Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 26)

NBC Philadelphia ran a piece on Sept. 14, 2016 called “Slow Train Crosses Lehigh Valley Marathon Course.” Here’s the story:

Anyone who’s lived near train tracks knows the hassle and inconvenience a passing train can cause. You’re already running late, you’re driving up to the track crossing, and then — the barriers start flashing. It’s a frustrating feeling.

But imagine if that happened as you were trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

That’s exactly what happened to more than 100 runners in Pennsylvania, as a train crossed the marathon course — and crossed it very slowly. One runner, who was using the race as his last opportunity to qualify for Boston, said that he “missed his qualifying time by eight minutes.”

Race officials had communicated with the railroad line prior to race day, and had received “absolute assurances…that trains would be suspended” during the race. Yet those assurances didn’t stop a train from crossing the course’s seventh mile.

“The incident is especially regrettable and was quite unexpected,” the marathon’s account posted on Facebook, noting that those times that were affected would “be addressed on a runner-by-runner basis.”

Frustration is something we all experience in one way or another. One definition of the word reads: “the prevention of the progress, success, or fulfillment of something.” This usually results in feeling annoyed, aggravated or somehow upset. Many times the cause of the frustration is an obstacle — something gets in the way of our moving forward toward our destination or goal.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy comes from the Gospel according to Mark. One of the primary themes running through the Gospel is that of discipleship. Jesus is the teacher. The “disciple” is a student. Jesus not only proclaims the Kingdom of God but he teaches what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.

The disciples learn from him who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). The passage for this Sunday offers several sayings of Jesus. At first hearing they may seem to be disconnected but a closer look reveals their unity.

The first part of the passage recalls an interchange with John. He complains that someone outside of Jesus’ immediate followers is “driving out demons in your (Jesus’) name.” Jesus responds by telling John not to be concerned for “whoever is not against us is for us.” He further emphasizes this, saying, “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”

The second part has warning that if anyone causes “one of these little ones who believe in me to sin” then they will be punished severely. The third part has the more familiar sayings that begin: “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off….”

Jesus is teaching us to identify obstacles that may prevent us from following him on the path to life. The interchange with John, on one level, seems to address jealousy or envy. This would resonate with Moses’ conversation with Joshua in the first reading.

When Joshua objects to Eldad and Medad (who were not in their company when the “spirit that had been on Moses” was shared) prophesying, Moses responds: “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!” In these cases, jealousy is the obstacle.

In the second saying – dealing with causing another to sin – the obstacle is not identified as a behavior or deed or attitude, though it might include all or any of these. Rather, the obstacle is a person — someone who behaves in such a way that leads others away from the path of life, the path of discipleship, the path of the kingdom, or the “Way” (cf. John 14:6; Acts 9:2; 22:4).

Jesus’ severe warning of punishment heightens the seriousness of the matter. For the injury done is not only to the one who sins or “scandalizes” (presents a stumbling block) but to the others who are affected by it.

The final set of sayings deal in a general and probably most obvious teaching on obstacles. As often said by commentators, these sayings are not to be taken as a literal command. Some humorously remark that if everyone took these literally we would all be blind, deaf and lame.

Rather, Jesus is telling us to avoid the obstacles, whatever they are, to following him on the path of life. Sometimes this is referred to as “avoiding the near occasion of sin.”

The second reading, from the Letter of James, offers a strong warning for the “rich.” The warning elaborates on Jesus’ saying: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).

Riches or wealth is not bad in and of itself. However, if the person is consumed by the quest for money, objects or material things they can become obstacles. Perhaps the strength of which Jesus and James speak points to the ease in which this obstacle can present itself.

Jesus leads us to life. The Kingdom of God is realized in our lives now when we live as he taught us, not only in word and deed but in his very person. The response today is “The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.” Jesus wants us to share in his joy “completely” (cf. John 15:11). He comes that we might have life “and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Anything that gets in the way of this life and joy is an obstacle that can frustrate us on the journey. Jesus is encouraging us to avoid these obstacles so we can move forward unimpeded on the journey.

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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.