Word of God and Salesian life by Fr Juan Jose’ Bartolome’ SDB
26th Sunday Year B Lectio divina on Mk 9, 38-43.45.47-48
Listening to today’s gospel, we are bound to feel a bit perplexed, just as the first disciples were perplexed when they heard these words of Jesus for the first time. We are unable to comprehend a Jesus who demands tolerance and respect for people who, even though they were not his disciples, were working in his name and usurping his authority. Then, immediately afterwards, he expects from his disciples a level of intolerance towards themselves that is almost the equivalent of suicide. Only if we get over this surprise, will we be able to understand the position of Jesus and his reasoning, and – with God’s help – put it into practice in our own lives.
38 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.’ 39 But Jesus said, ‘You must not stop him; no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me. 40 Anyone who is not against us is for us. 41 ‘If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward. 42 ‘But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith, would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone round his neck. 43 And if your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than to have two hands and go to hell, into the fire that cannot be put out. 45 And if your foot should cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you enter into life lame, than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye should be your downfall, tear it out; it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell 48 where their worm does not die nor their fire go out.
I. Read: understand what the text says, focussing on how it says it.
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was faced yet again with the followers’ failure to understand (Mk 9,3), when he told them, for the second time, about his forthcoming passion (Mk 9,31). The disciples’ incomprehension gave the Master an opportunity to teach a very demanding lesson: to be a disciple means to be willing to serve all and to sacrifice oneself for others. Our text is part of a discourse of Jesus to his disciples in which we can see two separate themes: the tolerance of Jesus towards those who, even though they are not his disciples, do good in his name and claim his authority (Mk 9,38-40); and the conditions to be observed by all who want to enter the Kingdom of God (Mk 9,41-48).
The episode of the exorcist who was not one of Jesus’ disciples but claimed his authority nevertheless, is somewhat surprising. Not only because it gave Jesus the opportunity to show extraordinary tolerance, but also because, just a short time previously, his own disciples had failed when they tried to cast out an evil spirit from a young man (Mk 9,14-29). Jesus is happy that someone continue to do good to others, even if his is not one of his disciples. The reason he gives is interesting: anyone who does good in his name will not speak evil of him. Doing good, then, is equivalent to being on the side of Jesus, even if one is not yet a disciple. In a way, Jesus prefers someone who does good to others to one who is his follower. He is speaking to one of his disciples and, so that they will not feel cheated, he promises a reward to anyone who does good to one to them. Even a cup of water given to one of his disciples will not go unrewarded.
In addition to promising a reward to anyone who does good to the disciples, Jesus condemns severely anyone who does evil. The little ones who believe in him are the most vulnerable of his disciples – the innocent ones who have been entrusted to him, the least important and least respected in society. Coming to their defence in such a forceful way, Jesus takes the side of the weakest of his disciples and those most at risk. With typical eastern hyperbole, he declares that it would be better for the guilty one to drown in the sea. That is how serious a crime it is to lead one of these weak and vulnerable disciples astray. To illustrate further the gravity of the scandal, he repeats three times that it would be better to cut off the cause of the scandal (Mk 9,43: the hand; 9,45: foot; 9,47: eye) than to face eternal perdition. We should note carefully that Jesus is not speaking about sins actually committed but simply about the occasions of sin. The faith of the most insignificant of his disciples matters so much to Jesus that he declares the most severe punishment to those who endanger it. Anyone who endangers the fidelity of those who put their trust in Jesus is endangering his own salvation.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Jesus warns against intolerance towards others, even if they are not as good as we are, and demands that we exercise intolerance towards ourselves instead. Zeal for Jesus can never be a reason for zeal against a neighbour, but following Jesus does include denial of oneself in order to be totally conformed to Him. As his disciples we need to remember his teaching – demonizing others does not make us better! The only intolerance that Jesus permits his followers is that which is directed towards the evil that is in their midst, evil that has taken root and found a home in their hearts. Anyone who persecutes others is not fit to be his disciple. It was reasonable enough for his disciples to think that it was wrong for anybody apart from them to do good in his name and with his power. If even a stranger could do the works of Jesus, what advantage was it for them to be his friends and companions? What right had others to use his name if they did not share his way of life and the hard work of preaching, day after day? If it is not necessary to follow Jesus day and night, in order to do good, were they not making a mistake in choosing to follow him? Bringing about a better world and healing people in Jesus’ name should be the work only of those who lived with him. Their hard work and the things they had given up meant nothing if anyone at all could do their work.
