Wise discipleship includes knowing what to welcome and what to renounce. Both last week’s and today’s Gospel readings provide key parts of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship. In last week’s reading (Mk 9:30–37), the disciples had been arguing about who among them was the greatest; Jesus commanded them to be servants and to welcome the powerless (a child) as they would welcome Jesus himself.
This week’s Gospel picks up from there. John tells Jesus that “we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” This “tattling” is ironic. It comes shortly after the disciples themselves failed to exorcise a demon (9:18). It is as if they felt upstaged by the success of this maverick. The kingdom had everything to do with banishing evil, but they seem to have missed that he was doing exactly that. Jesus reminds his disciples that “whoever is not against us is for us.”
We see in the Lord’s teaching that discipleship must include a gracious, open mind and heart, ready to affirm all good no matter where it comes from. “By their fruits you will know them” (Mt 7:20). Such an insight into discipleship has applications for intrachurch relations as well as how we regard nonmembers. Ministry can be hoarded. Clericalism provides an obvious example: Father runs the parish with the kind of elitism that ignores the wisdom and insight of thoughtful, wise parishioners.
Ministerial hoarding can be just as much a problem among the parish staff, when members of a ministry team create their own fiefs. Surely one of the effects of original sin is that authority is often accompanied by control issues; for too many, the more authority they possess, the less likely they are to be broadly consultative or solicitous.
The first reading is striking here. Seventy elders were given “some of the spirit that was on Moses” and showed prophetic abilities. Joshua sees two people he did not know were on the list and complains to Moses. Moses responds: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!”
Regarding those outside the faith, we would do well to cultivate that same graciousness. One of the great witnesses of Blessed Pope John Paul II was his extraordinary openness to the Spirit outside of Christianity. In his lecture on Assisi Day in 1987 concerning spiritual gifts in other religions, he affirmed, “There are undeniably differences that reflect the genius and spiritual ‘riches’ which God has given to the peoples.” Perhaps instead of demanding, “Why are you not one of us?” we might ask, “What are your gifts to the kingdom?”
Jesus’ final teaching on discipleship has everything to do with what to renounce: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Jesus then recommends removing hand, foot or eye if they lead one to sin. “Better to enter life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.” Obviously this is hyperbole, and indeed one’s limbs are not the real problem but rather disordered desires. Still, the image drives home the imperative to renounce anything that leads to sin, particularly sins that undermine the faith of others.
Mark uses the Greek verb skandalizein, from which we have “scandalize.” It does not mean “to shock,” but “to put a stumbling block in front of someone.” Literally, the text reads, “And if anyone were to cause to stumble one of the smallest believers in me....” Jesus is not referring only to leading someone to sin. When I am rude to students who are spiritually unfortified, I can cause them to stumble in faith. When I gossip, I can lead others to trip. Better for me to cut off my tongue and enter eternal life mute than be thrown into Gehenna full-voiced.