Pope Francis has tried to warn us that the word of God is unruly, that it accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking (“The Joy of the Gospel”). Frankly, the unruliness of the word has been a problem for God’s people from their very beginnings, and today’s readings show us how and why.
|Twenty-Sixth Sunday in
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
To get the full impact of the first reading, we need to see it in the context of Numbers 11. There in the Exodus story we hear about the riffraff’s discontent with their desert diet and Moses’ anguished plea that God either start acting like a good mother (“Was it I who conceived this people?”) or let him die free of responsibility for the people God gave birth to in the Exodus (Numbers 11:4-15).
God’s solution to Moses’ problem was to call forth helpers, others who could share the grace and burden of leadership, so that Moses would not be so alone. But two of those helpers had remained in the camp instead of going out to the meeting tent. These two, Eldad and Medad, also received the spirit, and as soon as they began to exercise the grace of prophetic leadership, problems arose. When God entered, the scene’s predictability vanished. Two guys who didn’t fulfill all the requirements received and exercised God’s grace.
We don’t know why Eldad and Medad didn’t get out to the meeting tent for the big event. All we know is that the spirit came to them in the camp and they exercised the gift God had given them -- much to the chagrin of those who prided themselves in having met the qualifications and obeyed all the rules.
We are dealing here with a perennial religious problem: frustration when God declines to respect our rules and restrictions. Mark gives us another example of this difficulty in today’s Gospel story, one of many in which the disciples come off so poorly that it’s easy to look down on them rather than recognize ourselves in them.
In the case of the disciples and the “unauthorized” exorcist, Mark shows how the disciples inadvertently exposed themselves while insisting on their righteousness. Theirs was a problem of a culpably disordered orientation.
Like the tattletale in Moses’ story, John informed Jesus that someone who “does not follow us” was driving out demons.
There are two major problems in that statement. First of all, John’s very words demonstrated his erroneous conviction that the disciples were the ones others should follow. That demonstrates his utter inability to understand the meaning of the word disciple (one who learns discipline from another) or apostle (one sent by another).
John’s second problem, even more egregious than the first, was that he missed the point that being called to discipleship was a vocation to collaborate in God’s plan for humanity. Disciples oriented to God’s plan would have rejoiced like Jesus that someone else, anyone else, was involved in the successful struggle against the demonic.
Perhaps part of our problem is with our vision of the demonic, or even what is most important in matters religious. I once had to try to explain a liturgical dispute to a visiting Honduran priest. The U.S. local parish was up in arms over the recipe for homemade altar bread. The diocese had published a list of ingredients that was not to be deviated from and someone had reported the parish baker for having added honey to the mix. Everyone was upset, either because of the betrayal of the person who tattled or because of the flaunting of the rules.
My friend, Fr. Jesús (What a name!), simply shook his head and commented, “The devils dance when we do such a good job of their work.”
He wasn’t denigrating the idea that there might be regulation, but he saw that the ensuing arguments had the power to disorient a faith community, to turn its eyes from mission to control. To him that was demonic.
Last December, Pope Francis identified the danger of disordered -- we might even say demonic -- orientations in the church, and he warned his Curia against “The ailment of rivalry and vainglory: when appearances, the color of one’s robes, insignia and honors become the most important aim in life.” We need to be aware that all of us own a share of this problem.
God’s grace is unruly. It comes to change us, to correct our orientation, to direct us beyond ourselves and our desires for importance or exclusive claims to the truth.
Perhaps we could put this message into action this week by purposely recognizing and promoting the good accomplished by people different from ourselves, be they another political party or adherents of a distinct theological tendency, people who in John’s words “do not follow us.” Doing so is a way to invite God’s grace to surpass our calculations.
[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]