To Stand Beholding – Tom Mundahl reflects on an alternative to our cravings and their resulting garbage.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday September 25 – October 1, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
We live in a time when human cravings continue to grow in spite of the likely diminishing of the ability to satisfy them. Our desire for faster mobile phones is met by the incessant roll-out of newer and sleeker devices from Apple and its smaller competitors. Chain “big-box supercenters” seem to emerge like giant slugs from the suburban landscape, enabling us to fill our enlarged shopping carts at one convenient stop. Even frustrated cravings for personal power can be and, too often, are compensated for by widely available assault weapons and the necessary ammunition. The texts for this Sunday after Pentecost respond to these cravings by moving us from deformed desire to the way of collaboration and listening to God.
One cannot help noticing that our First Reading from Numbers excises an essential part of this narrative. However, when we read 11:4-29 inclusively, we see the relationship between the craving for food and the concern for power more accurately.
The most obvious desire is for some variety in the daily menu of the wilderness wanderers. There are just not many ways to prepare manna, so “the rabble among them” (Numbers 11:4) begin to wallow in nostalgic memory of the diet offered by Egyptian slave masters—a diet that included fish, cucumbers, melons, onions, leeks, and garlic (Numbers 11:5). As the leader of this enterprise, Moses must be at fault for this bland diet.
Not for the first time does Moses lament that leadership of this people is a burden too heavy (Numbers 11:14). To lighten the strain, the LORD commands him to appoint seventy elders, who will all receive a share of the Spirit to enable them to assist Moses. And, the LORD also more than satisfies the cravings of the people for meat. If they want meat, they will get it in spades. In an example of his prophetic role, Moses is commanded to deliver this word of the LORD to the people: “You shall eat (meat) not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you…” (Numbers 11:19-20).
Hearing about quail ‘coming out of the nostrils’ reminds me of the studies of the waste stream in the U.S., especially studies done by the late garbologist William Rathje and, more recently, by Edward Humes (Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. New York: Avery, 2012). Our waste stream shows in graphic detail the consequences of our cravings.
When Humes discovered that the largest category of U.S. exports by volume was trash, he decided to write his book. Ships carrying consumer goods from China return filled with scrap paper and unwanted metal. The Chinese reuse it to make a variety of products and sell them back at substantial profit, only to receive recovered materials once more as waste product. In some ways, then, the U.S. acts as a “trash compactor” for China (Jon Thurber, “Edward Humes Enjoys Digging through Rubbish,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2012)
Even more shocking is the fact that the average U.S. “consumer” produces 1.2 tons of garbage annually—twice as much as the average Dane and almost three times the waste production of Japanese citizens. Because of this, the typical U.S. city spends more on waste management than fire protection, libraries, parks and recreation, and the textbook costs combined (Thurber). While the garbage does not come “out of our nostrils,” the results of our cravings are clear.
But the craving for food is matched by a craving for power expressed by Joshua, who will show his comfort with military power in the “conquest” of Canaan. In our reading, we see Joshua express his alarm when Eldad and Medad prophesy outside the boundaries of the “tent of meeting” (Numbers 11:26). Joshua petitions Moses to stop them, but Moses answers, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all of the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:28-29).
Our reading from Mark echoes this issue of “jealousy.” But where Joshua speaks up to avoid disorder and secure Moses legitimate authority to lead, John, speaking for the rest of the disciple group, exhibits a “jealousy” reflecting their concern for maximizing power and influence, a “jealousy” that is clearly out of place.
Ironically, Jesus has just demonstrated the servanthood at the center of the new community by taking a child in his arms and teaching, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:36-37). But the disciples learn slowly, for John’s specific concern is that another leader is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. It seems that John is looking for and expects Jesus’ approval as he continues, “we tried to stop him because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38).
Jesus reacts strongly, giving three reasons why the disciples should not interfere. First, anyone who performs a deed of power in Jesus’ name will not soon defame him. Furthermore, anyone not against them is for them. Finally, after calling attention to the “disciple students” with “truly I tell you,” Jesus teaches them that “whoever gives you a cup to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (Mark 9:39-41). As Ched Myers reminds us, “John is entertaining “holier than thou” delusions, but Jesus points out how his followers will often find themselves on the receiving end of compassion” (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988, p. 262).
To be on the “receiving end” is to return to the very nature of creation. As Robert Jenson puts it: “For God to create is for him to open a place in his triune life for others than the three whose mutual life he is” (quoted in Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford, 2003, p. 19). Instead of the disciples’ desire to restrict the action of “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1) to an insider group of gate-keepers, the Triune God continually makes room for more to receive this healing power. This is why the Servant of Creation takes the child in his arms.
And this is where we can take the counsel of the author of James and consider the gift of prayer. Our reading (James 5:13-20) details the benefits of intercessory prayer. “As humans created by God, people will have needs met only from God” (David Rhoads, “The Letter of James: Friend of God,” Currents in Theology and Mission, December 1998, Vol. 25, No. 6, p. 486). Through prayer, humans are on the “receiving end of compassion” from the triune God who continually makes room for healing and welcome.
Prayer seems to provide an alternative to craving. Not only does it understand that all is received as a good gift from God requiring thanksgiving and care. Prayer also moves us to slow down so that we can actually meditate not only on the gifts of God, but also on the very being of creation itself. Perhaps Joseph Sittler described this best as “beholding.” “To behold means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the non-self with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand beholding means that one stands within the Creation with an intrinsically theological stance” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, eds., Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 80).
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.
Lutheran Church of the Reformation
St. Louis Park, MN