Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (2021)
Psalms 18:8, 10, 12-14
If any of us, at a certain preordained time, were told to go out and choose twelve people who you want to spend every waking moment with for the next three years, I think we would find our powers of insight to be sorely lacking. Indeed, recent attempts to choose a small handful of friends has been nothing short of a disaster. Qualities at first light took no time to dim, if not disappear, especially with those who have raised the maintaining of a facade to a new art form. There is nothing certain about choosing friends, even for those who consider themselves the most insightful.
All things being equal, Jesus did not do such a terrible job, picking some fishermen, a tax collector, businessmen, a tent maker, and an assortment of others which we know almost nothing about. In large part they seem to have hung in there with their attachment to Jesus to the virtual end and beyond. This was important, because it was clear Jesus was counting on them to continue His work long after Jesus left our earthly world. Unlike what was done for Mary, however, Jesus did not make them sinless, or erase their natural tendencies to act like men with varied backgrounds and interests. Had Jesus done so, His teaching might have taken deeper root, and the struggles of the early church might have been lessened.
Several gospel passages over the past weeks have displayed the very base humanity of Jesus’ handpicked disciples (no doubt the tip of the iceberg). We see them arguing about who will be the greatest in the future kingdom, and their blindness to what Jesus is saying to them about the connection of suffering and Messiahship, causes Jesus to lash out at Peter and call him “Satan.”
Today’s gospel passage gives us an additional small hint about the humanity of Jesus’ disciples, and the warm-up reading from numbers indicates it’s a perennial problem. In the gospel from Mark, John reveals his personal affront, by telling Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” John acknowledges what is most important, “driving our demons in your name,” but the ne’er-do-well doesn’t follow us! The first boys’ club for which there is no membership fee appears to be exclusive. Whatever good was accomplished by the unnamed individual was not dissipated by the selfishness of those who were blinded by a sense of self-importance. Indeed, if the gospel was to be preached “to the ends of the earth,” far greater numbers than twelve would have to help with the transmission of Jesus’ message. The message is always that of Jesus – it is not our message which we can lay personal claim to.
Jesus takes a swipe at their sense of self-importance by stating that “whoever is not against us is for us,” and “anyone who performs a mighty deed in my name… will surely not lose his reward.” You could almost hear the collective sigh in the gospel: so much for our little boys’ club!
Speaking in the most hyperbolic fashion, Jesus teaches the disciples that it would be better to enter the kingdom of heaven without a hand or feet or eyes than to allow them to cause you to sin. It is clear that all of this is not to be interpreted literally. Indeed, Sunday services everywhere would be filled with an inordinate amount of blind and maimed people if we were to follow Jesus’ teaching literally. Jesus wanted to highlight the humanity of all, and He surely desired to do away with the kind of jealousy that occurs when others are seen doing good. There is no room for narrow labels in God’s kingdom. Anyone who furthers the kingdom, who preaches, heals, changes the hearts of others in Jesus’ name, are participants in the furtherance of Jesus’ kingdom. No one is to be excluded, because they don’t belong to the club; no one is excluded because they are sinful, for all are sinful. Genuine disciples and apostles of Jesus, are not recognized by their miters or pectoral crosses. Rather, what sets them apart is, how they serve others. Service trumps everything else!