Anyone hungry for a heated discussion needs only raise the topic of criteria for ministry in the church today. Before they know it, they will be deluged with such complicated issues as lay ministry, women’s ordination, celibate priesthood, homosexual candidates, to name but a few. Such issues can hardly be resolved in a short reflection. But neither can they be ignored when the readings for the day actually raise the question of suitability for ministry. The readings force the question: Who has the right stuff? Perhaps a better question is: What is the right stuff?
The reading from Numbers illustrates two important criteria for religious service: selection by God and community confirmation. Both were important. One did not simply assume the role of prophet; one was called to it; the spirit of God was bestowed upon the one chosen to prophesy. On the other hand, the prophetic role was always exercised within the community for the sake of the community, not as an individual prerogative. Things seemed to work when both criteria were present. But as the reading demonstrates, tensions arose when a necessary criterion was not met.
Moses, the recognized religious leader, did not say that community confirmation was irrelevant. Rather, he questioned Joshua’s reason for opposing Eldad and Medad. Was Joshua really defending Moses’ authority? Or was he trying to exercise control over prophetic selection? The reading itself does not tell us. Instead, it leaves us with unanswered questions.
We should be careful not to use this reading to champion one side of a contemporary issue over the other. Still, though it recounts an ancient situation, it does provide some insights that might help us today. It shows that the prophetic call came from God, and while the community (not just community leadership) played an important role in determining this ministry, it could not control the activity of God’s spirit. The community was challenged to be faithful to its religious tradition, while at the same time open to new ways by which God provided for the people.
In the Gospel, the community expectation is quite similar—only recognized disciples were thought to have the authority to minister. Like Moses in the first reading, Jesus challenged a rigid understanding of ministerial legitimacy. He pointed to commitment to the service of others in his name as a criterion for ministry, insisting that “whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, circumstances can change the criteria for judging suitability. Here too community authority is upheld, while the need to be open to new ways God may be calling others is placed firmly before us.
An unrelated theme is found in the Letter of James. By means of a prophetic pronouncement of doom, the wealthy are condemned for having hoarded the treasures of the earth. Preoccupied with their own comfort, they ignored the needs of others. They were busy amassing money rather than sharing it with the poor. While the reading itself condemns these selfish people, from the perspective of today’s focus on ministry, we can draw a sharp contrast between these wealthy people and those in the Gospel who give a cup of water to drink to those who belong to Christ. In this way, another criterion for ministry becomes clear—unselfish service of those in need.
The second part of the Gospel is a warning against giving scandal. The Greek word translated “cause to sin” (Mk 9:42) really means “cause to stumble or be scandalized.” While many commentators believe that the “little ones” of whom Jesus speaks are children, others maintain that since the entire passage speaks of following Jesus, the reference here is to disciples. They are, after all, “children of God,” and in this same Gospel Jesus does call his disciples “children” (Mk 10:24). Whatever the reference, Jesus warns against causing another to stumble or be scandalized.
Just what is the scandal in the question of ministry in the church today? Is it that people who do not conform to customary patterns are disregarding the authority of the tradition and are audaciously stepping forward to assume ministerial responsibilities? Is it that members of the church, both those who are in leadership positions and those who are not, are insensitive to the prompting of the Spirit and insist that the church continue to do things the way they have always been done? Or might it be a bit of both?
When in the throes of such a struggle, it is difficult to have a clear perspective. It is much easier to cling tenaciously to one’s own position on the matter. Today’s readings remind us that there are important values to preserve on both sides of the issue. They also clearly point to the core of the matter, namely, the genuine needs of God’s people. Together, as a community, we must discover how these needs can best be served, and we must discover this while being faithful to both the authentic tradition and the mysterious ever-present Spirit of God.