Seventeenth Sunday in Pentecost
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Jehovah, my rock, and my redeemer.
What would you think if someone told you that you were worth your weight in salt? Would you be flattered or offended? Well, if we are talking about ordinary table salt, I would be offended at being worth only $75. Even if we are talking about fancy sea salts that are sold for face cleansing or fancy cuisine, I would be worth less than $4000. Not worth much? Though salt was once a very valuable commodity, it has become so accessible it is very inexpensive.
Things were different in Jesus’ day. The phrase “he’s not worth his weight in salt” came about because slaves were traded for salt. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, thus the ‘salary’ comes from the Latin “salarium argentums.” Salt was as valuable, sometimes even more valuable, as gold. Since salt is vital to life, salt became an important part of many religious ceremonies. It has purifying qualities, so represented cleansing and healing. So, when Jesus said, “For every one shall be salted with fire, He was referring to a cleansing and healing purification. Salt was also used in covenant making.
The Greeks had a saying, “no one should trust a man without first eating a peck of salt with him.” A peck is equal to about eight quarts. By the time anyone ate that much salt with another, they were bonded. A salt covenant did not require so much salt. If salt was served at a meal, a promise was made. Both parties agreed to a relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality. Jesus said, “For every one shall be salted with fire.” When God salts with fire, He does so with the Holy Spirit, anointing His people to then go on to be salt. As salt we take the covenant to others, so that they too might be cleansed and healed and join in the relationship with God of loyalty, protection and hospitality. When we are salt, we live in peace with our brothers and sisters.
There wasn’t much peace in the camp of the Israelites. The people were tired, they were hungry and they were bored with manna. They grumbled to Moses who was their sole leader. He was the only one with that special touch from God. He was the only one with the spirit. They wanted it that way – the voice of God was too hard to hear. Many thought if they had such a relationship with God they would die. “You speak for us” they said, giving Moses the entire burden of leadership.
He was tired. Those who are parents know exactly how he was feeling. We all go through a period in our life as parents (perhaps many periods) when we simply tire of being a parent. Babies cry and we can’t always understand what they need. Toddlers get into everything and seem to have more energy that we can muster. Teenagers don’t listen to a word we say. Sometimes we just want to ask “Why is it so hard? Why do I have to carry this burden?” As a military wife, I knew what it must be like to be a single mom at times. Whenever my husband went away, I was left with the entire burden of care. I can’t imagine doing it myself for longer than a few months. Single moms, and dads, don’t even have a partner to which they can turn. “Why?” is a question they probably ask regularly, just like Moses.
Moses heard the complaining and went to God. “What have I done wrong that you would give me such great a burden as these people?” They weren’t satisfied with what they had been given. Manna was enough, more than enough. It fed them, satisfied their basic need for sustenance. To them, however, it wasn’t enough. “Who will give us flesh to eat?” They remembered what they had in Egypt – fish, melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic.
Moses was frustrated. He was so frustrated by the grumbling of the people and by the burden that had been placed on his back that he asked God to relieve him of his duty. “If you have found favor, Lord, kill me so that I do not have to deal with this anymore.” Pretty extreme response to the difficulty he faced, but then how many of us have felt the same way at some time. Perhaps we have not asked God to kill us, but I’m sure most of us at some point have asked God to end our suffering even if it meant some sort of death. Death does not always refer to the complete physical death of our flesh. Sometimes relationships die. Old habits die hard. Our dreams die. We’ll take the suffering if only the burden will be gone.
God had another plan. He told Moses to call together the elders so that they might take upon their shoulders some of the burden. They gathered together at the tent of meeting and God poured upon them His spirit – He salted them with fire. When the spirit rested on them, they prophesied. However, they only prophesied the one time. While this was happening at the tent of meeting, two elders who had not come also received the anointing. They also prophesied, though they were not seemingly part of the chosen. When a boy reported the incident to Joshua, he went to Moses and told him to forbid them from speaking.
John had exactly the same reaction in this week’s Gospel reading. The disciples had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but he wasn’t part of their group. Ironically, it was earlier in this chapter of Mark that John and the other disciples were unable to cast out a demon from a boy. They had failed. How much harder must it have been then, to see a stranger doing the work that they could not accomplish?
