Commentary on the Readings
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – September 30, 2018
WE ARE GIVEN THE SPIRIT BUT NOT EXCLUSIVELY
It is not always easy to distinguish a friend from a foe. Sometimes it’s deceiving: the most trustworthy person, the one chosen as a confidant, a day can betray, while the one we kept under control because we judge him dangerous in the end may prove to be the most loyal companion.
How to understand who is with us and who is against us?
The Christian, at times, gives the impression to proceed alone down the right path traced out by Christ and is caught by anxiety; but as soon as he raises his eyes and looks around, he unexpectedly sees many generous, sincere, well-arranged traveling companions walking at his side. He is astonished and asks why he had not noticed them before.
He did not see them because they were hidden by the thick veil of the presumption of being the only true disciple spread over his eyes. Envy and jealousy prevented him from recognizing the good done by those who were different from him.
The apostles were silent when Jesus questioned them about the reasons for their contention along the way. They were ashamed because the Master had exposed their petty ambitions (Mk 8:34). Instead, not only were they willing to admit, but they felt proud to cultivate the pride of the group, a haughty presumption which led them to consider enemies of Christ and condemn those who do not think like them.
“The pride of the group” is very dangerous: it is subtle and makes one deem holy zeal that which is only disguised selfishness, bigotry and inability to admit that good exists outside of the religious structure in which one belongs.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Jesus teaches to delight of the good whoever the author is.”
Moses had dedicated his entire life to the service of the people, but in the last years, he was overcome by discouragement. The difficulties and problems multiplied and the Israelites did nothing but complain, made demands, rebelled.
One day he confided to the Lord: “Did I conceive all these people... I cannot do more to support the weight of a so large and unruly nation” (Num 11:10-15).
God then suggested: “Assemble seventy men from the elders … and let them take their stand there with you… I shall take some of the spirit that is in you and put it in them” (Num 11:16-18).
It is at this point that our reading starts.
On the appointed day, the seventy men gathered in the tent where God used to communicate with Moses. They received the spirit and began to prophesy. They entered, that is, into a state of frenzy and excitement, and spoke in the name of God (v. 25).
There were two old men, Eldad and Medad, who had not participated in the official ceremony, had received the same Spirit and were behaving as prophets, just like the other seventy. An amazing, unexpected event for all and quite puzzling because there was no explanation for the fact that strangers had got the same gift of God, although far from the group of the elect.
Is there anything to be sad? No. There is a need to rejoice in the fact that the Spirit came down also to those who does not belong “to the institution.”
Someone, on the other hand, was concerned; he was indignant and asked Moses to intervene to stop them. The same Joshua, a leading figure among the Israelites, sided with those who wanted to restore order and hierarchies.
Moses said to him: are you jealous? Maybe all members of the people would receive the spirit and would become prophets. From this episode, the animators of the Christian communities can seize a first message: not to feel worn out and exhausted, like Moses, they should not centralize power, but all must be co-responsible members of their community, sharing with them the duties and services to perform.
The main lesson, however, concerns the condemnation of fanaticism. A fanatic is one who attacks anyone who does not think like him or does not belong to the group; one who closes his eyes to the good that others do, believing that those who are not with him or do not share his beliefs and his projects are evil and should be fought. The fanatic is dangerous because, if he fails to establish itself with reasons, he tends to have recourse to the sword, as in fact happened with Joshua.
The Spirit cannot be contained within the confines of any institution. God is free to break the mold and encourage the good everywhere. Where the good, love, peace, and joy, are there is certainly the work of the Spirit of God.
The prophets often resorted to threats against the rich. However, there is no so violent conviction as found in the today’s reading in any book of the Bible. In order not to diminish the provocative charge, it should be noted that James does not distinguish, as is often done, between the good rich and the evil rich; he refers to the rich and that’s it.
The invectives of the first part of the passage (vv. 1-3) are terrible, “So now what concerns the rich! Cry and weep for the misfortunes that are coming upon you.” All that, with all the effort and sacrifices you have accumulated, will be destroyed, the products of your fields will rot or burn along with the stores in which they are stacked; your beautiful clothes will be eaten by moths and the precious jewelry will be covered with rust.
How to explain so much hatred?
