As I was reading the Gospel story this past week, I couldn’t help but realize that there were two really important points that Mark shares with us about the life of Jesus and what he asks from us. They are some very challenging ideas for us to consider and not always easy to talk about – not any easier than it was back then.
In spite of the efforts of Jesus to teach his disciples to live like him in the service of the kingdom of God, making people’s lives more gentle, more kind, more dignified and happier, they fail to understand the Spirit that animates him, his great love for the most needy, and the deepest purpose of his life.
The account of Mark that we just heard is very helpful in understanding this. Let’s walk through it again so we make sure we are hearing what is actually going on. I’m going to phrase things a little more clearly without changing the meaning.
The disciples report something they saw happen which bothered them very much. An unknown person was expelling demons. Worse still, he’s doing it “in the name of Jesus”. And just as Jesus does, he is freeing people from the evil that is keeping them from living a humane life in peace. However, the disciples do not appreciate this anonymous healer’s work. They cannot see the joy of those who were cured by that man. His behavior is an intrusion into their work, and it must be stopped.
They tell Jesus how they feel about the whole affair. Listen carefully to their words. “We told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” What they are saying is that stranger must not continue healing because he is not a member of our group. Really?
What that means is that the disciples have no concern for people’s health and safety, but only for the reputation of the group. It seems that they want to have a monopoly on the freedom Jesus brings. Essentially, they are saying that anyone who does not belong to the group must not heal in his name. You can see now how they just don’t get it.
Jesus takes them to task for their attitude and shows how totally different he is from the way they think. He takes a completely different stand. The first and most important thing is not the growth and prestige of this small group, but that God’s grace should reach every human being, even through people who don’t belong to the group. What’s the words he uses, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, whoever uses the healing power of Jesus is, in essence, working for him, building up the kingdom of God.
Jesus rejects the rigid and exclusive idea of his disciples, who think only of their own self-image and standing, and instead adopts an open and inclusive attitude in which the important thing is to free people from what takes their humanity from them and makes them unhappy. This is the spirit that must always be present and fill his true disciples.
We need to remember that there are countless men and women outside the Catholic Church who do good things and work for people so that they live a more dignified life. The San Antonio Food Bank, for example. The Salvation Army. The Spirit of Jesus lives in them. We must think of them as friends and fellow workers, never as competitors or enemies. They are not against us, but for the human person, as Jesus was.
So, we’ve looked at how Jesus sees those that are suffering and how they may be helped, but let’s turn the perspective a little and focus on those who may be caught up in the challenges of life. It is the second, very important level in Jesus’ words today.
I’m sure you’ve heard some of our Christian brothers and sisters who insist on a very literalistic interpretation of the bible, who also avoid cutting off their hands and feet, plucking their eyes, and worrying about how hot hell is! I’m not sure about them, but I know my feet have taken me to places I wish I had not gone, and when I got there my eyes saw things I wish I had not seen. In spite of the times I’ve let myself down, I am glad I’m still in one piece, and not all that worried about the worms and weather in hell! Are you with me?
Jesus was a skilled and powerful communicator, a master story-teller. And like all great teachers he used images and exaggeration to make his point. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes evil very seriously. He is always conscious of it around him and is aware that it comes from within us, and from outside of us. Jesus teaches us today to stop doing the destructive things that prevent us from loving God, that prevent us from loving each other, and ourselves.
Sinful behavior often falls into two categories; habitual and compulsive. Habits are unusual things. There are good habits, like saying “please” and “thank you.” There are habits that can start out well intentioned enough, but end up becoming obsessions, like washing your hands so often because of fear of germs. And there are habits that may bring moments of relief or let us off the hook – like lying, dishonesty, and stealing – but always end up being destructive.
Compulsive behavior, however, is a different thing altogether. Gambling, drinking, shopping, smoking, violence, work, eating, drugs, money, and the internet in our day are common examples of compulsive behavior.
As difficult and painful as these compulsions are, maybe they have even become addictions, they are presenting problems of deeper issues related maybe to self-esteem, or personal history, or desire, or fantasy.
One thing I’ve heard people say about their compulsive behavior, maybe you’ve heard it as well, is, “I found myself doing it again and I am not sure how or why.” No doubt there are some people who feel so bad about their habitual or compulsive behavior that they think about cutting off an arm or leg or gouging out an eye.
Jesus stresses today that we have to stop that behavior and he offers three pieces of practical advice so that we can. First, do whatever helps. For some of us, what seems an unusual solution gets to the deeper issues and helps us piece our lives back together. It doesn’t matter whether others approve of it or not, or if it’s related to religious faith or not. As long as it doesn’t lead to other destructive behavior, then as we heard earlier, “whoever [or whatever] is not against us, is for us.”
Second, accept help. None of us can battle through life carrying all our burdens on our own. Our family and friends are not mind-readers. We need to seek out wise counsel and follow it. The help and support we receive could likely be the cup of refreshing water Jesus tells us about today.
Finally, habitual and compulsive behavior always has a pattern. Only when we look at ourselves to see where, when, how, and with whom we are most likely to walk away from God’s love can we then work out the why we do it and change the pattern. And when we really know ourselves as we are, and not as we would like to be, we have the chance to choose life over death more often than not.
There it is. The two points and perspectives that Jesus gives to us. There are many things in this world that drag us down. Problems of all kinds. Jesus tells us today that good things come not only from within his church, but also from those who seek the good of others in his name, regardless of religious affiliation. But he also says that even though we receive help from others, it doesn’t do away with the responsibility we have to ourselves, to work to remove the sinful behavior in our own life.