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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - We Just Don't Get It

Robert Barron - We Just Don't Get It

Robert Barron - We Just Don't Get It

Peace be with you. Friends, our first reading for this weekend is taken from the wonderful book of Numbers. Now, the book of Numbers is one of the five books of the Pentateuch or the Torah, the most sacred part of the Old Testament. I might urge you, get out your Bibles and find the book of Numbers. It's called Numbers, by the way, because at the very beginning, all of the tribes of Israel are kind of lined up like an army, and they're numbered. They're kind of organized in order. That's where the name comes from. The book of Numbers has to do, for the most part, with the journey of Israel through the desert to the Promised Land. They've received the Ten Commandments and all of that described in the book of Exodus, and now they're making their way to the Promised Land.

That's what it's about. And as is often the case, during their forty years of wandering in the desert, the people complain against Moses. Listen. "If only we had more to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at". That's a marvelous little thing, isn't it? Like most of us sinners, making our way from sin to salvation, we tend to look back at our sinful ways and say, "Hey, wasn't it at least easier back in those days? This journey is too hard. Oh, I long for the days of old". But I love this. "Our strength is dried up, and there is nothing but this manna to look at".

So they're being fed by God with miraculous bread from heaven. And that's not good enough. The manna is making them sick. It's a beautiful example of how we sinners just don't get it. We look back to the ways of sin. We complain against God. Anyway, that's typical of the book of Numbers. But in the wake of this kind of criticism, Moses says to the Lord, "I am not able to carry this people all alone, they are too heavy for me". So he's saying, "Look, Lord, give me a break here. Help me to guide this people". So God says, "Okay, I'm going to take some of the spirit I placed on you, and I'm going to share it with seventy elders of the people. I want you, Moses, to choose the candidates, and then I'm going to give them some of your spirit to share your responsibility".

So a list is drawn up, the men gather on the appointed day, and the Lord does indeed send his spirit. And they begin prophesying. We don't quite know what that means; it's all through the Bible. They begin to speak prophetic words. They begin to maybe carry on in a kind of enthusiastic way. Maybe the sort of charismatic movement gives some idea, but the Bible says they begin to prophesy, which means they're now capable of sharing in some of Moses' leadership responsibilities. And you say, okay. It's kind of a prototypical ordination, if you want; people are formerly chosen, there's some kind of ritual, they gather, and then the Lord sends his spirit to them, and they share in the governance of Israel.

So anyone who's ever been to a priesthood or diaconate ordination ceremony might recognize the dynamics at play. But then there's a very interesting little twist to the story. It has to do with two men. They're named Eldad and Medad. They had been on the list of the chosen, but they didn't show up for the ceremony. They weren't there. Nevertheless, the spirit descended on Eldad and Medad, and they began to prophesy like everybody else. So this caused a little ruckus. Someone brings it to the attention of Joshua, who was Moses' chief aide, and Joshua comes to Moses, full of righteous indignation, and says, "My lord Moses, stop them". Look, they didn't come to the ceremony. They weren't there at the appointed moment. And yet they're prophesying.

So this is not right. It's disrupting the order of the community. To which Moses, exhibiting extraordinary humility and clarity of vision, responds, listen, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on all of them". Marvelous. It's a marvelous response. Joshua upset that the religious rituals were not properly followed, God's spirits operative, and it shouldn't be. Do something about it. And Moses is saying, "What are you talking about? I'd like God's spirit to be available everywhere. If God's doing this, praise God, and let's not worry about it".

Now, there are two things I want us to see now from this kind of peculiar little story from the book of Numbers. The first has to do with God's relationship to the very rituals and symbols and sacraments that he has determined. Now, I would challenge anybody who's read the books of Exodus or Numbers or Leviticus or Deuteronomy to tell me that God doesn't care about liturgy, about ritual correctness, about sacramental realities. We get detailed, and I mean detailed, descriptions of exactly what God desires in his temple, what his tabernacle ought to look like, how his priests ought to be vested, how they should be ordained, how people should approach the sacred space, clean and unclean animals, clean and unclean food. I mean, the Bible is filled with very detailed prescriptions from the Lord of how he wants us to go about our ritual and religious lives. God is not indifferent to ceremony and to ritual.