James did not take it with wealth itself, which is a good thing and should not be destroyed. However, like the prophets and like Jesus, he denounces the abuse and the danger it represents when it is worshiped as an idol. The rich easily forgets that wealth “will pass away like the flowers of the field. The sun rises and its heat dries the grass; the flower withers and its beauty vanishes. So too, will the rich person fade away even in the midst of his pursuits” (Jas 1:10-11). Greed “gives birth to sin” (Jas 1:14-15) and is the cause of all “these fights and quarrels” (Jas 4:1-4).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 4-6), James so passionately denounces the source of wealth. It is accumulated, for the most part, through injustice toward the weakest. It is the result of bullying, harassment, exploitation of workers from whom the fruits of their labors are removed. To defraud the salary of a worker is tantamount to killing him.
The poor man is unable to resist because the rich have also the law, strength, support of those in power, on his side. In the face of injustice so cleverly structured, what can the destitute do?
Nothing. He cannot offer any resistance. What’s left to him is only to rely on the Lord, and call for his intervention.
Faced with the condition of impotence in which the poor are reduced to, James gives free rein to the toughest threats that have ever been uttered against the rich: “You lived in luxury and pleasure in this world thus fattening yourselves for the day of slaughter!” (v.5). The severity of the complaint is justified by the fact that the accumulation of wealth is incompatible with the evangelical choice. The goods of this world are for all and should be shared with those in need, and Jesus said, very clearly, “None of you may become my disciple if he doesn’t give up everything he has!” (Lk 14:33).
The evangelist Mark approaches, in the same chapter and in a deliberately provocative way, two episodes. In the first, he puts in the scene a man who comes to Jesus and says, “Master, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit, deaf and mute. Whenever the spirit seizes him, it throws him down and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth and becomes stiff all over. I asked your disciples to drive the spirit out, but they could not” (Mk 9:18). In the second, what is proposed to us in today’s Gospel, introduces an anonymous exorcist, using the name of Jesus, and gets instead optimum result against the forces of evil.
The reaction of the disciples, who run to show Jesus their surprise, disappointment, and irritation, was predictable and immediate. They ask: How can one who does not follow us, not belonging to our group, perform the same wonders or realize it even more?
This question will immediately bring to mind others and we include ourselves too: if someone successfully takes the field where we are called to carry out our mission, does it ask us to rejoice or worry? Who is allowed to use the name of Jesus? To whom did he leave as a legacy his Spirit, the power that heals every disease?
The episode in today’s passage answers these questions.
In the first part (vv. 38-40) the fact is exposed.
The healers of ancient times were used, during the practice of exorcism, to pronouncing the names of angels, demons, and some characters renowned for their therapeutic powers. They claimed that this would help to make their intervention more efficient and to obtain miraculous results. The name most invoked was that of Solomon, considered the precursor and the protector of all devotees of the mysteries of knowledge; but also the name of Jesus, who has become famous throughout Galilee. They began using his name in spells, along with that of other exorcists.
One day John runs to the teacher and tells him: We have found that there is around “our dangerous rival;” he cures people resorting to your name and we have warned him because he is not one of us, “he does not follow us,” and has not our authorization. Note the reason given: he does not follow us. He does not say that “he does not follow Jesus,” but that “he does not follow them, the disciples,” revealing thus that they had a rooted conviction of being the only and indisputable custodians of the good. Jesus belonged only to them; they were the point of reference required for anyone who wants to invoke his name. They felt annoyed that someone was to carry out miracles without belonging to their group.
None of us would feel bad if, during the vintage or the harvest, a stranger offered to help out in the vineyard or in the field. It would be ridiculous and petty to regret because the aide works harder and better than us.
There is instead one who is saddened when he learns that a non-believer performs even heroic acts of love of which they are capable, yes, even Christians, but not only them. The reaction is usually the same as that of the apostles. He pretends not to see, tries to ignore, minimizes; does not rejoice in the good done by others because it costs to admit that there are followers of other religions better than us. We don’t accept voluntary lessons of honesty, loyalty, non-violence, hospitality, tolerance from anyone.
The discriminating principle suggested by Jesus is clear: “anyone who acts on behalf of man is one of us.” The Spirit is not a monopoly of the ecclesiastical structure, it is as free as the wind, “blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from and where it is going” (Jn 3:8). The Spirit acts in the Church and outside it.
In our community, there are many people who provide service to our brothers and sisters. In general, they carry out their duties with diligence and generosity. However, jealousy and envy often appear here and there. They are the sure signs that the assumed duty had ceased to be a service and has become a gimmick to succeed, to carve out a space of power from which anyone proposing changes or offers to cooperate was kept far away as if he were an intruder. So the ministry of the Church is no longer considered the harvest in which we expect the Lord to send the largest possible number of workers (Mt 9:37-38), but it is a pie to be divided among the contenders.
