Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
26th Sunday of OT, Year B
September 28, 2003
Numbers 11:25-29; James 5:1-6; Mk 9:38-43,45,47-48
1) We encounter in today’s Gospel a big contrast and a big surprise. The contrast is between those who are working for God and those who are not. As the Lord says, some are “for” Him; some are “against” Him. The surprise is that those who might seem to be working for the Lord in fact may not be and those who seem not to be working for Him in fact may be. Insofar as all of us are here because we want to be working for the Lord, because we want to hear him say one day to us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” we need to examine what the Lord Jesus says today and apply it to our own actions, to see if we really are working for him or if we’re working against him.
2) We start with God’s collaborators. God wants all of us on his team. In the first reading, Moses says, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” The Lord wants all of us to preach him, to spread the good news of his incredible love. He’s said this to us in many ways. His last words before ascending to the Father were “Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News!” He called us to be the Light of the World, reflecting the light of his truth and the warmth of his love to others. He said that those who are great in his kingdom “will keep my words and teach others to do the same” (which is important to remember on this weekend when we begin CCD). Proclaiming this Gospel, as Jesus told us, is not just saying, “Lord, Lord,” but “doing God’s will.” It involves words and deeds. It ultimately involves living our life for God and in God, putting our treasure in Him, seeking first his kingdom, each day, in every action.
3) The first big surprise is that those who do not seem to be with the Lord in this way in fact may be. Eldad and Medad were not among the original seventy elders chosen to prophesy in the name of the Lord to the Israelites. But, as we see in the first reading, the Lord filled them with his Spirit and they began to proclaim God’s word throughout the camp. The still young and immature Joshua, who would become Moses’ successor, objected, “Moses, stop them!” But Moses told him there was no reason to be jealous. God wants all to be prophets, and always works outside of our cozy parameters. Even those we think are not be the ones chosen by the Lord to be his ambassadors might in fact be his emissaries and coworkers. We learn the same lesson from the Gospel. Soon after the failure of the disciples to cast out a demon from a young boy (while the Lord was being transfigured before Peter, James and John on the mountain) and the Lord castigated their generation for its lack of faith, the disciples caught someone who wasn’t among their number casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and St. John said that he and the other disciples had tried to stop him. Who was working for the Lord and who against him here? The disciples were the ones who were supposed to be the Lord’s collaborators, but like Joshua, they still hadn’t figured out God’s ways. He came to set prisoners free, to defeat Satan once and for all. To the still-immature disciples, they wanted to stop someone from doing the Lord’s work because he wasn’t a card-carrying member of what they wanted to be their exclusive club. But God’s ways are not are ways. “The Spirit blows where it wills,” Jesus would tell us later. None of us should ever think we have a monopoly on the name, mission, message and power of Jesus. Jesus said, “I have other sheep who are not of this fold.” We should rejoice when we find those sheep, those who truly are working for the Lord, whether we might label them Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, liberal, conservative, black, brown or white. We should never find God’s action in others a threat, but actually something to marvel in. We should of course want to help them to come to the fullness of the truth about God revealed to us by Christ in His Church, but we should rejoice that they, at whatever stage of revelation they’ve received, would be corresponding to the gentle breeze of the Holy Spirit. We repeat with Moses, “Would that all God’s people were prophets!”
4) But not all God’s people are in fact prophets. Jesus says quite strongly that there are those who are “against” Him, those who not only do not work for him, but actively try to oppose him. We see many of these opponents in the Gospel: Satan in the desert; some of the Scribes and Pharisees during Jesus’ public ministry; Herod the Great at Jesus’ birth; Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas at Jesus’ death; even, for a very short time, St. Peter, whom Christ called Satan and told to get behind him when he rejected the possibility that the Lord would suffer. But those weren’t the ones Jesus specified in this episode as those who were against him. He referred, rather, to those who GIVE SCANDAL, especially scandal to little ones. Such is Jesus’ love for his children that he passionately warns everyone who harms little ones through scandal what punishment they should expect: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and thrown into the sea.” The word “scandal” in the original language of the Bible means two things: something that causes another to fall and something that is an obstacle. Applied to the matters of faith, scandal is something that either causes another to sin (i.e., fall from God) or something that prevents the access of another (an obstacle)to the kingdom of God. If the Lord were visibly here this morning and we were to ask him to give us some examples of such scandals from our own day, I think he would be able to give us many. And I think a lot of us would be surprised that those who would seem to be working for the Lord — who might even think they are working for the Lord — have actually been working against him because they give such scandals especially to the young. Whom would the Lord Jesus warn today?
a) No question that Jesus who single out all those — especially priests — who have used their outward reputations as being his representatives to abuse His children. Doubtless, too, he would castigate those shepherds who did little or nothing to rid his flock of the wolves in sheep’s — or worse shepherds’ — clothing. All of us are aware of the tremendous scandal caused by these actions, not just in the lives of the young people who were taken advantage of, but in the lives of their friends and families and in Jesus’ whole body the Church. So great is Jesus’ love for young people that he described in graphic terms the punishment for those who harm the young — better for them that a millstone be tied around their neck and tossed into the sea. This is a stern and timely reminder. Thanks be to God, I think we’re now getting that message.
