by Father Mike Stubbs
Seven days in a week. Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. Seven sacraments.
The number 7 has a magic ring to it. Frequently, in the Bible and in Tradition, it represents fullness and completion.
In Sunday’s first reading, Nm 11: 25-29, God bestows the spirit upon 70 elders in response to Moses’ complaint: “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me” (Nm 11:14). Moses wants help.
The number 70 is an amplification of 7. Once again, it symbolizes fullness. Moses will have all the help he needs. And even though Moses only gets these 70 elders, he yearns for cooperation from all the people of Israel. He says as much, in response to Joshua’s concern that Eldad and Medad, who were not present with the others, have also received the spirit and are prophesying: “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” The 70 elders will assist Moses on behalf of all the people of Israel.
These 70 elders who assist Moses anticipate the 70 disciples that Jesus will call to share in his mission. (Lk 10:1) Some manuscripts read “72” instead of “70.” Once again, these 70 disciples represent the totality of all those who follow Jesus. But they do not replace the other disciples. Everyone has a part to play.
In their journey to the Promised Land, the people of Israel face a massive challenge. They will need everyone’s cooperation. There is no room for jealousy, for petty rivalries. However, that is part of the basic human makeup. When we form cliques, we tend to shut people out.
This tendency toward exclusiveness surfaces once again in the Gospels. Centuries later, the apostle John will complain to Jesus about someone who is not a disciple, but who is nonetheless working miracles in Jesus’ name. Once again, Jesus, like Moses, invites his disciples to a broader vision — to be more inclusive: “For whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40).
If it happened during the time of Moses, if it happened at the time of Jesus, it can also happen in our day and age. Our parishes and communities can become so accustomed to the usual crowd that we don’t welcome newcomers. Sunday’s readings invite us to go beyond our comfort zone, to consider that someone outside our usual group may also be acting on behalf of Christ.