Jesus continues to teach his disciples as he begins to form them into members of his church. At Mass this year, in Ordinary Time, we have been listening to The Gospel According to St. Mark. This work of formation began at the start of Jesus’ public ministry, when he said to Simon and Andrew, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” It continues in the episode from today’s liturgy, where Jesus gives them direction on growing in strength by recognizing their weakness.
This Sunday’s Gospel passage has two sections. In the first, John tells Jesus that he and some of the other disciples tried to prevent someone driving out demons in Jesus name, because they were not part of the group. Jesus, in turn, tells John not to be concerned about that, for they are doing good in his name.
It seems the disciples were jealous of others, and this is not an unusual occurrence in Scripture. The first reading from the Book of Numbers treats of a similar incident, where Eldad and Medad were not in the group of seventy elders when the Lord’s blessing came down upon them. Even though they were not there, the Spirit came to rest on them and they prophesied. Joshua comes to Moses, concerned about this.
Moses says to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”
Jealousy can get in the way of the Lord’s work. It seeks to prohibit others from using their God-given gifts for the good of all, and it distracts the jealous person from even recognizing such gifts in others and in themselves. Jealousy hinders the kingdom of God, and so it should be avoided.
In the second part of the Gospel passage, Jesus teaches that anything that causes one to sin should be avoided. Sin in general, like jealousy in particular, seeks to destroy and break down relationships: our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves.
Regarding our relationship with others, Jesus says: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
Jesus emphasizes the need to avoid sin using three graphic statements. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off,” he says. He mentions the feet and eyes in similar fashion. Needless to say, the old anecdote holds true – Jesus did not mean for this to be taken literally; if he did, we would all be hobbling around maimed, blind and lame. He uses the gross image for emphasis. Sin damages the person more than any physical harm or disfigurement possibly could.
There are different ways to grow in discipleship and communion. Seeking the good, loving others, caring for the poor, living the truth, worshiping God and listening to his word are some of those ways.
At the same time, avoiding behaviors, attitudes and activities which are not of God or his ways are important as well. This is what Jesus is emphasizing today. He invites us to discipleship as part of our communion with him and with each other. Bonded by God’s love, we can grow strong together when each person does his or her part.
That strength comes from our communion in Christ. Just as a rope is stronger than its individual strands, each of which have weak spots, our shared lives in the Lord weave us into a whole that is far more powerful than any one person.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul in his illustrates the communion shared by Jesus’ disciples in the church in various ways – one body, many parts; many gifts, same spirit; and so on. At one point he writes: “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (I Cor 12:26).
The union which we cannot always see is present nonetheless. Those things that weaken or damage an individual have an effect on the whole. We can certainly see that in dealing with scandals within the church. The sinful activity affects everyone; the entire communion is wounded. At the same time, members who strive to do good and avoid evil strengthen the whole and encourages its growth.
Jesus continues to form the disciples as they journey with him to Jerusalem. The same formation continues in us. Hearing his Word, we are invited to avoid those things that hurt us and our relationships with one another. In doing so, we not only protect ourselves and others from harm, but we grow in strength so that Gospel may be more authentically proclaimed.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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