That is how the followers of Jesus thought. We are not impressed by these disciples who failed to understand that it was all right to use the Master’s name to do good, even without being his disciple. We make a great effort to follow Jesus, sometimes without great success, and we also find it hard to understand that there are people who do good in this world, good that is willed by God and done in his name, without being disciples like us. Like John, we are reluctant to accept that others who are not followers of Jesus can do good. There are people who do not strive to follow Jesus but fight successfully against evil nonetheless. We would like to think we have an exclusive claim on the power of Jesus over evil, simply because we have given him power over our lives. Just because we want God to deliver us from evil, we think we are the only ones capable of fighting against evil.
Jesus’ reply indicates a temptation that faces “good” disciples and can often lead them to sin: intransigence, intolerance towards people who differ from them, who are not followers of Jesus and who do not think like disciples. Jesus reminds the disciples of today that he is still more concerned that people do good in his name, and that the evil in the world be confronted, than he is that his followers be the people doing good. It is not that he does not expect of us that we do good, as indeed he has told us to, but because he still loves the world more than we do. He wants to do more good than we can even think of or realize, and so he allows many to do good, including many who are not among his disciples. The fact that others do good in the world may surprise or displease us, and it should shame us into doing more good. For Jesus, what is important is that anyone who is combating evil should not declare himself opposed to Jesus, nor consider himself his enemy. It does not matter whether he is one of his disciples, provided he is doing good in Jesus’ name and under his inspiration.
In a pluralist society like ours , where many are not believers, today’s gospel may sound particularly harsh, almost incomprehensible, to people who are trying to follow Jesus and to do good in his name to those who need it. We ought not abandon our duty to fight against evil in all its forms, but the gospel insists that we must accept the good that others do, even though they are not among his followers. It often happens that we believers think that we are the only ones who fight against evil. Perhaps without realizing it, we have developed a sense of belonging to a group, and we are unable to accept others who do not belong to our group. Little by little – and the history of the Church bears witness to this – we become convinced that Christians are more important than Christ. We easily become too enthusiastic, thinking that our successes are God’s, and our failures are his too.
If we truly want to be disciples of Jesus today, we will have to accept that not all the goodness in the world comes from our actions. We will have to learn to live with other people, who are not of our group, but nonetheless fight against evil, at least as much as we do. As disciples of Christ, who live according to his gospel, and seek to do good in his name, we should rejoice that others do the same good and fight the same fight against evil, in the name of Jesus Christ. We should be happy that Jesus Christ, Our Lord, inspires others whom we, by the way we live our Christian lives, have not been able to inspire. As disciples of Jesus we should be proud that the name of Jesus, his life and his ideas, inspire people that we have not been able to convince by our lives and our ideals.
Jesus insisted that his disciples show tolerance and respect for those who were not yet his disciples but were working in his name. It is all the more surprising, then, that, immediately afterwards, he displays such radical intolerance, telling his disciples to cut off their hand or foot if they cause them to sin or become an obstacle to others. It might help us to understand this brusque change if we remember that Jesus wanted his disciples to allow others to do good in his name, whether they were disciples or not, and he ordered them not to do evil, even if this meant that they had to deny themselves. The Christian knows that he should seek his brother’s good, and especially the good of the smallest and weakest, before his own bodily integrity. To avoid putting in danger any believer’s faith or fidelity to Christ, however insignificant the person might seem to be, the disciple of Christ must be willing to risk even his own body. Our hand or foot or eye are not worth more than our faith in Christ. Our bodily integrity is not as important as the fidelity of our brothers. We must be prepared to sacrifice our own body rather than risk losing our brother.
What Jesus demands is no small thing. When we think about it, it seems too much. It is far more than any of us would be prepared to concede. If we are happy to continue living our faith peacefully as we are, it is because we have not understood Jesus. Who among us is prepared to risk his life if we have become an obstacle to the faith of another? Would we not admit now, before God, that we are prepared to pay any price to save our own life, our business and our future? And do we not do this without worrying too much about scandalizing the weak? The fire of hell is the fate that awaits the one who loves himself and his own body, whilst endangering his brother who is weak. We should not forget it!