The second part of the passage (vv. 41-48) contains a number of sayings of the Lord.
The first relates to the offer of “a glass of water.” This is the most simple and spontaneous gesture, but should not be overlooked because it can mark the beginning of a friendship. Already a wise man of the Old Testament had perceived its value: “If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink” (Pro 25:21). He had guessed that this small token of welcome could constitute the basis for a reconciliation.
Even Jesus recalls this gesture and—it is known—does not attribute it to one of his disciples, but to a stranger. It is a stranger that meets, perhaps for the first time, the messengers of the Gospel and gives them “a glass of water.” This act of love, though seemingly trivial, will not remain fruitless. It will establish a relationship of trust and will mark the beginning of a dialogue. Every act that promotes the encounter and communication between people is valuable and should be encouraged.
The threats against those who “scandalize the little ones” follow this first saying (v. 42).
For scandal is any obstruction to the path of the disciple. The little ones that should not be scandalized are not the children, but persons who are weak in the faith, those who hardly and with difficulty, take their first steps in following the Master. Who causes their estrangement assumes an enormous responsibility.
To inculcate this message, Jesus uses an image, death by drowning. The Jews consider this the most shameful punishment because it made impossible a convenient burial of the dead body.
One wonders what scandal causes the small ones to lose an initial faith or what little that is left to them.
The context in which Mark has intentionally included the saying of the Lord makes it possible to identify the reason for this scandal: ambition (Mk 9:33-40).
The conflicts, divisions, schisms in the Church are always derived from pride, lust for power and the desire to dominate others. The scandal, that even today, takes away the “small” from the Church, remains the same: the unedifying spectacle of competition and intrigues to fill the top positions and gain privileges.
The last part of the passage is dedicated to the warning against another form of scandal: the one that comes “from within,” the scandal caused by hand, by foot, by the eyes (vv. 43-48). These organs, in Jesus’ time, indicate the impulses to evil, concupiscence, and the inclinations that estrange one from God and lead to immoral choices.
Jesus demands from the disciples the courage to make the necessary cuts, though painful if they are aware that certain actions, projects, and feelings are incompatible with the evangelical choice.
The most immediate reference is the control, but not only, of sexuality. There are other cuts that have to be made if one does not want to ruin his life and that of others.
The “finger pointing” in an arrogant attitude of one who, raising his voice, always imposes his will, “the hands” that steal, the haughty “looks” and those revealing the greed of money, “the feet” that, from bitterness, run fast towards revenge, must be eliminated. The envious and suspicious “eyes” are gouged out. They create untenable situations in the Christian community, where the brothers and sisters arrive at the point of not saying a word to each other.
Who has the courage to resolutely amputate these occasions of sin, who satisfies all its caprices, is not hard on himself, does not control his passions, runs the risk of falling into Gehenna, “where the worm that eats them never die, and the fire never goes out” (v. 48).
“Gehenna” is the valley that runs south of Jerusalem. It was considered unclean because in it some kings of Israel had slain their children to Baal (Jer 19:5-6). There, graves had been dug to bury the bodies and a perpetual fire burned to consume the waste of the city. A foul-smelling smoke made it disgusting. It was cursed and rabbis had taken it as a symbol of destruction faced by those who commit sin.
“The unquenchable fire” is another image, derived from the oracle with which the book of Isaiah concludes. It is directed to the enemies of God: “Their worm shall not die nor their fire be quenched” (Is 66:24). “The worm that does not die” indicates the never-ending process of decay to which those who behave wickedly end up. It is the announcement of the break-up, self-destruction of those who do not follow the ways of God.
To these images, well-known in the time of Jesus, was often used to admonish, to shake the conscience of those who neglect their duties towards God and neighbor. Whoever uses them to draw conclusions about the punishments of hell misconstrues the meaning. On the lips of Jesus, they are a pressing and urgent call, addressed to all people, not ruin their lives and those of others. Who wastes one’s life in this world has lost, forever, the unique opportunity that God has given; “eternally” ruin himself, because no one will be able to give back the time he wasted. But this opportune insistence on the seriousness of this life is not to be misunderstood; it is not an announcement of eternal damnation of the reprobates.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: