by Br Julian McDonald cfc
John spoke up: “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to drive out demons, and we stopped him because he didn’t belong to our group.” Jesus was not impressed. “Don’t try to stop him. No one can perform a miracle in my name and, in the next breath, undermine me. Anyone who is not against us is with us. Why, anyone, by just giving you a cup of water in my name, is on our side. Be assured that God will notice.” Mark 9, 38-43, 45, 47-48
Today’s first reading from the Book of Numbers and the gospel-reading from Mark illustrate how we human beings seem determined to protect jealously what we come to regard as “our territory”. The Book of Numbers, which takes its name from two population censuses of the Israelites initiated by Moses during their years of meandering their way to the Promised Land, is the fourth of the five books of the Torah or Pentateuch. Numbers contains lots of demographic and statistical information about tribes and clans, and even details how the plunder, taken by the Israelites after their war with the Midianites, was divided up. Today’s reading, however, records Moses’ wise response to Joshua when he urged Moses to silence Eldad and Medad from prophesying, because they were not part of the in-group of seventy elders: “Joshua, son of Nun, who had been Moses’ right-hand man since his youth, said: ‘Moses, master! Stop them!’ But Moses said: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets. Would that God’s Spirit were alive in all of them.’ ”
The truth is that God’s Spirit dwells in all of us. We have been created in God’s image and further endowed with God’s Spirit through our baptism. Moreover, we are all meant to be prophets, to witness to the truth by speaking out against things like the uneven distribution of our world’s resources, the plight of refugees, the tardiness of our leaders in addressing the rapid advances of global warming, the discrimination and injustice directed at many of our sisters and brothers because of their race and skin colour. And, even within our Church, there is still evidence of superiority, injustice and discrimination. There are some among us who insist that Catholics have a monopoly on truth. Until fairly recently, we have had Church leaders who have refused to employ women qualified with degrees in theology, and some leaders who still will not accept girls as altar servers and women as Eucharistic ministers. In this context, I recall the crusades conducted in Australia by the very capable American Baptist preacher, Billy Graham in 1959 and again in 1968-69. Catholics were urged by Church leaders not to attend the crusades lest their faith be contaminated, or they be attracted to join the Baptist Church. Claiming one’s religious teaching or practice as superior to another’s smacks of elitism and superiority. And that’s the very reason why Jesus pulls John into line at the start of today’s gospel-reading.
In last week’s gospel-reading, we heard Jesus reprimanding the Twelve for their arguing about which one of them deserved to be ranked first and best. Clearly, they were beginning to consider their place in Jesus’ inner-circle as giving them importance, power and superiority. And that’s why Jesus wasted no time in pulling John into line.
John’s haste to label as an intruder the man he saw as “cashing in” on Jesus’ name and growing popularity illustrates an aspect of human behaviour that we all are inclined to adopt from time to time. Capitalism and the world of the professions are built on competition and the struggle for promotion. Again and again, we can find ourselves drawn into comparing ourselves with those beside whom we live and work: “I’m on top of my job, but there are some in the office with me who struggle to keep up.” And when it comes to religion, we can see how the road to ecumenism is long and difficult when we regard ourselves as having an unbroken link with the Apostles, and condescendingly pray that “those others” will eventually see the light.
And yet, the essence of Christian discipleship is to spend ourselves in the service of others, especially those in need, without reservation, judgement or comparison. There is a lot of truth in the aphorism: “All comparisons are odious.” Comparing ourselves with those around us is foreign to the Gospel and to genuine discipleship.
The Trappist monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, reflecting on how even very good people can fall into the trap of comparing themselves with others, observed: “As soon as you begin to take yourself seriously and imagine that your virtues are important because they are yours, you become the prisoner of your own vanity, and even your best works will blind and deceive you. Then, in order to defend yourself you will begin to see sins and faults everywhere in the actions of others. And the more unreasonable importance you attach to yourself and to your own works, the more you will tend to build up your own idea of yourself by condemning others. Sometimes virtuous men(sic) are also bitter and unhappy because they have unconsciously come to believe that all their happiness depends on their being more virtuous than others.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, Shambhala Publications, Boston 2003, p 59-60)
Whenever we allow attitudes like that to creep into our lives, we lose our credibility as disciples of Jesus and risk becoming “stumbling blocks” (Mark 9, 42) to ourselves and others.
The essence of being an authentic disciple of Jesus is to live and act in the awareness that discipleship involves service and that everyone in need whom we encounter has a claim on us and deserves to be treated with sensitivity, care and compassion, for no other reason than that they are as dear to God as we are, that they, too, have God’s Spirit dwelling within them and that they are our sisters and brothers. The John we see at the start of today’s gospel-reading reflects to us an aspect of ourselves that we may be reluctant to acknowledge.