In today’s Gospel the sweet Jesus of much Christian piety seems to be having a bad day. He rebuffs a disciple, and his sayings echo with images of intentional drowning, self-mutilation and permanent residence in Gehenna with unquenchable fire. These sayings, which once may have been independent, are linked by key words: name, scandal, life, fire, and are set by Mark in the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where he teaches about the radical cost of discipleship.
The Gospel begins with a question from John about how to silence someone who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus though he was not one of us. Since Jesus’ disciples have just failed to cast out a demon, their desire to be proprietors of God’s power rings hollow, especially in light of their previous failure to cast out a mute spirit (Mk. 9:18). Jesus counters John’s view with the saying, Do not prevent him; anyone who gives even a cup of water because you belong to Christ, will not lose a reward, since whoever is not against us is for us.
The first reading has been chosen as an Old Testament prefiguration of Jesus’ words and actions. Moses has descended from Sinai, and God’s spirit descends on the 70 elders and they begin to prophesy. Two are absent, Eldad and Medad, and yet the spirit rests on them and they prophesy. Like John, Joshua asks Moses to stop them, and Moses answers with the hope that God’s spirit of prophecy be given to all the people. One motif, then, that characterizes these two readings is that the power and spirit of God cannot be appropriated by any group, even a group of chosen leaders, and that the work of God can be done by someone who was not one of us.
The mood of Jesus’ teaching now changes. The setting returns to that of Mk. 9:36, where Jesus is holding a child, and now he warns dramatically against causing a little one to sin. Cause to sin, which puts the onus of sinning on the little one, is not the best translation of the Greek (lit. scandalize), which means rather cause to fall or put an obstacle in a person’s way. In the Babylonian Talmud, scandalizing is interpreted as child abuse. There follow four harsh and somewhat exaggerated images that reinforce the consequences of such scandal and depict the kind of radical actions one should take rather than harm the little ones and end up in Gehenna.
The readings today, like so much of Mark, present the good news and the sober news. The good news is that those who do the work of Jesus, even without being his followers, are for him, and that whoever gives even a cup of water in Jesus’ name will not lose his or her reward. Today in our parishes people are not simply giving a cup of water, but feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger, because they too belong to Christ. Jesus’ words here are also a reminder that we must read the signs of the times and discern those outside our communities of disciples who are still confronting the power of evil and are for us. Moses’ action is a warning against domesticating or institutionalizing the voice of prophecy.
The sober but paradoxically good news is the sad consequences of causing the little ones to fall, whether they be actual children or vulnerable members of the community. The picture of Jesus holding a child and defending the little ones is especially pertinent in our times. Recently the lead article in New York Times Magazine was The Backlash Against Children, detailing how highly prosperous people in our society not only resent the physical presence of children, but also begrudge the benefits given to families with children. (A long meditation on the second reading from James might be in order, e.g. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.). Among the 21 most affluent nations, the United States has the highest percentage of poor children (almost 25 percent). During this political season, while education and health care are clubs with which both parties batter the other, millions of children sit in poor schools and suffer poor health. Some TV spots on millstones might be a welcome change.