TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 27, 2015

A reading from the Book of Numbers 11:25-29

A reading from the Letter of James 5:1-6

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

This Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Numbers and the Gospel reading from Mark are closely related in theme.  In each reading, underlings think their master, Moses in the first reading and Jesus in the Gospel is being threatened by unauthorized people exercising charismatic gifts.  Eldad and Medad were not present when God showered the spirit, first on Moses and then on the seventy elders.  Empowered by that spirit, the elders prophesied; that is, they uttered messages God wanted the people to hear.

Joshua is scandalized when Eldad and Medad exhibit the same gift of prophecy.  He wants Moses to silence them.  Joshua seems to think that Moses will be slighted if the people think there is another source for the gifts other than Moses.  Joshua wants the trickle down theory to be obvious.  He wants it to be clear that God gifted Moses, and through Moses, the seventy elders received the gift of prophecy.  And it stopped there.  But Moses sees things differently.  He thinks it would be wonderful if all the people gave that evidence of God’s influence in their lives and thus became prophets.

In the Gospel, John is upset.  Disciples have been out on a mission.  While they were away from Jesus they saw someone who was not part of their group casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  John tried to stop him.  He thought the man’s actions were scandalous because he was not known to be a disciple.  But Jesus corrects John.  He tells him that if someone performs good deeds in Jesus’ name, that one cannot be against Jesus and his disciples.  That one has to be for Jesus.

The fact is that if someone acts kindly toward another because that one belongs to Christ, the benefactor will be rewarded.  Jesus might be telling John something similar to what Moses told Joshua.  John, wouldn’t it be great if everyone started doing heroic deeds in my name?  Could the Kingdom then be far away?

There always seem to be those who want to control God’s gifts and so make it clear that those acting have the blessing of the one in authority.  The actions of those from another group or sect are to be seen as suspect and not to be encouraged.  By whose authority do you do what you are doing?  Then follows the effort to silence the outsider.  The lesson of Pentecost hasn’t been grasped.  That violent wind and those tongues of fire could not be controlled.  All those caught up in the storm, those licked by the fire, all went out and announced Jesus.

The Spirit blows where the Spirit wills.  The result is that those affected change and bring God’s blessings to people in need.  When starving children are fed and children are rescued from sex trafficking, when medicines and sera stem the tides of HIV/AIDS and sleeping sickness, when these good things happen, there ought to be rejoicing regardless of the source.  Good deeds are signs of God’s working through people, lifting up the lowly and embracing all with God’s love.

The Gospel text shifts suddenly.  The theme is no longer about those who act righteously.  Now we hear a warning about those who give scandal and lead others into sin.  It would be better for one to die than scandalize the vulnerable.  It is not clear to whom Jesus is speaking.  He could be talking to the Apostles.  He could be speaking to those in authority among the disciples.  He could be speaking to the whole community of believers.  Certainly the message applies to anyone who wields authority over others, be they parents or teachers, pastors or political leaders, or anyone else who can say to someone, do this and he does it.  All should take their authority seriously and take whatever means necessary to avoid giving scandal.

Jesus’ teaching is plied with grim images that should cause the hearer to wince.  Cut off your hand, or, cut off your foot, or, gouge out your eye if it will cause you to sin.  Those words are not meant to be taken literally.  The point Jesus is making is, be willing to take drastic measures to avoid giving scandal.  Remove from your life anything that gets in the way of your being an effective witness to Christ.  Hell awaits those who do not.  That’s harsh, to be sure, but that seems to be what the Lord Jesus is saying.

Pope Francis is developing the reputation of one who takes this admonishment seriously.  He has stripped away the outer splendor of his office.  He lives simply.  He serves among and not over others.  His focus is on the little ones, the outcasts, and the vulnerable.  And he supports anyone, even those outside the church, who seeks to do God’s will and works for justice and peace.  As I write this, the world waits to hear what he will say before the United Nations and to both Houses of Congress when he visits the United States.  There is likely to be no shortage of those who will think, surely he is not speaking to me!

The second reading from the Letter of James does not directly relate to the first reading of the Gospel.  We have been listening to James for several weeks now.  This will be the last we will hear from him until we return to these B Cycle Sundays three years from now.  What we hear this Sunday seems particularly apt given the state of the world’s economy and the increasing evidence of the growing chasm separating the 1% wealthy ones from the 99% less endowed, and the growing number of impoverished people.  It seems clear what James would say about the so-called American Dream.

Do not misunderstand.  James is not saying that wealth and finery of themselves are evils.  He would rejoice with those who have if what they have has not become their god, blinding them to the needs of others.  The so-called entitled can ride roughshod over others and create havoc along the way.

The wealthy James denounces have gotten where they are by exploiting those beneath them.  They have not paid just wages to the workers or done anything to ease their sufferings.  The elite live in luxury and pleasure while others languish in abject poverty.  Read the finance pages and the scandals covered there and you will be able to put contemporary faces on those James excoriates.  This country will not soon forget Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and all those broken by his greed and duplicity.  All the victims cry out.  James says that the Lord hears.

Those who believe in Jesus need to hear his message and heed the Church’s Social Gospel.  The wealthy have a responsibility to the poor.  Workers have a right to a just wage.  The vulnerable should be shielded and protected.  First World countries have a responsibility to aid developing countries, or Third World Countries, as they tend to be called.  Pope Paul VI said people do not have a right to excess wealth when there are those who live in dire poverty.  From faith’s perspective, this is so because we belong to one family.  The poor are God’s beloved ones, too.  They are our sisters and brothers in this human family.

There is a lot to ponder here, a lot to pray about.

What is the answer?  What are we supposed to do?  As Catholic Christians practicing our faith, we come together to celebrate Eucharist.  All about us are signs of our unity with each other in Christ.  Our on-going transformation as the Body of Christ calls us to live the Mystery and so imitate Christ whose Body and Blood we share in the Eucharistic Meal.  When we take the Cup and drink from it, that is a sign of our willingness to be poured out in service for others the way Christ pours himself out for our salvation.  Again, heeding Pope Francis, we must become more obviously a servant church and dare to let the implications of our Baptism and our reception of Holy Communion compel us.

Who knows where the Spirit will lead us?  Who knows what changes the Spirit will inspire us to make?  In these days we must pause and pray.  We must plead with God to show us the way.  Fear of hell may be a motivator.  But I believe that the love of Christ is stronger.  Don’t you?

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

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