Moses answered Joshua and Jesus answered John, “Don’t stop them.” Were they jealous for Moses or Jesus’ sake, or for their own? Joshua was Moses’ right hand man, and now there were seventy others called to leadership. Was there room for even two more? John was part of Jesus’ inner circle, Jesus’ closest friends. John even asked Jesus if he could be His right hand man when He ruled. There were already twelve leaders. Was there room for more? What would happen if the disciples were never able to drive out demons, or heal, or impact the world? Would someone more gifted take their place? It was a very real fear for them, as it continues to be for us.
Jesus said, “Don’t stop them. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Perhaps this sounds backwards. We usually say, “Whoever is not for us is against us.” This limits our allies to those who are part of our circle. Jesus turns our thinking upside down. He tells us that we need not be concerned about those who are not against us. There were enough people against Jesus. Jesus assured them that they would not have to worry. “No one who does a deed of power in my name can then speak against me.” Deeds of power came by the Spirit of God. If they had that Spirit, they could not work against the will and purpose of God.
Now, there are times when we have to take hold of a situation and direct it rightly. James explains what it means to be the church, to do the work of God amongst His people and in the world. The work includes prayer and praise, healing and reconciliation. It also includes correction and restoration of those who err. We should not assume that though Jesus says we should not stop those who prophesy in His name that we should leave them alone. There are times it is necessary to speak to the sin of our neighbors.
However Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” In other words, we are to be careful about how we deal with sin, how we correct our brothers and sisters in Christ. The little ones are not children; they are those who are small in faith. It is interesting how those who are new to faith are often those who are most passionate. The greatest evangelists are those who have recently turned their lives over to Christ. However, they are also unlearned when it comes to knowledge of Christ, immature and lacking in wisdom. They go out in the Spirit prophesying and healing, casting out demons without the wisdom that comes from time with Jesus, the word, prayer and fellowship with other Christians.
Jesus said, “Don’t stop them.” Don’t stop them in a manner that would cause them to stumble. Don’t let your jealousy bring them to a point of rebellion and rejection of God’s will and purpose. Don’t chase them away from the life God has called them to live. Be salt. Rather than cause a brother or sister to stumble, we should cut out those things that are causing us to sin. Jesus gives a radical response to sin – cut off your hand, feet or eyes if they cause you to sin. It is unlikely that we will be amputating body parts, but there are aspects of our lives that should be cut off.
Why do we want to stop our neighbor’s ministry? Is it because we are jealous? Are we frustrated by our own inability to accomplish the work we feel called to do? Are we afraid that we will be pushed out of the picture or replaced by someone more gifted? Jesus reminds us, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Are they doing the work in Jesus’ name? Then we should not stop them. Are we sure that our concerns are for their sake, for Christ’s sake or for the sake of the Kingdom? Then we should pray and praise, offer forgiveness and reconciliation, heal and restore – be salt.
The psalmist, David, describes the law of God six ways. In the American Standard version, the six words are law, testament, precepts, commandment, the fear and ordinances. These words are not very hopeful. They are, in a sense, oppressive. However, David describes God’s law in terms of grace – it restores the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. The qualities of God’s law are perfection, dependability, righteous, plain pure and true. It is more precious than gold, sweeter than honey. “Moreover by them is thy servant warned: In keeping them there is great reward.” For though law reveals hidden things – sin – God’s grace reveals something even greater – forgiveness.
We have been salted with fire, the fire of God’s Holy Spirit. This anointing has brought us into a covenant relationship with God, a relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality. In that relationship we are called to be salt, to take the covenant into the world. “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” Sin takes away our saltiness, it destroys peace among brothers. When we cut those things out of our life that cause us to sin, we can live as salt and live in peace as God has called and anointed us to live.
Many pastors begin their sermons with the final words in this week’s reading from the Psalms as I did above. I suppose this seems cliché; it an overused statement that often has little to do with humility before God because it is seemingly rote and insincere. Yet, these are words that we should take to heart and remember any time we have the opportunity to speak. As we seek God’s blessing upon the words we speak, He will help us to cut out that which might cause us to stumble, or that which will cause another to stumble. It will help us to be salt and to be at peace with one another. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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