Today’s gospel is about rivalry between good people. Read it first, and then take a look at Pope Francis speaking to Pentecostals.
John said to Jesus,
“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9,38-40)
In his Sermon on the Mount, which we’re reading these Sundays, Jesus takes to another level what the law says or what most people say. “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not kill’…you have heard it said ‘you shall not commit adultery.’…But I say to you.” “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’…You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’…But I say to you.”
He asks for a higher, more nuanced morality from us, because we are children of God and not children of the world.
The British novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdock, describes in her novels a world of bright, successful law-abiding people who consider themselves above traditional morality. They’re not murders, or rapists or criminals, for sure. They wouldn’t think of breaking the law, because they and their interests are protected by law.
But civil laws say nothing about most of life, and Murdock’s characters decide for themselves how to live, according to their own wisdom. They make their choices based on what they want or what’s best for them. They’re sincere people, but because of the way they think morally, their lives and the lives of others get messed up.
Murdoch’s characters – and they represent a large portion of educated, western society today – have a strong belief in their own wisdom. They decide their own morality. They’re masters of their own fate and can’t believe that their wisdom might be limited or fed by their own fantasies or could affect others. What’s right for them, is right.
What are the consequences of that kind of moral thinking? You can see it in broken friendships, broken families, broken lives, and a society not built on common norms, but on personal choice.
How different is the idea of choice in Sunday’s reading from Sirach. “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you. (Sirach 15,15) The commandments are wise guides and Jesus extends them further, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount. We should learn from this wisdom, search into it and hope it becomes part of the way we think and act.
“You have heard it said, ‘Choose for yourself’…But I say to you…
We’re reading the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark these weekdays at Mass, writings going back to the 60s, from Jerusalem and Rome respectively. Three important Christian leaders were put to death in that decade: James, Peter and Paul. We see their deaths now as the glorious death of martyrs; Christians then were probably more aware of losing three religious leaders they depended on for guidance.
The Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark (traditionally acknowledged as the spokesman for Peter) were voices for these disciples in the churches they left behind.
In the 60s a growing turmoil engulfed the church in Jerusalem, as Jewish Christians faced growing opposition in the city. The death of James, their leader, at the hands of Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders is evidence of this antagonism. Because of it, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem and went into exile. The destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 AD canceled any plans they had for returning home.
In the 60s, the Christians of Rome experienced persecution of another kind. It was a sudden, unexpected persecution by the Emperor Nero that followed the fire that destroyed most of the city in 64 AD.
The Disciples’ Unbelief
It’s good to keep the background of these writings in mind when reading them. In today’s reading, Mark emphasizes a theme that runs through his gospel. “Do you still not understand?” Jesus asks his disciples. (Mark 8,21) What the disciples, led by Peter, don’t understand especially is the mystery of his passion and death.
Writing for the Christians of Rome, Mark wants them to see in the incomprehension of Jesus’ first disciples their own incomprehension before the vicious suffering inflicted on them at the hands of a powerful and unjust emperor.
They don’t understand. It’s a mystery slowly understood.
And they wont be the last to not understand the mystery of the cross. We’re seldom ready for it and slow to recognize all the forms it takes.
Matthew’s Gospel contains many indications of the Jewishness of Jesus. In today’s reading at Mass (Matthew 5, 17-37), we can see him as part of the Jewish world in which he lived. A loyal, practicing Jew, he participated fully in his religion and culture. He kept the Jewish feasts and observed the Jewish laws; he was in the synagogue every Sabbath.
Yet, Jesus was not uncritical of the Jewish world in which he lived. That’s what we hear in today’s gospel.
Some of his words seem harsh to us– “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” But this is Jesus speaking as the Jewish prophets spoke. They used harsh words to make their point. Like them, he spoke strongly when religious standards were neglected and not being fulfilled. “I came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.” His criticism extended to the Jewish leadership of his day– the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus criticizes especially a way of living that focuses on externals–and sometimes just a few externals– and doesn’t focus enough on inner thinking and inner judgments. For example, he mentions a commandment “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But there are other ways you can destroy people. You may not go to jail for them either, but you can destroy people by anger or demean them by looking at them as fools. Strong words, but he’s making a point and his point isn’t just for his time and place.
“ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again, you may not go to jail for your thinking, but your thoughts can poison your appreciation of people. I think that’s what pornography does. It poisons your mind and lessens your respect for others.
By the way, that picture above is King David. You know where his thoughts got him.
Watch your thinking and your judging, Jesus says. The way you think is critical to the way you live. The way you look at things within is crucial to the way you do things without.
The final parts of our gospel are about divorce procedures and taking oaths. Some people in his time loved to see life in terms of law; some today still do. All you have to do is keep within the law, be law abiding, live legally and that’s enough. As we see in this gospel, Jesus never saw keeping laws enough. They’re just a start.
How is God present to us? That’s a question prompted by the Old Testament readings at Mass these days about the temple in Jerusalem.
When David builds a splendid palace in Jerusalem after his conquest of the city he decides that God also needs a beautiful temple to dwell in. But God tells David through the Prophet Nathan that he doesn’t need a place to be in. ( 2 Samuel 7, 4-17) He dwells in a tent so he can move with his people wherever they are. A beautiful reminder that God goes with us wherever we go.
