The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series B: 2018

by Nick Utphall


The 19th Sunday after Pentecost in Year B

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50


It’s not often a pleasant thing to admit, but I can relate to the complaining, whiny, grumbling, grousing character of the wilderness-wandering Hebrew people. It is a difficulty while traveling to know what can and should provide sustenance. On my bicycle treks, I typically have my bag of sunflower seeds and a coffee thermos to keep me going, an ample supply of water, and . . . what? Peanut butter sandwiches will get me only so far. I wait for any fresh fruit or sliced veggies to turn bruised and slimy. As I try to keep putting on miles, covering ground, and making distance, at some point I’m often faced with a difficult decision of what I can stop and purchase. When traveling with a group of youth from church, this whole process is greatly accelerated, and it’s often only a matter of minutes before somebody want to stop for a super-sized dose of fast food.


When travel happens along American interstate corridors or in the utopia (a word invented to mean “no-place”) of airports, the options are minimal and familiar. The same burgers and identical potatoes and soft drinks. Choices that are low in cost and low in nutrition and low in variety.


The people in Numbers have only recently left Mount Sinai. They’re still not even 14 months out of slavery in Egypt, not too much more than a year beyond that most special meal of remembrance and celebration and symbolic meaning, still fairly fresh from Passover, but they’re exhausted of traveling, with its limited food choices. It may have been a miracle that they had manna to eat day after day in ample quantity, but it may also be a miracle that I can find the same spice blend six chicken nuggets for a buck about every 15 miles at speeds that mean I have the opportunity nearly five times per hour.


Their complaining is introduced in a way that reminds us it’s an inappropriate response to grace: “The rabble among them had a strong craving, and wept again” (Numbers 11:4). They lament the loss of the Egyptian smorgasbord: free fish! Plus cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic! It reminds me of the mouth-watering goodness and extravagance of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box that is delivered to my house by my farmer! And—quite notably—that sounds nothing like the fast junk food that ends up in my belly when I’m traveling.


Of course, in our culture this isn’t only a distinction of being on the road versus arriving in the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey and with orchards and cattle on a thousand hillsides. Our whole lives are on the go and eating what does not satisfy (thinking in part of Isaiah 55:2). Or maybe we’re—again—more like the wilderness wanderers than we’d care to admit. In one of the verses cut out of this pericope, it says they would eat meat “until it comes out of your nostrils” (11:20). Maybe not exactly oozing out of our nose, still our infatuation with fatty fast foods has overflowed our body’s normal capacities, forgetting the delectable leeks and melons in a faraway foreign land.

That isn’t to say this passage is prompting us toward yet another dietary fad (“Healthy on the Go! Take the Egypt diet with you!”), but it does prompt us toward reflection on how our bodies and interactions with food are part of our relationship with God and with creation, and perhaps on where our desires lie. In that way, even to rail against a certain kind of eating as detrimental to life expectancy may skew the focus of our faith.


This comes to bear perhaps more intensely with the 2nd reading. James assures us that “the prayer of faith will save the sick” (5:15). That may be a confounding or debilitating word for some who hear it, who have prayed fervently, who have asked to be added to the prayer chains in all their friends’ churches, who have had visits from their pastor, who have participated in rites of healing and been anointed with oil, who nevertheless remain sick.


The danger in this focus is the sense that if you don’t get what you want, it is because your faith is not strong enough. It’s certainly not simply selfish concerns or individual matters of illness and disease. James goes on to tell the story of Elijah and the drought (5:17-18; see 1 Kings 17 and 18) as if it is only a matter of Elijah praying that determines whether or not rain will fall. (Note the distinction in the original that it is the word of the LORD that says there will be a drought, not the prophet’s own word.) If it were a matter of our fervent human prayers, then we ought to be able to pray hard enough to get rain for our crops or to stop forest fires; we should be able to pray for torrents to stop when they are causing flooding; we should be able to pray our way out of climate change.


One possible positive part of this difficult passage is this emphasis on community. Prayers are asked of and offered by the elders of the congregation (5:14), and there is something in the prayers for healing that is also (or perhaps even primarily) the healing of relationships (5:16). We need not read this passage to say that sickness is the result of sin; we can perhaps better understand it to say that sin and the breakdown of relationships is the sickness itself. As we forgive and seek healing together in community, we end the sickness. In light of the example of Elijah and the drought, we must observe this is not merely an individual’s prayer, but affects human relationships (including a widow and her son in 1st Kings 17) and also is a prayer of healing and relationship with the rest of creation—the air and weather patterns and crops and ravens and leaders of nations.


We might see an emphasis on those relationships in the Gospel reading, as well. Under a broad heading “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40), Jesus broadens our view of who is accepted into community. This includes wonder workers doing deeds of power who aren’t explicitly among the small group of followers or disciples of Jesus. It includes the “little ones,” often taken as among the references of Jesus’ concern for children, but also standing directly in contrast to last week’s Gospel reading request of John and James wanting to be the greatest; this is blessing for those who cannot see themselves as great, but as obscure and weak and ineffective or impotent and little. (See, for example, Donald Juel’s Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Mark: “The term ‘little ones’ is not restricted to children, though they are not excluded. The term applies to followers of Jesus who are to think of themselves not as great but as small” (135). And—far from being able to call down rain from the heavens—Jesus promises reward for those who are able to offer or accomplish so little as sharing a cup of water.


It’s not about being thought so much better than others, if little people and little actions still share great blessing. It’s not about being in the right place at the right time (like Eldad and Medad who were not at the special ceremony but nevertheless receive a share of Moses’ spirit and prophesy, Numbers 11:26). It includes us, whether or not people follow us. It includes the sick and the sinful who are still part of the community (as in James).


If that is our measure and value, then it also invites what we can get rid of, what’s fit for the trash heap or the burn pile (to take a more literal reading of “Gehenna” as the ancient landfill outside Jerusalem, rather than extrapolating it into eternal fires of Hell). In Jesus’ words, we may pluck out eyes, sever hands, amputate feet when they threaten to lead us astray. Maybe we also think about these as parts of community, parallel in that way to Paul’s imagery of “the body of Christ” (see, for example, Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man).


Most productively, rather than pondering which of our individual body parts may be ready for surgical removal, or wondering which of the people in the pews around us we’d like to toss out to fester in the compost pile or extinguish from the assembly, maybe we best pay attention simply to what gets in the way. Do our fast food diets hurt relationships, with ourselves, with God, with neighbor, with the rest of creation? When do our wants or enlarged appetites seem to take ultimate priority, and when do our special meals sustain us for the journey? What in the practices of our traditions obscure these relationships, when some of our classic hymns make it seem like God’s blessing is something only for another realm after death? How do our prayers not get diverted to salvation that happens in eternal heavenly clouds, but relate to the really present clouds of rainfall and a changing climate? For which relationships should we be seeking restoration? When would illness or concern about the effectiveness of our prayers preclude the larger well-being of God’s wholeness? When do our views of insiders vs. outsiders or our sense of morality and propriety obscure God’s larger work in the world? When are we so focused on quantity of life that we ignore how God really intends for us to live, to be alive?


In the end, these Bible passages remind us that God’s abundant and wonder-working Spirit is on the loose in the world, ahead of all of our presumptions, and we join for our small part in this miraculous ministry.


Nick Utphall