First reading: Numbers 11:25-29
Responsorial Psalm: 18(19):8, 10, 12-14
Second reading: James 5:1-6
Gospel: Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Link to readings.
At this stage in the readings for Year B we have arrived a point in Mark’s Gospel where a connecting thread running through various incidents and sayings is not easy to find – though all are subsumed into the overriding concern of Jesus throughout the journey, which is to instruct his disciples concerning his passion and death.
What makes that instruction so difficult for the disciples to accept is their preconceived idea of the glory that is to accrue to them as leading associates of the Messiah. In several incidents and instructions, including those making up today’s Gospel (Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48) Jesus chips away at the notion that messiahship and being associated with it will bring privilege, rather than involving – as he has been insisting – costly service.
The disciples were disturbed when they came upon someone who is using Jesus’ name – and hence his authority – to cast out demons. They did their best to put a stop to his activity because, as they explain to Jesus, “he was not one of us.” Instead of approval, what they get is a mild rebuke. Jesus does not mind his name being used by another for a good purpose. The main thing is that human beings are being set free from the power of Satan and reclaimed for the fullness of life. The disciples, on the other hand, are less focused on the objective good being done and more concerned about an outsider’s use of what they see as their own prerogative and possession.
The First Reading, Num 11:25-29 offers a helpful biblical precedent for this part of the Gospel. It tells of a similar misguided response on the part of Joshua when two individuals who were not numbered among the designated 70 elders appointed to assist Moses manifest the same spirit of prophecy that the 70 had shown. By contrast the large-heartedness of Moses stands out.
In a later part of the Gospel, Jesus reinforces the point with the statement about outsiders who give members of the community (possibly travelling missionaries are particularly in mind) a cup of water to drink “because they belong to Christ.” Such outsiders show the kind of service to others that is supposed to be a hallmark of the followers of Jesus. What determines the “reward” one will receive (at the judgment) is not whether one is inside or outside the community but whether one has performed the service expected of the community.
REJOICE IN GOODNESS
Taken together, both elements of instruction on the part of Jesus’ show a remarkable openness to the possibility of goodness and effective ministry outside the community of disciples strictly so defined. They invite the disciples to look away from their own sense of distinctiveness and privilege and to be prepared to find and rejoice in goodness wherever it exists. This is not to play down the importance of being associates of Jesus. It is simply to insist that what is supremely important about such belonging is preparedness for costly service rather than resting on privilege and power.
So much for good found outside the community. The second part of the Gospel in a balancing way takes up the issue of evil that may exist inside the community. Any community consists of strong and weak, people whose faith is mature and people whose faith is still growing. “These little ones” are either children or else simply the more vulnerable in the latter sense: those whose faith – and hence salvation – can be placed in jeopardy by bad example or exploitative behavior on the part of the stronger members. Presupposed is a sense to which Paul gives memorable expression: “The life and death of each of us has its influence on others” (Rom 14:7 [Jerusalem Bible translation]).
SUPREME IMPORTANCE OF SALVATION
The sense that wrongdoing is a community concern rather than simply a private matter accounts for the severity of the “remedies” Jesus suggests. (Being tied to a large stone and thrown into the sea seems to refer to a particularly abhorrent Roman form of execution.) Later, Jesus seems to have in mind a surgical operation where a diseased limb is sacrificed in order to save the whole body. The advice is not, of course, to be taken literally. The image makes the point that one’s own salvation and that of other members of the community is of such supreme importance that one must be prepared to act vigorously against immediate self-interest or temptation in order to safeguard it. Needless to say, nonetheless, this second part of today’s Gospel has acquired a striking new relevance in view of the sexual abuse crisis that has been uncovered in the Church.
In the Second Reading (James 5:1-6) James’ prophetic declamation against the rich for exploitation of the poor reaches fever pitch. In many ways, it is simply an intensification of Jesus’ own teaching, as seen, for example, in the Beatitudes.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media