September 26, 2021 at St. Peter the Apostle and Saint Agnes Parishes in Naples, FL
Numbers 11, 25-29 + Psalm 19 + James 5, 1-6+ Mark 9, 38-43, 45, 47-48
We get a mixed collection of sayings today that are difficult to hear with just a single focus. When we read about the behavior of the Apostles last week and this week, we have to wonder if they ever catch on to anything Jesus is teaching them. Last week it was their ambitious talk among themselves about who was going to sit where in the Kingdom. This week, John shows us how jealously exclusive they have become over their role and relationship with Jesus. John does not like it that someone from “outside” is doing things, even good things, by the name of Jesus. He thinks that he and his friends have exclusive rights. Never mind, that in verses just a little earlier he was unable to do cast out a demon which this outsider has just done.
Early Christian communities were in many ways independent of each other. That early church was not as organized and hierarchical as today. John’s community seems to have been more exclusive than some. This scene rejects his exclusive thinking and affirms the teaching that anyone who does the will of God belongs in the “family.” Jesus said that when his “family” came to take him away. “Who are my brothers and sisters, he asks? “Anyone who does the will of my father”, is the answer. Mark recalls this incident to put a stop to the early Church’s problem with exclusivity.
It is tolerance that Jesus insists upon, and he still does. Reflection on this passage might well open our minds and hearts to more tolerant attitudes toward Islam, Judaism, and other Christian Communities especially when we see them doing good, respectful, prayerful, and generous. Intolerance is always a sign of arrogance and ignorance. We may certainly disagree with another’s beliefs, but we should never despise a person who sincerely holds those beliefs. Disciples of Jesus Christ are recognized for how they serve others. That trumps everything else. We have to get over our labeling of others as progressive or conservative. How they treat others is what matters.
Once this point is made, Mark adds a collection of sayings that he remembered which were important to his time and to ours. Fundamentally, this part of the Gospel insists that we accept our responsibility toward others. Before we start looking around at what others are doing, Jesus insists that we pay attention to our own behavior first. When it comes to cutting off, the suggestion makes sense, not in a literal way, but if you’re drinking or eating too much, cut it out. Stop it. If you are in a relationship that is toxic, you need to cut it off. If the TV or the internet threatens family communication, it needs to be cut off. If a job or some employment becomes unethical it’s time to quit. In other words, we must be decisive, maybe even radical in our choices when it comes to moving into the reign of God.
If this Gospel today seems disconnected, we might bring these sayings together like this: We are challenged to be inclusive with regard to people we consider “outsiders” when in fact, they are doing good things. At the same time, we are being encouraged by Jesus to take some of our instinct for divisive exclusion and address our own lives that may need some radical surgery if our life with God is to be preserved and enhanced.