by Br Julian McDonald cfc

John said to Jesus: “Master, we saw a man who is not one of us casting out devils in your name; and because he was not one of us, we tried to stop him.” But Jesus said: “You must not stop him: no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.”
Mark 9, 38-43, 45, 47-48

There is a very clear parallel between the opening section of today’s gospel reading and the first reading from the Book of Numbers. In the latter, we hear how Joshua, following a report from a young man complaining about Eldad and Medad prophesying without official approval, urges Moses to stop them. In the gospel, John complains to Jesus when he sees a man who does not belong to the “in group” of disciples casting out devils in the name of Jesus.

We can all admit to having felt jealous when some stranger has trespassed on what we regarded as “our territory”, especially if the stranger’s efforts were more successful than ours. So, we can understand how the desire expressed by Moses: “If only all the people were prophets! If only the Lord would lay his Spirit on them all!”, probably left Joshua feeling a little uncomfortable. After all, prophets are the kind of people we tend to avoid, because they disturb and unsettle us. We don’t like it when they question our integrity or name our hypocrisy. We’re more comfortable when they target those who make life difficult for us. So, we, like Joshua, don’t relish the prospect of a glut of prophets.

Today’s second reading gives us a good example of a prophet in action. James lambastes those in his community who have lined their own pockets by underpaying their employees. Yet, I doubt if any homilies in our churches this weekend will focus on those who get rich at the expense of the poor. I wonder, too, how many ordinary, strugglers will turn up to their churches to be reminded about how sinful they are.

Nonetheless, James still gives us all cause to stop and reflect on the place money and possessions has in our lives. Many of us live in countries whose wealth has come from people dispossessed of their land, or we belong to nations our forebears colonised and exploited. That wealth is now used to protect us from being called to be accountable. And an apology is not even on our radar. Still, we continue to live off the benefits of historical injustice.

If the reading from James causes us some discomfort, the words of Jesus in the gospel reading are likely to make us squirm even more. While we recognise that Jesus is deliberately exaggerating with his references to poking out eyes and cutting off hands in order to get to heaven, we take his point that some of the possessions and practices to which we cling distract us from living decent, healthy, moral lives. He is challenging us to examine and order our priorities, to set aside whatever it is that that gets in the way of our following him as true disciples.

His response to John’s complaint about the outsider who was casting out devils in his name is a challenge to us all about our priorities. Effectively, Jesus is asking his friends and us if we regard membership as more important than discipleship. Baptism might make us members of the Christian community, but it is meaningless if it does not lead us to live as authentic disciples of Jesus. Paid-up membership entitles us to entry into the most exclusive clubs and organisations, but it’s only commitment to, and practical application of, the message that Jesus proclaimed and lived that make us his genuine disciples.

The English painter, William Holman Hunt (1827-1910, and one of the founders of the School of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) is best known for his religious paintings. St Paul’s Cathedral in London houses what is probably his most famous painting. It’s known as “The Light of the World”, and takes its inspiration from words attributed to Jesus in the Book of Revelation: “Look at me. I’m standing at the door, knocking. If you hear me calling, and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.” (Revelation 3, 20)

The door at which Jesus is standing in the painting has no knob and no handle. It is overgrown with vines and is partially blocked by weeds, giving the impression that it has not been opened for a long time. It can be opened only from the inside. The message, of course, is that, if Jesus is to come into our lives, we have to admit him. He is constantly knocking and seeking admission, but it is our decision to let him in. The morning star, just above Christ’s head, represents Holman Hunt’s belief that Christ is the dawn of a new day in the life of the world and in the life of everyone who welcomes him. This message was reinforced when the painting was taken for restoration some decades ago. On the bottom of the painting, hidden by the frame, the artist had written: “Forgive me, Lord Jesus, that I kept you waiting so long.”

If, like Joshua and the unnamed complainant of today’s first reading, we are reluctant to allow too many prophets to come into our lives, and if, like John in today’s gospel, we are threatened by good people who don’t belong to our Church, we might well be reluctant to let Jesus himself into our lives. After all, we might not be equal to the expectations he might put on us over a meal together. Today’s readings ask us if we’re prepared to take the risk of letting Jesus even get close to us.

I want to suggest that there is another twist in this gospel reading that deserves our attention. I found myself wondering if there is some logical sequence to the issues that Jesus raises. He moves from his answer to John’s complaint about the stranger driving out devils in his name to the reward that will come the way of anyone who offers his disciples as much as a cup of cold water. And from there to the punishment reserved for anyone who scandalises “one of these little ones who have faith”.

“These little ones who have faith” is not a reference to children. In the original Greek of the Gospel, the word used for “little ones” is mikros, meaning “ordinary, simple, insignificant people”. Such people would not have been able to offer the disciples anything more than a cup of cold water. The implication of the comment is that anyone who accepts Jesus and his message has no option but to accept his disciples and all his friends, especially the ordinary, simple, insignificant people for whom he has a special preference. None of us can claim to accept Jesus and his message unless we extend a similar welcome to those who so often are overlooked, seen as second-rate and disregarded because of their position at the bottom of the social ladder.

All three of today’s readings in one way or another can disturb our comfort. So, maybe we could start with the one that disturbs us least, and go from there.