such a moment? He’s trying to lead a bunch of lamenting and back-biting Israelites through the wilderness. Wailing and weeping, his people long for their old homeland, and for its cucumbers, melons, and leeks. But they seem to have forgotten an inconvenient fact ~ that they were slaves in the old country. They don’t acknowledge God’s mercy in having led them out of Egpyt, on their journey to deliverance. And, during their exodus, they complain about God’s gift of the manna. Like snow coming down from above, bread descends from heaven allowing them to eat every day! Their criticism provokes God’s anger to be expressed in a curious way. After the manna, God later sends down quails for them to eat, as the second image imaginatively portrays.

In the face of these complaints, all Moses can do is throw up his hands in prayer. And God answers! God tells Moses to gather seventy elders and leaders at the tent of meeting. The Lord then takes some of the Spirit resting on Moses, and puts it on the seventy. When God’s Spirit touches them, they prophesy. God’s Spirit is made evident in ecstatic utterances and trances.

To everyone’s surprise, two men back at the camp, who are not among the seventy, are also touched by the same Spirit. This is confusing! Though the two bear the same signs of God’s Spirit, it happens outside the expected pattern! Joshua voices this concern, and begs Moses to forbid the two from acting in this way. But Moses says to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

We hear a similar concern expressed by Jesus’ disciples in Mark’s Gospel. Through John, they ask Jesus to address a problem. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him.” The problem is not that someone besides Jesus is casting out demons and performing miraculous signs. For Mark has already described how Jesus commissioned the disciples to heal and cast out demons The problem is that these exorcisms are being done by someone who is not one of Jesus’ followers. The same challenge arises later when the newly converted Paul begins to speak and act as if he was a disciple and a member of the 12.

In response, Jesus challenges his disciples using remarkably expansive words: “whoever is not against us, is for us.” In this era, these words may be hard to appreciate.


This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 30, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The above two images are by the medieval manuscript artist, Rudolf von Ems, which illustrate two scenes from Numbers 11. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

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