But then David’s son, Solomon, builds a great temple for God on the threshing floor he buys in the upper city in Jerusalem, and God makes his dwelling place there. A dark cloud fills the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple, the Book of Kings recalls; it’s so awesome that the priests can’t remain in the place. “… The priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the LORD’s glory had filled the temple of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8,22-30)
You can hear Solomon wrestling with this mystery of God who is transcendent and yet immanent. “Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!”
But the king accepts God’s presence in this place and prays to God there and asks for God’s blessing there. “Listen to the petitions of your servant and of your people Israel which they offer in this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling and grant pardon.”
These are good readings to reflect on the presence of God in our lives. God has promised to be with us, yet God’s presence will always be mysterious, beyond our understanding. He goes with us wherever we go, but then there are also holy places where God meets us– sacraments, signs where he’s promised to be.
Jesus fulfilled these Old Testament realities. As God’s Word, he dwells among us, accompanying us on our journey of life and, as he said himself, he’s also the new temple of God who dwells in signs and sacraments. His presence is “a dark cloud,” the mystery of his death and resurrection. Awesome, mysterious, beyond our understanding. Yet we draw close and pray and ask that he listen and bring us life.
Today we read a long narrative from Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 6) describing the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. It’s been called a “Passion Account before the Passion of Jesus.”
Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had his capitol in Tiberias a short distance from Capernaum where much of Jesus’ ministry took place. He certainly knew what Jesus was doing and what people were saying about him. Some said he was Elijah, or a prophet. But what caught Herod’s attention especially was talk that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.
Herod had arrested John and imprisoned him, probably in his fortress at Macherius near the Dead Sea. Then, influenced by his wife Herodias, who resented John’s criticism of their marriage– which violated Jewish law– Herod had John put to death.
The story told in great detail in Mark’s Gospel is an example of evil, oppressive power at its worst. Herodias’ daughter Salome dances at one of Herod’s bloated banquets and elicits his promise to do anything she asks for. “What shall I ask?” Salome asks her mother. “The head of John the Baptist,” is her answer.
Later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah. “I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9, 13) Like Jesus, John suffers and is treated with contempt.
The story of John’s beheading by Herod prepares Mark’s readers for the story of the Passion of Jesus. Both stories were meant to help Mark’s first audience, Roman Christians, face the sudden, absurd persecution inflicted on them by the Emperor Nero in the mid 60s. Like Herod, Nero seemed supremely powerful. They could not see it yet, but evil would not have its way. The Son of Man would rise from the dead and be glorified. So would they.
That’s the lesson we should take from this story too. Evil doesn’t have its way.
The four gospels take a dim view of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus Christ. Early in his gospel, John says that Philip, one of Jesus’ first disciples, invited Nathaniel to meet “Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip replies. (John 1,46).
The other gospels recall the sad rejection of Jesus by his hometown after his baptism by John the Baptist. According the Matthew, it takes place after Jesus has spoken to a large crowd in parables. Then, he goes to Nazareth and speaks in the synagogue to his own townspeople, who are at first astonished at his wisdom, but then wonder where did “the carpenter’s son” get all this. They know his mother and his family, and they reject him. (Matthew 13,54-58)
Mark’s gospel puts the event after Jesus has raised a little girl from the dead. Going to Nazareth with his disciples, he’s greeted in the synagogue with astonishment because of his wisdom; they’ve heard of his mighty deeds, but then they ask where did this “carpenter” get all of this? He’s “Mary’s son” and they know his family. Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6,1-5)
Why do they reject Jesus? The reason seems to be that they know his family and what he’s done for a living, and they can’t believe someone like him could be a messenger of God to them. He’s just a carpenter. What does he know? He came from an ordinary family, some of whom may not have been nice people at all. So they dismiss him.
At Nazareth we see an example of what’s called the “scandal of the incarnation.” People can’t believe that God could come to us as Jesus did.
That scandal still continues. One obvious instance of it is when people claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.” They want God and not the human ways God comes to us. They want God to be in the beauty of a sunset, but not in a church. They want God as they would like him to be, and not in the messiness of humanity.
I think of that line from one of the English poets:
“I saw him in the shining of the stars, I marked him in the flowering of the fields, but in his ways with men, I knew him not.”
The ancient fresco (above) of the woman who touches Jesus’ cloak and is healed is found in the catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in Rome. Her story in Mark’s gospel is placed in the middle of the story of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus the synagogue official from the dead. Many say Mark’s gospel is written in Rome. We read the stories of the woman and the dead girl today at Mass. (Mark 5,21-43)
You wonder why the woman’s story interrupts the very dramatic story of the dead girl? Could the fresco in the catacombs offer a clue? Did Roman Christians see her pointing to the way they could know Jesus and the mystery of death?
She doesn’t approach Jesus and speak to him face to face as the little girl’s father does. She just touches his cloak and power went out from him and cured her. In a sense, the woman is like every believer after her who knows the Risen Jesus, not face to face, but through signs.
Those buried in the catacombs were like her. They were baptized with water and received the body and blood of Christ in signs of bread and wine. Like the woman, they touched his garments in the sacraments, and he welcomed them in sacraments. He sees their faith and gives them new life.
When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued after the Second Vatican Council, the publishers of the book were instructed to put the picture of the woman touching the cloak of Jesus at the beginning of its section on the sacraments. She’s our guide to sacramental faith.
She tells us to believe and touch the signs that Jesus gives us.