Presidents of nations and other leaders with wide influence usually have a designated spokesperson who makes sure that the leader’s message is conveyed accurately and consistently. The leader exercises a measure of control, ensuring that the spokesperson follows the script, and that no one who is unauthorized is given credence. That is not necessarily the way it is in ministry, however.
In both the first reading and in the Gospel, individuals who are not authorized by Moses and by Jesus, respectively, exercise a ministry akin to the leaders without their prior approbation. Take Eldad and Medad; they had not gone out to the tent of meeting along with the other 70, upon whom God bestowed a share of the spirit that was upon Moses. Nonetheless, the spirit came to rest upon them, too; like the others, they began to speak prophetically in the camp.
This was most distressing to Joshua, who insisted that they be stopped. The text does not elaborate on Joshua’s motives. Was he resentful, because he had trained at Moses’ side from his youth and followed carefully all the directives, whereas these two appeared suddenly and began to minister with the others? Moses assures Joshua that the prophesying of Eldad and Medad in no way diminishes Moses’ own authority as a prophet.
In fact, it was Moses’ own complaint to God about his too heavy burden of leadership that prompted God to bestow the Spirit on others who could lighten the load. Moses exclaims his wish that all the people would prophesy in God’s spirit. He recognizes that while not all are officially authorized to prophesy, all do have a measure of the prophetic gift to be shared. The community, moreover, under the guidance of the Spirit, has a responsibility to choose, prepare and authorize its spokespersons. But even the best and most careful process can exclude some whose gifts do not elude the Spirit, who always blows where she will.
A similar scene is played out in the Gospel, where Jesus’ disciples are upset about an exorcist who claims Jesus’ authority as he casts out demons. Jesus insists that the disciples stop trying to prevent the exorcist from exercising his ministry, even though he is not an official follower of Jesus.
It is curious that in both instances, those who want to be officially recognized ministers are sadly focused on a perceived threat to their own authority, rather than on the recipients of the ministry.
Joshua might have asked: What is the effect of the prophetic word spoken by the two who were not authorized? Is it unleashing God’s freeing love in the hearers? Likewise, the disciples might have asked: Was the other exorcist freeing people from tormenting forces that blocked their ability to love and be loved? A word of approval from the wise leaders, Moses and Jesus, served to re-orient their followers toward the important matter of ensuring that the pressing needs of their people be addressed by whomever the Spirit empowered to do so. Jesus also directs his disciples to reflect on the ministry they receive from others. When they know themselves as needy, they can learn, by accepting the gift of a cup of water, to shift their attention away from the prerogatives of credentialed ministry toward the neediness of those to whom their service is rendered.