I often remind my readers and students that when our sacred authors write, they're almost always addressing problems in the communities for whom they write. Rarely do biblical authors sit down on a beautiful, sunny day with no problems running through their minds and produce Scripture. If our ancestors in the faith had lived their faith correctly, we'd have no Scripture. One of the first tasks of biblical students is to surface the problems which prompted the writer to compose the text they're studying.
That task is a breeze for those hearing today's first and third readings. No matter how "authentic" a religious institution is, it continually runs the risk of restricting God's actions to the institution's actions.
On occasions I've found myself behind cars sporting an "I Speak for God" bumper sticker. For some unexplored reason, I'm always tempted to rear-end such cars, then anxiously wait to hear what God's spokesperson has to say when he or she jumps out of the car and confronts me. One must be extremely careful when one believes one represents God and God's actions.
Sometimes it's easy to figure out what God wants. James, in our second reading, provides several classic examples. "Behold the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the Lord of hosts . . . . You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one who offers you no resistance." Any religious institution which joins James in condemning such practices is certainly speaking for God.
But on a more significant level, how does an institution deal with people and situations through whom God works and speaks who are not sanctioned by that institution, and, like biblical prophets, even criticize the institution?
A case in point is today's Numbers account of Eldad and Medad receiving Yahweh's spirit though they weren't present at the "official gathering" when Yahweh bestowed that spirit. Joshua tells Moses to stop them from prophesying, from using a gift which could only come from receiving Yahweh's spirit. By missing the sanctioned ceremony they had forfeited their right to inform people of Yahweh's will.
Moses' response to Joshua is what we would expect from a good, faithful leader. He first asks, "Are you jealous for my sake?" In other words, "Are you trying to protect my position of authority in the community?" Then he shares an agenda that all religious leaders should have. "Would that all the people of Yahweh were prophets! Would that Yahweh would bestow his spirit on them all!" Moses is determined never to exercise his authority in a way which would restrict Yahweh's actions in the community.
Jesus read Moses' book. In our gospel pericope he demonstrates a Moses-like frame of mind when John stupidly tries to prevent someone who "does not follow us" from driving out demons in Jesus' name. He gives a simple norm for judging such cases: "Whoever is not against us is for us."
Scholars often point out the significance of Mark placing this narrative immediately before Jesus states, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better . . . ." It's the consensus of those scholars that the "whoever" in this passage refers to leaders in Mark's community. The "little ones" are ordinary Christians. Mark's Jesus is warning such leaders about a sin we rarely confess: the sin of limiting God and God's actions to "official channels." It's a scandal for anyone to teach that God only works through just one religion, or one denomination in that religion.
Now we not only have to worry about another sin to confess, we also have to be more alert for a biblical quality of leadership we rarely consider.