Here is a story about myself that I tell with shame. I was on holiday in the Netherlands a long time ago when I was young. I had very little money and I was hitchhiking. I visited the city of Haarlem to see the Frans Hals Museum. I bought a lunch from a shop and as I left realised that the assistant had given me far too much change. I wrestled with my conscience briefly. He might get into trouble at the end of the day when they were cashing up; I ought to return the money. But I had so little money myself. So I decided to keep the money and not go back into the shop. But my conscience felt bad and I could not help feeling that somehow God had a lesson for me. Anyway I enjoyed the rest of the day and went to the bus station for my return journey to Leiden where I was staying … only to find that I had lost the return ticket. It was a salutary lesson.
The reading from the Letter of James (5.1-6) tells us of workers who were exploited and defrauded of their wages. Their cries, we are told, have reached the ears of God, to whom we must all give account of our lives. What then will the swindlers say? And before we think how this does not apply to us, we have the uncomfortable realisation that we live in a global economy in which we benefit from the cheap wages of factories in Shanghai and Guatemala. In the gospel (from Mark 9) Jesus has similarly strong words. He says that if our hand, or foot, or eye should cause us to sin, we should be prepared to get rid of that part of ourselves rather than risk hell. These words of his can shock because there is a kind of violence in them. But Jesus here is emphasising the urgency of choosing. Moreover, the very force of his words cuts at our human tendency to procrastinate, to evade coming to the point.
Just as the readings invite us to such sombre reflections, they invite us also to hope. There are always those who speak prophetically. Sometimes they are people of faith, men and women whose hearts are open to God. They feel compelled to speak honestly and urgently about the world around them, drawing attention to evil and injustice. But we know that this spirit of prophecy can occur even outside the official channels, as it were. In our first reading from Numbers (11.25-29) we hear that the spirit of God unexpectedly seized two young men who then began to prophesy, just as in the gospel we hear about someone exorcising in the name of Jesus, even although he was not a disciple. God’s presence is everywhere, and he can call anyone into action, even if they are unaware that he is speaking through them.