"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

26th SUNDAY (B) SEPTEMBER 26, 2021

Numbers 11: 25-29; Psalm 19; James 5: 1-6; Mark 9: 38-43, 47-48

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

I wonder why Eldad and Medad weren’t at the great meeting with Moses and the seventy elders when God bestowed the spirit of prophesy on them? Did they forget the time and date of the gathering? Had there been a disagreement between them and the others and so they refused to attend? Still, Eldad and Medad received the spirit of prophecy, just like the rest. Joshua, part of the "in group" protests and wants Moses to restrain Eldad and Medad.

Joshua has a restricted spirit and a small heart. If things aren’t done by the standards of the inner circle they must be stopped. Only those who are on our side and who think and do things according to our ways get to share in the gifts of God and experience God’s presence. But Moses will have none of that kind of thinking because he has met and experienced God’s bigness of heart. We don’t have to clutch God to ourselves as our private property. Some religious people do that, restricting God’s presence and activity to conforming members and in precisely enacted rituals.

The gospel parallels the reading from Numbers. A person who is not a member of the disciples’ community is driving out demons using Jesus’ name. Wouldn’t you think the disciples would be happy to know a person had been cured of a dreaded ailment? Why didn’t they also celebrate that Jesus’ name was spreading and others would be learning about the master they had left everything to follow? Apparently, when they chose to follow Jesus and leave their possessions behind, they did not leave their sense of entitlement behind as well.

The disciples were closest to Jesus and they had never given permission for some stranger to use Jesus’ name to heal – a power that Jesus had shared with them. You would think that if good is being done and evil overcome in the world, what does it matter who is doing the good deed, especially if they are doing it in Jesus’ name? We do not belong to an exclusive and privileged club with strict rules for participation. God’s love breaks out beyond our restrictions and borders. Nor is God’s activity limited to our using the right words and formulas and performing the proper gestures.

As a Christian I look for Christ’s presence in the world doing what he did in his lifetime. The details may differ from the gospel’s; someone may not be invoking Jesus’ name in doing the good they do. Still, when someone forgives a wrong done; a neighbor sacrifices time and resources to help someone in need; medical personnel travel across the country to relieve a pandemic-swamped emergency room; a grammar school collects food and clothing for the poor – though the name of Jesus may not be spoken, and the people involved might not be Christian, still, I see him present, doing what he always did, reaching out to raise up the fallen and rejected.

A quote from THE INTERPRETERS BIBLE sums up this part of the passage:

"These words of Jesus, then, are a rebuke to all our blind exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions, that God's action in the world is limited to the forms which we are familiar. ‘Something there is that does not love a wall.' It is the mind of God. The church has suffered terribly, and the world has suffered terribly, from this fence-building frenzy. If one tenth of the time which Christians have devoted to building fences had gone into building roads as a highway for God, the world would be a far better place today."

Jesus came to heal the sick and help the poor. If a doctor dedicates her life; giving of her free time; not charging indigent patients who don’t have health care; even providing free medication – but doesn’t explicitly invoke the name of Jesus – would she also come under Jesus’ banner – "For whoever is not against us is for us"? Mother Theresa thought if you gave a cup of water to a thirsty person out of love, you were in fact a follower of Jesus. While we don’t need to "baptize" every good, non-believer for their works still, we can say they are living in a way Jesus would recognize and applaud.

There is a shift in today’s gospel that may be hard to hear, the part about putting a millstone around the neck of a scandalous member and casting them into the sea; cutting off an offending hand; casting someone into an unquenchable fire in Gehenna, etc. What’s going on here? We must recognize Jesus’ Middle Eastern way of speaking and the use of hyperbole to make a point. Note, that Gehenna wasn’t another name for hell, but referred to Jerusalem’s smoking, foul-smelling garbage dump – a perfect metaphor to warn disciples of the consequences of sinful behavior, being cast into a smelly, burning garbage dump!

Mark follows the conversation between John and Jesus about the disciples’ sense of entitlement, with this teaching about extreme measures to avoid sin. In the context, the disciples’ elitist attitude can be a scandal to the "little ones" in the community. Those of rank in the community, or the "established members," must set an example of humility and sensitivity for the believing faithful. In the images of the gospel, if we seek the place of honor in a procession we should cut off our foot. If we refuse to see the abusive behavior of some in the community, we should pluck out our eye. Could Jesus have made his point in any stronger terms? We know from recent coverups of abusive behavior by some of our church leaders, that Jesus’ words have not worn out their meaning.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/092621.cfm