Jesus had to orient his followers just as he's trying to orient us today
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 (the rest of this Sunday’s Mass readings HERE)
Have you ever had the experience of visiting a place for the first time—a parish in another town, perhaps—and understood, without any doubt, that you were not part of that community?
When we’re in a new place or with a new group of people, even if we have shared values or beliefs, there are still a myriad of things that can make us feel like outsiders. Did the parish have local devotions that no one explained, and which left you wondering what to do? Did the well-meaning pastor or deacon invite you to raise your hand or stand so everyone could welcome you … further highlighting the fact that you aren’t one of “them”? I experienced this recently during a visit to another parish when a woman asked me to move, tersely explaining that I was sitting in her seat. She certainly didn’t care that I was a guest. Most of the rest of the church was empty.
It can be painful and frustrating to feel like an outsider, especially in those places where we should feel most welcome.
At best, we all want to belong, to have a sense of place—a home. The Apostles and the other disciples found a sense of belonging in the company of Jesus, their teacher and friend. But, as with many groups or communities today, their sense of belonging seems to have become twisted into something exclusive. And so, when we hear this Sunday’s Gospel passage about an exorcist from outside the group of Apostles who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, we get a sense of the indignation the Twelve felt: “We tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Both the First Reading (Numbers 11:25-29) and the Gospel present accounts of those who want to be officially recognized as leaders—insiders—reacting against perceived threats to their authority. In the First Reading, Moses gently corrects his assistant, Joshua, by assuring him that the teachings of Eldad and Medad do not diminish Moses’ own authority in any way: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” Jesus responds in a similar way when he tells the Twelve to let the man be: “Whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”
Today, perhaps more than ever before, we live by an “us” versus “them” mentality. The news media and social media frenzy surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, ongoing debates around immigration and any number of moral issues, and even the divisions we see within the Church are all good examples of how aligned many have become to party lines and theological perspectives.
Our disdain of those who do not think as “we” do—whomever “we” may be—reminds me of a teaching of the great Desert Father, St. Anthony: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad—you are not like us.’” Rather than recognize and welcome diverse perspectives, experiences, and opinions, many of us dig in along the trenches of ideology, political rhetoric, or our theological certainty, criticizing and excluding those who “do not follow us.” And whether it is in broader society or within the Church, many seem unwilling—even incapable—of creating spaces of hospitality and dialogue.
In the Gospel, Jesus assures his followers that anyone who shows a kindness in his name will not lose their reward, even if they are an “outsider.” Moses seemed to lament the fact that more of the People of Israel were not living as prophets, leaving the burden of leadership for only a select few. While not all are authorized to prophesy or minister officially, all do have gifts and insights to be shared.
The challenge for us in these days is to try to come to an understanding that, in the end, it isn’t our “belonging” or even our correctness that determines the quality of our discipleship. Rather, it is our willingness to make the radical choice to share in Jesus’ own mission of mercy, healing, and restoration. Our faithfulness isn’t expressed in token gestures or in rigid orthodoxy, but in living according to the mission and values of Jesus in ways that welcome individuals into the family of the Church, creating a space for their unique contributions, as we mutually enrich one another’s faith and work for the building up of God’s Kingdom here and now.
How do my political, economic, and theological perspective perpetuate the “us” versus “them” mentality? How do I engage the diversity of opinions, perspectives, and experiences that exist within my family, community, parish, and the Universal Church? Am I a person of true hospitality, able to meet and welcome others as they are? How do I call out the best in them? Am I open to the gifts and perspectives of others?
Words of Wisdom: “Unity is often confused with uniformity; with actions, feelings and words which are all identical. This is not unity, it is conformity. It kills the life of the Spirit; it kills the charisms which God has bestowed for the good of his people. Unity is threatened whenever we try to turn others into our own image and likeness. Unity is a gift, not something to be imposed by force or by decree … Conflicts and disagreements in the Church are to be expected and, I would even say, needed. They are a sign that the Church is alive and that the Spirit is still acting, still enlivening her. Woe to those communities without a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’!”—Pope Francis (September 20, 2015)