Don't believe people that say, "Oh, who needs all of that? God can be worshiped out in the woods," and, "Forget all that old fuddy-duddy ritual from the Old Testament". No, no, no. God is intensely interested. Here's something from Thomas Aquinas I've always loved. Thomas asked the question, why are the sacraments necessary? And let's broaden that. Sacraments, liturgy, ritual, all these sort of physical means by which we cultivate our relationship to God. Why is all that necessary? His pithy answer was: "because we're not angels". If we're angels, we're pure spirits, all we need is the word, and all we need is God's invisible grace. But I'm a spirit in this body. I'm an embodied spirit.

And so, yeah, I like words, that's why we say all the sacraments have a form, but every sacrament also has matter. See, color and ritual and gesture and movement and vesture and all of that matters. Yes, indeed. Absolutely. We're not angels. And so, as I say in our story for today, you've got something like a formal ordination ritual unfolding, and God wants it. God approves of it. But then remember the twist in the story. Nevertheless, God's grace was operative outside of this formal structure. Eldad and Medad didn't show up. They weren't there for the ritual. Nevertheless, they received the gift of prophecy. And Moses says, "Great, I'm delighted".

Here's something everybody, now, in Catholic theology. It's an old principle. If you want to find it, you'll see it in Catechism paragraph 1257. Here's the principle. God establishes the sacraments of his Church. Yes, indeed. He wants them. He desires them. There are the ordinary means by which he communicates his grace. Absolutely. But God is not constrained by his sacraments. He's not limited to the sacraments. God can operate outside of the formal ritual and sacramental structure of the Church. Why? Well, because he's God, and he's determined these structures, but he can operate outside of them if he so chooses. And that, I think, is what we're dealing with in this quirky little story of Eldad and Medad. Okay. The second issue I want to look at, and it's related, is this issue of envy.

I talked about it last week, how envy is a capital sin. From it flows all kinds of trouble. The Middle Ages talked about "invidia clericalis," clerical envy, as maybe the worst type of envy, the kind of envy that obtains within the religious context. Do we have in Joshua's complaint against Moses a kind of invidia clericalis? "Hey, look, we were at the ceremony. We followed the ritual precisely. But yet those people, they get the spirit too"? Well, yeah. Yeah. God can do what God wants. Why, instead of being jealous, aren't you rejoicing as Moses does? I wish everybody was a prophet. Well, something very similar on display in the Gospel, which is why the Church couples the Gospel with the story from the book of Numbers.

Listen, the Apostle John says to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us". And Jesus replied, "Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a good deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us". What's John complaining about? The same thing Joshua complained about in the Old Testament. "Teacher, hey, there's someone driving out demons".

Well, that sounds pretty good, doesn't it? This guy's driving out demons. That sounds like a good thing to do. But we tried to stop him because he's not one of us. Okay, he's not one of the formally chosen disciples or apostles of the Lord, true. Does Jesus want apostles? Yes. Does he love the apostolic succession that includes bishops up and down the ages? Yes. He's all in favor of it. But can God operate if he chooses to outside of those formal structures? Yeah. Again, Jesus said, "Don't prevent him. If he's not against us, he's for us". If demons really are being expelled, well then, God's grace is operative. Look, what's the final point of all of this business? I mean ritual and sacrament and liturgy and vesture and all the formal structures of the Church.

What's the point? That God's grace might come flooding into the world. Yes, God wants his Church to be the ordinary sacramental vehicle of that grace. But God can do what God wants. God can operate outside of those structures. What comes to my mind here is something that Cardinal George always said. He said, "The Catholic Church has all the gifts that Christ wants his people to have". That's lovely. Isn't it? The Church, there's a fullness. We have the Word. Yes, indeed. But we also have liturgy. We have sacraments. We have the Mass, we have the Eucharist. We have honoring of the Blessed Mother, we have apostolic succession, we have the papal authority, we have all the gifts that Christ wants his people to have. But then Cardinal George added, that doesn't mean that certain gifts might be better exercised in other contexts.

You know, for example, many Protestant churches, you've got preaching that puts our preaching to shame. I've read biblical commentaries from Protestant authors that are marvelous, that have graced me in an extraordinary way. I've benefited. I think of a sermon by Billy Graham that's brought me, I think, some of the grace of God. Okay, good. Maybe some of those gifts, the Catholic Church has the fullness of what Christ wants his people to enjoy, but some of them might be better exercised outside that formal context. Okay. Who am I to say no to it? Who am I to complain about it? Why should I be jealous about it? Rather, shouldn't I rejoice wherever the grace of God is on display? So, remember the story of Eldad and Medad, and let's overcome any type of ecclesial jealousy that would put formal structures above the grace of God. The formal structures serve the grace of God, not the other way around. And God bless you.
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