Do we pray expecting results?
Here’s what we have for today in short form:
Moses is exhausted, he cannot meet the needs of the people. So he goes to God and tells God to just kill him now, he can’t keep going. God says gather the elders, so Moses does – and interesting, he “registers” them as elders, sounds like deacons to me! Then the LORD took some of the spirit that was on Moses and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. Two of the registered men remained in the camp, and the spirit rested on them too; but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
Fast forward to Jesus, and his disciples sound a lot like Joshua, don’t they? “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Jesus has taught his disciples and sent them out to do the same kind of work he has been doing, preaching the good news and healing people. No more one man show, the expectation is that the followers of Jesus would do this. And now they find someone who is not one of them, he is an outsider, but what is he doing? He is healing people in the name of Jesus. And Jesus says no, do not stop him.
Then we come to the early church. Here is the expectation: If people are sick, they should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
We have a definite movement here, from Moses where the Spirit was understood as being special, and unique, and time-bound. The elders in the camp of Moses prophesied once, but no more. It was enough to set them apart, but there was no expectation that they would continue having visible effects of the Spirit’s visitation. But already we hear Moses’ plea: he opens the idea that everyone would receive the gifts of the Spirit for the good of the people. Jesus, in the line of the great prophets, and therefore an heir of Moses in that way, says yes, anyone calling on his name can access the gifts of the Spirit, which clearly is a new idea for the disciples, and by the time we are in the early church, the expectation is that everyone can pray and expect results – and that they should!
[pullquoteleft]Do we pray expecting results? Do we pray asking for the power of the Holy Spirit to come down and shift reality?[/pullquoteleft]So my first question is this: Do we pray like this? Do we pray expecting results? Do we pray asking for the power of the Holy Spirit to come down and shift reality?
The second piece that is here for us in the gospel reading today seems like someone picked up a piece and stuck it in – which happened quite a bit. You remember what it was like to type long documents before there was correcting tape, much less a “delete” key! I know there were times when I simply retyped a section and taped it in instead of retyping an entire page. Imagine if you had to hand write everything with a quill pen on a difficult surface. Papyrus is not smooth like paper, it is more like hand-made paper. If some story or saying was already written, you could simply insert it. So this part is mostly likely something that Jesus actually said, but not connected to what is right before it in our version of the gospel.
“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. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Now this is a fascinating teaching, for several reasons, but the most important is the underlying concept. Jesus says it is better to “enter life” maimed than to go to hell not maimed. The reason that this is so fascinating is that it is a new teaching, very new. You were not allowed to go into the temple if you were maimed – period. An animal that was considered good enough to sacrifice to God had to be inspected first – if it had any blemish, it could be cooked and eaten, but not sacrificed to God. Jesus is saying something very new here.
We lose something in the cultural translation of this because of the hyperbole. 誇張 A good example of hyperbole is “they died laughing.” We all understand that no one actually died. It is a way of saying that they laughed a lot. When we want to make a point, we over-exaggerate – and that is hyperbole. It was a common way for teachers to make a point in Jesus’ time. The authors of the book “Good Goats” focused on this in one of their chapters. Their story was like this: take two parents in the front of the car, and several kids in the back of the car, and a long car ride, and pretty soon the kids are tired and start picking on each other. The parents can take only so much of this, and one of them yells: If you kids don’t shut up right now, we’ll tie you on to the roof of the car. There is sudden silence. The children know that, in fact, no one is going to be tied onto the roof of the car. They also know that the parents are very irritated, and it would be in their best interest to find something to do besides hit the kid next to them. So there is “above the line” talk, and “below the line” understanding. What is above the line is not true, and everyone knows that. But what is below the line is true. The parents are irritated and want the children to stop squabbling. When Jesus says: if your eye leads you to sin, pluck it out, he was talking “above the line.” He did not mean you should literally do that. But he did mean that it is very serious business and that we should pay attention to it.
This brings up the question of how to read the Bible. We take the Bible seriously but not literally. Literally means that you believe that God wrote every word in the Bible, and that things mean just what it looks like it means. This is a rather new concept, it is not a traditional way to understand the Bible, in spite of the fact that fundamentalists want you to think so. We also do not take the Bible lightly, as though we did not care what the Bible says. Sometimes people think that this is the only alternative to literalism, which drives me crazy! It is very possible to take the Bible seriously, but not literally. When we talk about the context to understand what Jesus really meant by something, we are taking it seriously, and we are clear that if we just read the words as they stand, we would be misunderstanding them, because we are in such a different context.
The last words in the Gospel for today illustrate this, where Jesus says this curious piece: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Let’s see if we can make sense of this. We need to look at the context. What would the listeners of Jesus understood by “salt?” Of course, there is the very important mineral, necessary for life, but the word “salt” was also used metaphorically to signify permanence, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefullness, value and purification. Salt was part of ancient Hebrew religious sacrifices – when you sacrificed meat or grain at the temple, it was to have salt on it.
[pullquoteleft]The salt covenant is much more than a covenant of friendship. It is an irrevocable pledge and promise of fidelity. Those who have taken salt together would rather die before they would break their covenant.[/pullquoteleft]But there is more, there is a “salt covenant.” Salt was widely and variably used as a symbol and sacred sign in ancient Palestine. The salt covenant is much more than a covenant of friendship. It is an irrevocable pledge and promise of fidelity. Those who have taken salt together would rather die before they would break their covenant. Furthermore, the usual penalty for violating such a covenant is death. So the reference to salt is not a small matter!
So, as usual, Jesus is using a common concept to illustrate something else – and we get that with the first sentence: everyone will be salted with fire. Fire is not salt. Perhaps it makes more sense if we were to translate it like this: “It is like everyone will be salted with fire” or “Everyone will be changed with fire.” Then he says: salt is good, but if it has lost its saltiness, it is no good any more. In other words, if the essence is gone, the shell of what is left is no good. If the fire is gone, what good is the fireplace? It won’t keep anyone warm just by being a fireplace. Then he says: have salt, have fire, in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. The salt in this verse refers to the goodwill that “seasons” positive relationships between people, that is, a play on the covenant of salt, indicating friendship and compassion. It is another way of saying, be at peace with one another.
So what do we do with all of this talk of salt and covenant and being at peace? I wonder if there isn’t another layer here, because of the mention of fire. If we understand “salt” to be a reference to the salt covenant, and tie that together with the fire of the Spirit, the fire that he expects to light with his death, then we might see this as a way of talking about those who are set alight with the Spirit will be bound together in a covenant as binding as a salt covenant.
It is an awesome idea. What if we were set alight by the Spirit? What would happen? I remember when AIDS was just beginning to hit the scene, and I was asked to join the board of AID Atlanta. That was a group that was absolutely glowing with love. For many years, there was peace within the group, because we were all totally focused on the work of keeping people alive, and giving dignity to those who were dying. I think the early Church must have been like that, and several times since then as well. It comes down to giving hope, giving love, and being present. Who do we know that needs hope and love, and presence? What shall we do about that?
Our Readings Today
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