We need study Scripture for only a short time before two truths of faith begin to disturb our religious security. First, God is bigger, broader and deeper than any religion which purports to teach us about God. Second, God is never limited or restricted by the rules and regulations that organized religions impose on their members. Ironically, we find both these insights in Sunday's first and third readings.

But let's start with the second reading -- by far the easiest of the three to meditate on (James 5:1-6). James expresses something all religions teach: God's values conflict with the world's values.

Those who refuse to follow God can be snookered into believing that wealth, luxury and pleasure are life's goals. If one doesn't have a faith which takes him or her beyond this world, then one has little choice but to search for fulfillment in this world. Such people gear their lives to experience as little pain and inconvenience as possible, and run roughshod over anyone who causes either.

James is unmerciful to these faithless individuals. He promises them miseries, corrosion, fire and slaughter; at the same time, he paints a comforting picture for the faithful.

Open mind

The author of Numbers, on the other hand, approaches the human situation from a different angle (Num 11:25-29). He's concerned not with the unfaithful, but with those followers of God who restrict their following to a limiting, narrow path. Joshua classically represents such people.

This "son of Nun, who from your youth had been Moses' aide," demands that Moses stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying in the camp. Though both had been designated as elders, neither had passed through the "required religious hoops," something which doesn't stop them from receiving Yahweh's prophetic spirit.

Joshua, in this passage, regards religion as a tool to control Yahweh's actions; Moses, as a tool to discover those actions. Joshua wants to limit; Moses longs to expand. "Would that all the people of Yahweh were prophets!" the great law-giver exclaims. "Would that Yahweh might bestow His spirit on them all!"

Mark gives Joshua's role to John in the Gospel (Mk 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48). "Teacher," he snitches to Jesus, "we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us."

With us

But instead of being complimented for his detective work, John is rebuked. Jesus demands that John stop prohibiting people from doing good in His name just because they haven't paid their religious dues.

"Do not prevent him," the teacher commands. "There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me." Then he pronounces one of the most liberal statements in all of Scripture: "Whoever is not against us is for us!" Even non-Christians who help those who minister in Jesus' name will be rewarded.

Then, turning from non-Christians to Christians, Jesus reminds the leaders of His community of their major pitfall: causing those who believe in Him to sin. He offers His leaders a choice of life or Gehenna (at that time, the Jerusalem city dump). Jesus presumes His followers will choose real life over a meaningless existence, even if they have to sacrifice some security to achieve that life.

Perhaps it's good for those of us who are religious leaders to remember that neither Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures nor Jesus in the Christian Scriptures demand that their followers join specific religious denominations. Both call people to faith, to experience life, even if that entails going beyond or around religious regulations. Christian leaders, especially, are expected to help their people distinguish between the rules that offer security and those that offer life.

(09-28-00)