September 27, 2009
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Mark's gospel is noted for its use of plain and blunt language and today's gospel passage is a good example of that. John and his brother James were called "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17) because of their impulsive natures and this is manifested here again when John wishes to stop those outsiders who are using Jesus' name in their exorcisms. Jesus, however, rebukes John with the reminder that he is here to love and to heal; he is not interested in copyrights or credits.
Jesus then speaks forcefully about what really constitutes sinfulness and where one's passion should come into play. It is scandal that should arouse our indignation. This means taking advantage of vulnerable people who can so easily be exploited when they should be protected and assisted. These are obviously children but all vulnerable persons of whatever age are included. This is where real sinfulness lies and the punishment is swift and severe. Gehenna was the place where Jerusalem's trash was deposited. It was usually smoldering and was infested by all sorts of vermin. It was certainly not where one would hope to end up.
The failure to distinguish between major and minor sinfulness is a special danger in the way in which we organize our priorities in life. It is all too easy to be more concerned about appearances and reputation than about the far greater sinfulness of racism or sexism or other kinds of deep-seated prejudice.
All religions have a tendency to claim exclusive control of the avenues of salvation. But God is surely free to work outside of our familiar religious structures also. This doesn't mean that such structures are unnecessary or unimportant. It does mean that we should work in genuine humility to make our own religious structures as open as possible to the saving power of God.
Scandal is often thought to be behavior that shocks people by departing from traditional patterns. The emphasis is placed on the exceptional nature of the scandalous person's actions. We see in today's gospel that this is not what Jesus meant by scandal. For him, scandal occurs when we use actions or words to mislead and deceive those who are not able to understand what is happening. Thus, a person who holds a position of trust can easily take advantage of those who rely on his or her authority or influence. This is so sinful because it destroys the very fabric of trust, which makes community life possible.
In a certain sense, one can also scandalize oneself by pursuing limited goals and thus endangering the real purpose of life. It is not wrong to seek wealth or power or knowledge but all these goals must be made subordinate to the goal of eternal life. In other words, they must be placed under the control of unselfish love. Otherwise, the "eye" or the "hand" can become more important than life itself, with disastrous consequences. The language here seems harsh because so much is at stake. Actually, it means exactly what is intended by the frequent gospel references to gaining one's life in this world but losing it forever.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.