b) Jesus, I think, would also admonish those who use the means of social communications to lead others, especially children, to sin. What do you think he would say to those who poison our souls through pornography and or who use films and movies and records to pollute our minds and hearts with a counter-gospel of gratuitous violence, or sexual utilitarianism, or even the occult? What do you think he would say to those artists who invoke “artistic license” to try to tear down others’ faith, like putting the Crucifix in a jar of urine, or an image of the Blessed Mother in a pile of dung? Or to those in the print media who invoke a “right to free speech” intentionally to try to mock and weaken others’ faith in God? Or to those educators or legislators today who are promoting homosexuality, teaching our young children in public GRAMMAR SCHOOLS in this state that it’s alright when a kid has “two daddies,” or who are trying to change the meaning of marriage — which God created in the beginning — to encompass homosexual unions? Or to those politicians who call themselves Catholic — including one who lives very close to us here — while at the same time saying that we should celebrate as a civil RIGHT the choice to dismember the smallest of God’s children in the sanctuaries of their mothers’ wombs. If there were stock in mill-stone companies, now would be the time to buy…
c) But Jesus might point out examples far closer to home. When I became chaplain at Bishop Connolly High School, I did an extensive survey of the students’ practice of the faith. In 2000, only 41% of students said they went to Mass. When I asked them the reasons why, most of them gave reasons like, “Because my parents don’t go, why should I?” “My folks told me it really doesn’t matter whether you go to Mass; all that matters is that you’re a good person.” Some students described how they looked at Church as a burden, because their parents forced them to come, without ever showing them why one should love God, love the Church, and love the Mass. Other described stories of how they on their own would go to Mass, but they would not be made to feel welcome when they thought this was supposed to be God’s house. Still others said they looked at the Church as an institution of hypocrites, because they perceived at home their parents were spending money to send them to Catholic schools to learn a faith that they didn’t think their parents were practicing at home. There were other reasons, too, and I’m not about to excuse the students entirely and allow them to put all the blame on others. The point I want to make, though, very strongly, is that we all need to be very careful about the example we set, because the young people — whom Jesus loves — are watching. When I got to my last parish of Espirito Santo, many of the CCD kids who would be dropped off for Mass by their parents would try to leave Mass after receiving Holy Communion. I stopped a few of them one day Mass as they were doing this during the Mass the pastor was celebrating and asked them where they thought they were going, because CCD was held right after Mass. “What, Father, am I doing something wrong?,” one of the fifth grade girls sheepishly asked me. They told me that they were just doing what they saw the adults who sit in the back of the Church doing and thought that staying later than that was optional. But the message they were getting is that worshipping God is something we can hope gets over as quickly as possible, so that we can go do something else. And if the Lord were here at St. Francis Xavier parish this weekend, I think he might want to call some of the many people who leave Mass early on a regular basis to a higher standard. I say this because I know you’re mature enough to handle such direct talk. Such people might not think that there’s any real harm in what they’re doing, but they can never know what others — especially the young — may perceive in those actions. The Lord calls us not just to be good, but to set good example, and those who set bad example, even in what they might consider small things, might be harming God’s children.
5) This weekend each of us needs to examine whether we’re prophets for the Lord or giving scandal. Most of us, if we’re honest, will admit that we probably do a little of both. But this weekend is a chance for us to make a real effort to change. The same Jesus who said, “those who are not against us are with us” said in another part of the Gospel, “Whoever is not with me is against me. Whoever does not gather with me scatters.” When looking at both of these passages together, the great St. Augustine said there was no contradiction. There can be people partially with and partially against the Lord, and that the Lord affirms that we should not reject that which in a person is with the Lord but that we should cast-off that which in a person is against God. That’s why in today’s Gospel, right after the Lord talked about scandal, he called us to brutal honesty with ourselves, to rid whatever in us is not conformable to Christ and his kingdom, to whatever in us causes us to sin, and through such sinning, lead others to sin. Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin, … or your foot … or eye causes you to stumble, cut it off.” Jesus is calling us to amputate all occasions of sin so as not to fall into Gehenna. Jesus, of course, is not encouraging us physically to maim ourselves (lest anyone be confused and commit the sin of self-mutilation), but to do something perhaps even harder: to cut out the cancer of sin from our body and from our soul. We all remember the moving story this past May of Aron Ralston, the 27-year old hiker who used his pocket knife to amputate his own right arm which had been pinned beneath an 800-pound boulder for five days. The Lord calls us to cut out of our lives whatever keeps us from him and whatever in us therefore leads others away from him.“For what will it profit a man,” Jesus says in the Gospel, “to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” For our sakes, and for the sake of our children and others whom He loves and whom we love, the Lord calls us to change. We might think only of the pain that such an amputation would cause, but there’s great joy. Aron Ralston, the hiker, said in an interview soon after the episode: “A lot of people think of it in terms of, ‘I would never be able to put a blade to my own skin.’ But having gone to the depths of coming to accept I could very well die there, and then seeing the light of being able to get out, it didn’t even occur to me to dwell on the painful side of the experience. It was more about the euphoria, the joy. And I’m sure the adrenaline and chemicals that were going through my body helped out, too. But they all worked to help me get through that and the liberation was one of the greatest experiences of my life.” So much greater would be the joy and euphoria of the liberation that would come from a spiritual amputation of sin.
6) “Would that all God’s people were prophets!” The Lord would not be calling us to be his prophets unless he were planning to give us all the help we need to live up to that vocation. After having heard him in Sacred Scripture today, and in anticipation of receiving His body and blood inside us, let us ask him to heal our wounded eyes, or sinful hands, or scandalous feet, so that every part of us may be “with Him” in this life and in the next.