Nm 11:25-29; Jas 5:1-6; Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
“Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets.” Moses’ exclamation comes after he learns that the Hebrew people are upset. The cause of their consternation: two of the men that the Spirit selected to become prophets were not among those who went out to Mt. Sinai with Moses. These two, Eldad and Medad, remained back in camp yet received the same gitf of prophecy as the others.
Moses reaction is a good reminder that there are two channels through which the Holy Spirit works. There is authority which is bestowed through official sacramental channels in the Church – specifically, the sacrament of Holy Orders which imbues the recepient with the ability to teach in an authoritative way. There is also charismatic authority – sometimes, as in the case of Francis Bernadone of Assisi, the Spirit comes down upon a woman or man – often the least likely candidate – to speak truth to power within the Church or within the world. A similar thing happened to a man named Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of the early Church, until he met the risen Christ and found out that the Holy Spirit had other ideas for him.
There is always a tension between these two types of divine calling. Those called to leadership in the Church through the sacrament of Holy Orders – certainly those called to the fullness of the sacrament as bishops – tend to be conservative, as they should be. All of us in the Church have been entrusted with a precious gift of Faith that we must hand over to our children, both biological and spiritual. It is the sacred responsibility of the bishops to make sure nothing essential in that “deposit of faith” gets lost or grossly misrepresented.
Charismatic authority, however, tends to bypass official channels and often compels those possesing it to look at things very differently. As far as we know, no one before Saul of Tarsus/St. Paul had conceived of a church that did not have to be exclusively Jewish. Tension can be destructive, but it can also be, and has been in the life of the Church, extremely creative.
Perhaps this Sunday’s first reading can remind us all just how important this tension is to the vitality of the Church. It is only when this dynamic is allowed the fullest interplay possible within the Church that we experience the on-going reform we need and find fresh and relevant ways to proclaim the gospel to the world. (Were it not for the charismatic authority which exposed the scandal of the sex abuse crisis within the Church would the awful truth have ever come out?)
Too often we confuse Tolerance, a virtue based on respect for the unique truth the other brings, with relativism, a philosophy based on the assumption that nothing is sacred so anything goes. Tolerance is the virtue that enables us to create the sacred space necessary for the tensions produced by the Spirit to work themselves out.
Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)